When one thinks of Alabama, what comes to mind first? Is it the Civil Rights Movement, which made the state ground zero for its organizing efforts? Is it that movement’s most recognizable leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is it The University of Alabama or Auburn, which holds a combined 17 national championships in Division I-A football? Is it the steel mills that once served as the backbone of the state’s industrial power, or the space and rocket research that we are known for now? Maybe it is the musical tradition of this state, with natives like Lionel Richie, Percy Sledge, and Hank Williams, Sr.?
Nah. If you are a liberal or some other sort of left-leaning individual, Alabama is probably known first and foremost as one of the most conservative states in the Union. After electing Republican governors for most of the previous two decades, Alabamans helped House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn), along with Senate counterpart Del Marsh (R-Anniston), storm the statehouse in 2010. That election gave the Republicans near total control of state government, with a supermajority in both houses and nearly all the statewide constitutional offices. In 2012, the defeat of former Lieutenant Governor and then-President of the Public Service Commission Lucy Baxley meant that there were no longer any Democrats holding statewide office in Alabama. And while there has not been any polling on the gubernatorial race here, it is safe to say that Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has this pretty well locked up. He will likely be assisted by the fact that, for the first time in Alabama history, there will be no Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. That’s right: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who became one of only two nominees for the federal bench since the Depression to be blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, will sail into his fourth term without even so much as a campaign.
The situation is pretty damn ugly for Alabamans on the Left. But news came through today that put smiles on many a Democrat’s face today: Birmingham is one of the six finalists to host the Democratic National Convention in 2016. This would seem to be great news. As the mayor’s chief of staff put it, “You have to look at Denver pre and post-convention, Charlotte, pre and post-convention, and then you’ll get a sense of what it means to a city in terms of economic impact and pride to those who live, work and play in those cities. And then there’s the impact that you can’t measure. It has both short-term and long-term effect.”
Who could pass up an opportunity to go after something like that? Positive economic benefits in the short- and long-term! A shot in the arm to Democrats across the Yellowhammer State! A commitment to make a play for the South!
This sounds fantastic! And yet here I am, proceeding to write about why Birmingham would be, in the words of Alabama native and never-was candidate for governor Charles Barkley, a TURRRRRRIBLE decision to host the DNC in 2016.
Economic benefits? Think again.
The notion that cities gain economic benefits from hosting national political conventions is a major driving force behind the push to land such an event. These events attract thousands of people who flock to a political convention in any number of capacities: delegates and alternates to the convention proper, traditional and online media, celebrities, musicians, and the kind of political hangers-on that you typically find at events like these. Nearly all of these people are staying in area hotels and, if they are anything like me in Denver in 2008, vast majorities of them will be consuming copious amounts of alcohol at local bars. The thought that cities would get a windfall from all of these activities is pretty intuitive.
But there are reasons why political conventions are not the moneymakers that they are popularly claimed to be:
- The host cities have to provide an array of services to the national party for free. The city would have to provide all facilities that would be used for the Convention to the DNC for free. In addition to that, the city would not be reimbursed for the seeking of volunteers and staff that would work the convention. Las Vegas need an $18 million subsidy to even consider bidding for either of the national political conventions, and when that ended, so did the city’s dual bid. Can the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama really afford to use taxpayer money on a five-day political party (in the most literal sense) when our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes? It would seem the epitome of out-of-touch after legislators and Gov. Bentley had to beg the public for nearly $450 million to pay for essential services in a 2012 referendum.
- The hotels were probably going to be fairly occupied anyway. Think about the events that usually accompany the end of summer: family reunions, the start of fall semester for colleges, final vacations to see friends and family before the kids begin the school year, etc. August and September are typically amongst the busiest months for hotels in major cities for these reasons. Considering that political convention season is also during these time periods, the increase in hotel occupancy is likely to be negligible. In fact, occupancy may decrease as folks who would normally get hotels in a certain area relocate to suburbs or satellite cities in order to avoid convention madness. And speaking of convention madness….
