Political pundits widely agree that Alabama’s upcoming U.S. Senate race will be decided in the Republican primary. The general election will be a mere formality, one more landslide for the GOP. Or so says conventional wisdom. But this line of thinking has itself become thoughtless — a clichéd concession of hope, an automatic abandonment of our own power to create change. Hopelessness begets stagnation, and stagnation begets unethical leaders.
According to a recent Politico report, Republicans in Washington (the so-called “establishment”) are rallying around incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who faces a multifarious field of hopefuls in a special primary election on Aug. 15. (A runoff election, should one be necessary, will be on Sept. 26. The general election will be on Dec. 12.) Acting as if Strange were a “beloved Senate veteran,” the Senate Leadership Fund has already allocated $2.65 million for television ads and could spend up to $10 million attempting to influence the outcome. Republicans have advised all the usual political consultants against working for Strange’s opponents and are publicly voicing their support for him.
We should remember, though, that it was only four short months ago when now-disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Why, then, are seasoned senators suddenly throwing the full weight of their support behind Strange? The answer is simple: because his opponents are wild cards. Some of the candidates are unknowns, and two — Mo Brooks and Roy Moore — although familiar figures, are volatile and divisive career politicians who are themselves deeply entrenched in the Republican establishment. While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can count on Strange to be a loyal soldier, his opponents are as unpredictable as President Trump’s Twitter account.
But let’s be clear about our choices here.
Luther Strange, as Alabama’s attorney general, halted his investigation into Gov. Bentley’s criminal activities. It is quite possible — indeed, very likely — that Strange stalled the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into Bentley’s corruption. And then Bentley bestowed Strange with the sought-after Senate seat. While an ethics complaint has been made to the Alabama State Bar, it matters very little whether the appointment was a quid pro quo exchange. Strange has repeatedly shown Alabamians that he will abandon his constituents, his integrity, and his duty for any chance at individual advancement.
Mo Brooks, congressman from Alabama’s 5th District, is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He refused to support Paul Ryan’s draconian health care bill because he believed that it didn’t do enough to obliterate Obamacare. Brooks eventually endorsed the revised American Health Care Act (AHCA) and helped push it through the House. Despite the more than $800 billion cuts to Medicaid, and despite the 23 million more Americans who would likely be uninsured by 2026, Brooks continues to describe the AHCA as “the largest welfare bill in the history of the Republican Party.” More alarming is Brooks’s CNN interview with Jake Tapper, where he said that people with pre-existing conditions have not led “good lives.” And in an interview with WHNT News, Brooks said this about the millions of Americans who cannot afford health care: “You’re talking about a class of people who for whatever reason — either because they lack the resources or they wanted to game the system — they’ve decided not to have insurance. And then they get sick and then they want other people to pay for it.”
What Brooks believes, in other words, is that Alabamians who suffer from afflictions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease suffer because “they’ve made bad choices.” He rejects outright our moral obligation — our responsibility and our joy as a community — to care for the sick, the disabled, and the poor. While most Americans believe that we should help those who cannot help themselves, Brooks preaches selfishness of spirit instead of altruism and charity.
And then there is Roy Moore, returning yet again. Must we remind ourselves yet again that Moore has twice become Alabama’s former chief justice? In 2003, he was notoriously removed from office after disobeying a federal court order requiring him to take down a Ten Commandments monument displayed in the Alabama Supreme Court building. In 2016, he was suspended (and eventually resigned) after once more defying federal courts by refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Moore is no courageous fighter for freedom—he is a renegade who does not believe in the rule of law. And yet he continues to run for public office over and over and over.
What, then, are our options?
Politico claims, accurately, that Alabama is “a state that Democrats have almost no chance of winning.” But the key word here is “almost.” That tiny space, that nearly invisible crack in the cement of Alabama’s cruel political façade, leaves room for hope. Not the purely partisan hope that the Democrats could beat the Republicans and gain a seat in the Senate — but the hope that we can imagine better candidates, that we can elect better representatives, and that Alabama politics might make us proud instead of shaming us into surrender.
Alabamians could, for example, choose someone like Doug Jones. A former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jones coordinated the state and federal task forces that eventually apprehended domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph, and nearly 40 years after the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, he successfully prosecuted two of the former KKK members who were responsible for the attack that injured dozens of people and killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
“I’m running for U.S. Senate,” Jones declared, “because our leaders have lost sight of what it means to serve. … Alabama has been embarrassed enough the last few years by political leaders who have not been leaders at all. Instead of listening to the concerns that face us every day, like jobs and wages, adequate and affordable health care, and first-rate educations for our children and grandchildren, they have played on our fears and exploited our divisions for their own self-interests. I want to change all of that.” We should not assume it miraculous that a view like this could win out in Alabama. It’s decent and sensible, and it should be decent and sensible here, too.
