If you live in Alabama and pay even fleeting attention to the ebb and flow of the open sewer that has passed for political discourse in our state since time immemorial, you know that the fortunes of the Alabama Democratic Party have been on the wane for quite a while now. About three decades and counting, to be exact.
Beginning with the 1986 election of Alabama’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction — Guy Hunt, a chicken farmer, Amway salesman, and part-time preacher from Cullman County who previously had been a perennial joke of a candidate, even in Republican circles — the bright spots for the state’s Democrats have been increasingly few and far between. The GOP gained control of both chambers of the Alabama Legislature in 2010, and today enjoys supermajorities in both, with 25 of 35 state Senate seats and 72 of 105 seats in the state House of Representatives.
Republicans also hold all seven of the state’s constitutional offices, along with all nine seats on the Alabama Supreme Court and all 10 of the state’s appellate judgeships. At the federal level, the GOP holds both of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats and six of our seven seats in Congress.
In part, of course, this state of affairs is reflective of the southern trend toward Republicanism that began taking hold with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. It’s also due in part to the ruthless efficiency — especially over the past 10 to 15 years — with which Alabama Republicans have moved to consolidate their steady gains and entrench themselves firmly at the controls of the state’s political and governmental machinery.
Mostly, though, the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party has been due to the ineptness, lassitude, and outright corruption of those who “run” it at the state level. There are other factors as well — most notably, the decline in influence of the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, the two longtime linchpins of candidate recruitment and campaign funding for Democrats — which, in combination with the others I’ve enumerated, add up to what would appear to be a bleak outlook for Democrats in general, at least for the foreseeable future.
Enter Anthony Daniels. A 34-year-old, first-term legislator from Huntsville — he was elected in 2014 — Daniels in February became the minority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives. He is the first black minority leader in the history of the state House. More importantly, he is determined to rebuild the Democratic Party in Alabama from the ground up, and, at least to hear him tell it, is optimistic about the prospects for success.
I first met Daniels a few weeks ago, when he stopped by the Weld offices for an informal chat about his plans and hopes for his party and for Alabama as a whole. We sat down again on May 1, when I interviewed him for WeldCast, the podcast Weld launched last year. That interview will be available online at weldbham.com later this week, but it seemed fitting to devote this week’s “Red Dirt” to some brief excerpts from our 40-minute conversation. Daniels is a refreshing voice in Alabama politics, and whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or, like so many Alabamians (including this one), a little weary — and wary — of the apparent inability or unwillingness of either party to address issues that affect the lives of the vast majority of our citizens, what he has to say is worth listening to.
Daniels on the state of the Alabama Democratic Party and the task ahead of him:
“In its best days, it was never a party that recruited candidates or raised money or put the organization together [for candidates]. To say that we’ve had a state party that did those things, no one has been able to tell me when we had that. So my goal is to build capacity and to build infrastructure. I think it would have been more difficult for me to do this under a Democratic president than under President Trump, because the energy among progressives today is more than I ever seen in my young political career. The timing is perfect to take advantage of this energy.”
On what Democrats need to do to begin achieving electoral success again in Alabama:
“We have to tailor our issues and our platform around what people need in Alabama. It’s not what comes out of D.C. It’s Alabama Democrats, Alabama issues — issues that move our state forward.
“We have to stop focusing on issues that have no impact on our state. Marriage equality, abortion — those issues have already been settled, and can only be changed by the United States Supreme Court. Why are we fighting over those issues and costing the state money? I believe that we can work collaboratively with the other side, but where I differ is that I don’t believe in wasting taxpayer dollars on issues that have already been settled in an effort to try to appeal to a base of people.
“The problem is that Democrats have always played defense — and, in my eyes, we’ve never played very good defense, because we’ve been getting scored on. There’s a void out there, a missing piece, of talking about issues that actually matter.
“If we do that, I think we’re going to be able to make some things happen. Don’t be surprised if we win a couple of statewide offices in ’18, as well as win some additional House and Senate seats.”
On the December 12 special election for the U.S. Senate (the seat was vacated when Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General, and is currently occupied by former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who was appointed to the vacancy by then-Gov. Robert Bentley) and the prospect of a Democrat winning the seat:
“There will be an opportunity for a Democrat. The other side is extremely divided, so a Democrat will really have the opportunity to frame the argument and make the case. For me, it’s all about the issues. [Democrats in Alabama] have never really organized around the issues. We’ve had Democrats running as if they’re Republicans. But when you do that, you’re losing progressive votes.
“It shouldn’t be enough to just say, ‘I’m conservative.’ You can be conservative and still be for Medicaid expansion, and still be for prison reform, and still be for creating more job opportunities and higher-paying jobs. You can still do that. And yet [Democratic candidates] base their entire campaign on trying to out-Republican the Republicans, and they’re not giving Democratic voters a reason to get off their couch and go to the voting booth. We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals of talking to the people of Alabama. We’ve spent too much time speaking to the interests of individual organizations, as opposed to the issues and the interests of the average Alabamian.”
On finding common ground with Republicans:
“There are goals that are reachable if we work together. But instead, we pass legislation that does not create any jobs. We continue to allow ourselves to be divided between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and to be divided by race and other things. We’re not looking at the core problems. Government’s job is to make certain that we create an environment for families and business, with opportunity for all. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not doing our job — and right now, we’re not doing our job.”
On the Alabama Future Caucus, a newly organized, bipartisan group of younger legislators focused on bridging party-oriented divides in state politics:
“It’s a great opportunity for newer legislators, and those that are under the age of 45, to get together on some issues. We didn’t come up in the environment that our parents and grandparents came up in. When we’re having discussions, we don’t look at race. We’re looking at what we can do to improve the environment in Alabama so that [graduates from Alabama colleges and universities] want to stay in Alabama.
“How do we retain our young people who are going into engineering and education and other areas? What do we have to keep them here? How do we create spin-off jobs in rural Alabama, to help those who did not go to college, but who want to go and get a skill that will enable them to earn a living in their community? How do we encourage entrepreneurship? Those are the things we must think about.
“We’re pro-growth. We want to deal with things that are about progress. We want stronger schools, good-paying jobs, and healthier communities. Young people in this state are not focused on parties. They’re focused on issues and opportunities.
On the damage to Alabama’s image and business development prospects done by legislation such as that recently passed to “protect” monuments to the Confederacy:
“Businesses are skeptical of coming into southern states that continue to introduce things that are divisive, that pit one group against the other. That’s not what it should be about in Alabama. It should be about how we move Alabama forward. Yes, acknowledge and understand history, and let’s not condemn people forever for the mistakes that were made. Let’s figure out a way to move forward, and to heal as a state. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to move backward.”
On his basic approach to the politics of “moving Alabama forward”:
“What I’m saying to the people of Alabama is, let’s look past this Democrat and Republican stuff. Let’s look at individuals and make sure that their heart is in the right place, that their intentions are pure, and that they really and truly want to make a difference — and that they can tell you how they’re going to make a difference. I just urge you to look beyond the wedge issues, and understand that your local issues are more important.”