- Loss of production from people taking off to avoid convention madness. When I arrived back in the Twin Cities from the DNC in 2008, the streets of St. Paul were already festooned with American flags and Republican swag in preparation for the RNC to be held a couple of days later. The first thought I had was, “I need to get outta here before all the shit starts up.” Sure enough, convention madness was just around the corner. Convention business, protests, counter-protests, musical acts, drunk delegates, and the massive police presence made the Twin Cities an unpleasant place for the locals that week. This was exacerbated by the fact that the I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge (which replaced the Mississippi River Bridge after its collapse the previous year) had not opened yet, making an already bad traffic situation that much worse. It makes sense that working folks would seek to be elsewhere, and that simply adds to the cost of putting one of these on.
- The amount of money that businesses adjacent to the convention center make for political conventions is questionable. In preparation for the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Boston’s FleetCenter lost out on nine summer events that would have otherwise brought money to businesses in downtown Boston. Bars and restaurants are not likely to get much convention traffic, either. Why? Because most convention attendees receive comped food and drinks at either the convention site or at the bars where interest groups have paid a lump sum to host their events. It is relatively easy to get blitzed at these events without spending more than a little bit of coin, thus making it doubtful that local restaurateurs make more than negligible profits on these events.
These things are important, and they put a significant dent into the notion that the Democratic National Convention will be a moneymaker for Central Alabama. But this is not what matters to me the most; in fact, the amount of money that likely Republican donors make off a Democratic convention is near the bottom of my concerns. It is the notion that we are celebrating mediocrity, conservatism, and exclusivity in the Democratic Party that bothers me the most.
A convention hosted by the Alabama Democratic Party as currently constructed would be an embarrassment to Southern progressives.
The Alabama Democratic Party faces more than electoral problems. I mean, the New York State Republican Committee has not celebrated a U.S. Senator getting elected since 1992, and they have not cracked 40 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election since Gov. George Pataki carried 57 of the state’s 62 counties in a 2002 landslide. And yet they have not made any lists for the most dysfunctional state parties in America.
The Alabama Democratic Party has. In fact, they have the ignominious distinction of being the first party on the list put out by Roll Call. It is not difficult to see why:
- “We’re broke, broke, broke.” The Alabama Democratic Party is in debt. A lot of it. The debt dates back to 1999, when the party took out loans to help finance Gov. Don Siegelman’s (D) campaign to create a lottery system in the state. It failed, and Gov. Siegelman ended up in jail (dubiously, many will tell you) for taking bribes from lottery campaign donors in exchange for political appointments. That campaign debt is now at around $500,000, and the party’s inability to pay it has led to a near-eviction from its headquarters in Montgomery.
- Schismatic politics exemplified. This part will require a bit of explanation, since the party organization is so radically different from state party units elsewhere. In most states, you have several constituency caucuses within the state party. Texas, for instance, has groups like the Council for Black Democrats, Young Democrats, and the Stonewall Democrats (LGBTQ-identified Democrats) that are subsumed under the party structure and represented on State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC). This is typical; I know from personal experience that Minnesota and Virginia organize their parties the same way. In Alabama, however, there are no constituency groups represented neither on the state party’s executive board nor within the party infrastructure; constituency groups act as independent political organizations. For example, you have the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), which is the South’s oldest Black Democratic organization still in existence. The ADC has been run by Dr. Joe Reed, who also serves as the party’s Vice Chair for Minority Affairs, since 1970. Then you have the Alabama New South Coalition, which broke from the ADC in 1986 and continues as a more progressive Black Democratic organization. Other groups like the Alabama Federation of Democratic Women, Alabama Stonewall Democrats, and the Alabama College Democrats State Federation also operate as largely independent organizations who make their own endorsements in party primaries and have their own budgets. And then we cannot leave out the Alabama Democratic Majority, which former state party chair and state supreme court judge Mark Kennedy formed as a competing organization after his latest fight with Reed became too much to handle. After raising only $15,848 in 2013, they have now morphed into a nonpartisan group, Empower Alabama, which was itself founded by former U.S. Sen. Donald Stewart (D) in 2006 before collapsing after the 2008 election.