Politico writes, “Democrats have no illusion that they can flip the Alabama Senate seat, and they have no plans for now to get behind a candidate in their field.” That would be a dangerous mistake — especially when Democrats have someone like Jones to rally behind. But, again, let’s be clear: this is not about partisanship. This is about what it means to be an American. This is about whether we will allow our representatives to wallow in the morass of immorality. This is about whether we will continue to privilege the rich over the poor, the healthy over the sick, the dishonest and duplicitous over the fair and just.
Too often we forget our own extraordinary power — our power to imagine a better way. We have the extraordinary power to hope, to think deeply about our political and moral worlds, to judge what is right and wrong, and to take deliberate action in the public sphere. History tells us as much. Take, for example, the disenfranchised citizens who organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and sparked the movement for women’s suffrage, a movement which eventually led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Or remember the black and white Freedom Riders who together traveled by bus throughout the South, courageously confronting mob violence in order to challenge de facto segregation. The Freedom Riders changed the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, and that public pressure led Attorney General Robert Kennedy to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to prohibit racial discrimination on interstate buses. We must remember the fortitude — the grit and guts — that it took to dare to dream differently, to throw off the chains of conformity and stand up and speak out.
There are countless other examples, stories of Americans whose hope became the grounds for principled action — stories of Americans whose ideas seemed part of the status quo after the fact but were almost unthinkable in their uncertain moments of conception. This year we witnessed hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens joining the Women’s March on Washington in January and the March for Science in April. Such groundswells of grassroots participation aren’t always successful. And yet they can be, despite all odds. Just look at the recent election in the Ninth Assembly District in Long Island, New York — a district that is heavily Republican, a district where President Trump won with 60 percent of the vote. Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat (and a 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate at that) won 58 percent to her opponent’s 42 percent.
We require clarity of vision. We require both the capacity to see our state’s (and our nation’s) real problems and to imagine what might lie beyond those problems. The present will soon become the past, and if history is contingent, then so is our current moment. There are alternate routes we might instead take. But if we relinquish our power to dream and to hope, then we also relinquish the possibility that something new could emerge to transform our darkness into light. It is up to us to reclaim our politics and recover our democracy from the criminals and charlatans who are holding all of us hostage. It begins at the local and state levels. It begins with Alabama’s special senate election.
Update: 06/09/17, 10:50 a.m. EST:
Shana Teehan, who identified herself as “Sen. Strange’s comms director” took issue with the commentary above, writing:
The AG investigation was never halted. It was started last spring when the AG office called a Grand Jury investigation into the dueling accusations between Spencer Collier and Bentley, being led by the prosecutions unit lead Matt Hart. It’s the same investigation that AG Marshall recused himself from when he became AG and which Ellen Brooks took over. The investigation into Bentley wasn’t halted at any point while Strange was AG and didn’t end until Ellen Brooks negotiated the plea bargain with Bentley. Please feel free to corroborate that with the AGs office.
The author of the piece, Ms. Stitt, responded:
It seems to me that it is widely believed that while Strange was AG he slowed down, delayed, temporarily suspended, or halted his investigation into Bentley’s activities– it comes down to word choice.
“Halted” was my reading of several news stories, including the US News report that was directly linked in the online version of my op-ed. According to an AL.com report, the ethics complaint filed with the State Bar states, “It appears that Sen. Luther Strange has egregiously violated his duty to his client, the State of Alabama, by accepting Governor Robert Bentley’s appointment to U.S. Senate after stalling the Legislature’s impeachment investigation into Governor Robert Bentley and halting his own investigation in to Governor Robert Bentley.” And according to this NYT report, “the Legislature suspended its inquiry at [Strange’s] request when he said his office was doing ‘related work.’ On Thursday, Mr. Strange noted that he had never said specifically that Mr. Bentley was a target of his office, and the governor, who will name Mr. Strange’s successor as attorney general, denied any impropriety in his selection. . . . ‘It’s grimly problematic that the attorney general who blocked the impeachment investigation and who has not gone forward with the Bentley criminal investigation is rewarded with the U.S. Senate appointment,’ said the state auditor, Jim Zeigler, a Republican who is a frequent critic of the governor. ‘There will be a challenger to Luther Strange in the special Senate election, and this will be an issue. His manipulation against any Bentley investigation will be an issue.'”
While I appreciate Ms. Teehan’s concern, I do not believe that a “correction” needs to (or ought to) be issued for an opinion piece– clearly this was my “perspective” so to speak on the upcoming Senate race and the primary contenders. I believe that Strange “halted” his investigation (or delayed or dallied or dawdled) for political and personal reasons. Ms. Teehan may believe otherwise. Regardless, my main point was not about any of the candidates but rather about how political hope and engaged thoughtfulness can lead to participatory action and change.