Donald Trump just might be the best thing that ever happened to Democrats in Alabama.
This thought ran through my head several times during the two-and-a-half hours I spent last Saturday afternoon (June 14) in a Southside office building, listening as more than 70 self-proclaimed Democrats from across our fair-but-beleaguered state talked about the future — of their party, and of Alabama. The occasion was a meeting of the Alabama Democratic Reform Caucus, an organization that exists because of what most definitely is the worst thing that ever happened to Democrats in Alabama.
That would be the Alabama Democratic Party, the corrupt and bumbling sham of an organization under whose auspices would-be Democratic officeholders are obliged to compete. It is to the credit of the ADRC that it was this corrupt and bumbling sham, rather than the one who currently occupies the White House, to which the attention of the Saturday meeting was almost exclusively devoted.
“Why can’t we change things in Montgomery? Why can’t we change the state party?” These were the rhetorical questions posed by one of the speakers at the ADRC meeting, Herb Kuntz, the chair of the St. Clair County Democratic Party. Kuntz said that those are the questions he hears most often from his fellow Democrats — and from people who might vote Democratic, if they could be convinced they weren’t giving their vote away to a party that doesn’t care about it.
It’s a very real problem, thanks to Joe Reed. Who is Joe Reed? Well, to answer that question, I’d be hard-pressed to improve on a description I provided in this space nearly four years ago:
As the titular vice chair for minority affairs for the Alabama Democratic Party and longtime second-in-command of the Alabama Education Association, Reed has been a major power broker for more than three decades. In that time, he has consolidated his power by repeatedly selling out the interests of black voters, at the expense of the party he supposedly serves, not to mention the greater good of the state. If you’re looking for the main reason for the demise of the state Democratic Party, look no farther than Reed.
Actually, there is one thing that’s changed in the intervening years, which is that Reed can no longer be described as a “major power broker.” The only thing he has power over is the way his moribund party functions — or, more correctly, doesn’t function, which is most apparent in the fact that Democrats hold exactly zero statewide elective offices. Which is why, more recently (last year), I wrote that, thanks to Reed, “the Democratic Party in Alabama is about as lively as Bonnie and Clyde, and almost as bereft of the hope of redemption.”
Which brings us back to the ADRC. The nuts-and-bolts path to redemption and rejuvenation it’s pursuing for the party runs through Reed’s last real stronghold, the State Democratic Executive Committee. The committee has 210 members who are popularly elected — one male and one female from each of Alabama’s 105 House districts — plus, as Kuntz phrased it, “some number of people — it’s a mystery” whom Reed can appoint at will, ostensibly to “ensure racial balance.” In general, he has appointed these people, in whatever number necessary, whenever has needed to ensure that his side wins a vote on a given internal matter.
“Everybody should come to an SDEC meeting sometime,” said Linda Verin, of Birmingham, who runs a firm that specializes in political advertising. (Verin is also an occasional contributor to Weld.) “It has to be seen to be believed.”
Reed’s unchecked control and manipulation of the party and its processes has been an open secret for years, if not decades. And yet it has continued, even as the damage it has done to the party with the voters of Alabama has become increasingly apparent. This has been the case not least because anyone who has had the temerity to object to Reed’s way of doing things, Reed has not hesitated to call a racist. But that ploy may be losing its potency among Democrats who are interested in winning Alabama elections again.
“This is not about race,” Herb Kuntz said of the reform effort. “This is about having a Democratic Party that is active, progressive, and wants to represent all of the people in Alabama.”
Something of how race — as well as generational politics — represents both an obstacle and an opportunity for the ADRC was apparent in a quick appraisal of the room, and from the comments of some participants. Of the nearly fourscore people in attendance, I counted a half-dozen black people, and a like number of people whom I judged to be under 35 years old. I didn’t mention this to anyone I spoke to — but several folks I spoke to during a break made mention of it to me.
“This kind of enthusiasm can’t be anything but good,” an older white man said. “But I look at this crowd and can’t help but think that we’re going to have to get more young people and more African-Americans involved if we’re going to be successful.”
Not two minutes later, a fiftyish black man likewise said good things about the reform effort and its prospects for success, before laughingly adding, “I’m encouraged, because I didn’t know there were this many white Democrats left in Alabama.”
Perhaps the definitive statement along these lines came from Alabama Rep. Anthony Daniels, the event’s keynote speaker. Daniels, 34, of Huntsville, was elected House Minority Leader in February, making him both the first black minority leader in the history of the Alabama Legislature, and the youngest minority leader in its modern history. (I interviewed Daniels back in May; excerpts from that conversation ran in this space.)
Since February, Daniels has been crisscrossing the state, having taken the leadership role in what he acknowledges is the tall task of rebuilding his party as a viable force in Alabama politics and government. On Saturday — presumably having heard some of the same comments as I — he hit the racial/generational issue head-on.
“I’m excited,” Daniels said, “because most of the rooms I speak to these days are full of people who don’t look like me. Some worry because it’s mostly older, white people. Well, guess what? Those are the voters we have to win back.”
Which is why my thoughts kept running to the great favor Donald Trump has done for Alabama Democrats. Trump’s essential egregiousness, the mounting evidence of his unfitness for the job to which he was duly elected, is opening the door for Democrats to make the case that they are more aligned with average Alabamians on issues that matter than their Republican counterparts.
“The mistake that Democrats have made in Alabama,” Daniels told the ADRC crowd, “is in trying to run further to the right than Republicans. All that proves is that Democrats lost touch with the people of Alabama. We have to have the courage to hit issues head-on. Take the idea of being ‘pro-life.’ I consider myself pro-life, because I believe in taking care of children after they’re born.”
Saturday’s roster of speakers also included Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox — a likely candidate for governor in 2018, who told me before taking the stage that he “will be making an announcement soon” regarding his intentions — and Birmingham lawyer Chris Christie — “the original Chris Christie” he said, pointing out that he’s three years older than the Republican New Jersey governor of the same name — who is running for attorney general.
“We can seize the high ground,” Maddox said in his remarks, adding that Democrats have the opportunity to brand themselves as “the party of ideas and innovation,” deal with issues in ways that bridge the gap between urban and rural concerns, and express religious faith by being dedicated to “opportunity, justice, and compassion for all.” He ended by borrowing a famous quote from Harry Truman:
“If you want to live like a Republican, you’ve got to vote Democratic.”
For his part, Christie said his top priority as attorney general would be prison reform, particularly in relation to sentencing. Taking note of all of the areas in which Alabama ranks at or near the bottom of national rankings — most notably, education and healthcare — he said our inability to move forward boils down to a single, overarching concern.
“Alabama needs new leadership,” Christie declared.
In his summation, Daniels acknowledged the need for Alabama Democrats to rebuild the infrastructure of their party. In fact, he argued that the party never actually had an infrastructure, relying instead on organizations like the Alabama Education Association, the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, and the Alabama State Employees Union, and on kingmakers like Joe Reed, Milton McGregor, and the late Paul Hubbert to select candidates and fund campaigns. Now, Daniels said, it falls to people who care to organize and build from the ground up — recruiting and supporting candidates, running for office, advocating for issues that impact the lives of Alabamians, and electing representatives who will be accountable to the people they serve.
“Voter education, voter registration, civic engagement,” Daniels said. “It’s hard work, and we have to be in it for the long haul. I have a lot of hope, but we have to have engagement. We’ve been playing defense. And I don’t care how good you are at playing defense, if you don’t score, you can’t win.
“Democrats in Alabama have played defense for long enough. It’s time to play offense.”