- Lack of inclusivity. Reed put forth a motion last year that would have removed representation on the SDEC from counties where President Obama did not carry at least 45 percent of the vote, a threshold that only 22 of Alabama’s 67 counties managed to cross. Why would he propose something that would take away SDEC representation from some of Alabama’s largest cities, like Tuscaloosa and Huntsville? Because of a proposal that would have expanded the Executive Board to include some of those constituency groups listed in the previous bulletpoint, like Stonewall Democrats and the College Democrats. Is it any wonder why the state’s media referred to the party as “divided and endangered” in its aftermath?
- Rank incompetence at the top. Nothing exemplifies the stultifyingly idiotic nature of the Alabama Democratic Party’s leadership more than party chair Nancy Worley having to explain to the state’s media why she missed the deadline to certify candidates in the special election for Alabama’s 1st Congressional District. Her excuse should go down in political lore: “I do not sit with a computer ‘glued to my eyeballs’ 24 hours a day, and I do not consider email to be an official method of notification; however, I would certainly have met any deadline if I had received an email and known the deadline.” You have a party chair that a) does not know when qualifying deadlines are, even though it is central to her job to know these things, and b) actually told a newspaper in the year 2013 that she does not “sit with a computer ‘glued to my eyeballs”. But when you think about it, the fact that the party had a voter file manager that missed work the day before, the day of, and the day after the 2012 presidential election should be proof positive that Worley spends a lot of time with her eyeballs glued elsewhere.
And then there is the general conservatism of the party as a whole, which can be perfectly illustrated by one visit by Worley to the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Executive Committee, of which I am the outgoing Vice-Chair of Youth Affairs. She disparaged young Democrats as “the microwave generation”, insinuating that they did not have the patience to do the hard work of making change. Funny enough, my wife was out with young LGBTQ activists at Huntsville Pride at that very moment, collecting stories from attendees about life as a LGBTQ youth in Alabama. She probably also missed this and this as well. She then criticized me as a “one-issue voter” that would “get the door slammed on me” when I noted that reproductive rights, immigrant rights, and the ability of LGBTQ people to live and love openly appeared to be missing from her spiel about “equality” as a campaign issue. Lest you think that the county committee as a whole were repulsed by this, at least two of the committee members affirmed that we needed to “reach people who don’t think they’re Democrats” by avoiding these topics altogether. If there were folks present who did not agree with this line of thinking, it was not until I made a motion that the county committee accept my resignation that anyone expressed any sentiment to that effect.
It would be easy to say that this almost anti-progressive line of thinking is limited to county Democratic Party units and the state leadership. Unfortunately, it is not. Perhaps you would care to ask the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives how he feels about racially profiling immigrants or LGBTQ people having the right to marry their partner? Or perhaps you could ask both him and his Minority Whip (who is now our nominee for Attorney General) why they supported legislation that would have diverted money from the Education Trust Fund to give multinational corporations another tax incentive? Where does the Democratic nominee for Governor stand on pay equity, reproductive rights, or labor unions? Will Democrats seek to break the supermajority by taking a populist message to the voters of Alabama that emphasizes the importance of building communities, funding education, and giving the working class a government that acts like it gives a damn? Or will it be the same old aping of Republican talking points destined to fail yet again?
It is understandable that Democrats in Alabama are excited by this. This is particularly true for young Democrats, who can scarcely remember (if at all) the last time a Democrat was elected Governor (1998) or to the U.S. Senate (1992). And after the horrible, no-good, very bad year that has transpired in Alabama Democratic politics, landing the Democratic National Convention would appear to be a morale booster like nothing else imaginable.
But the fact is that this party is in epic disarray. It is run by folks who are incompetent, divisive, and conservative. Having Nancy Worley grace the Welcome section of official DNC guides and brochures would not simply embarrass Democrats and progressives in Alabama; it would be a regional or possibly even a national embarrassment. It would not take long for delegates to look up interviews like this one, where Worley clearly shows preference for a gubernatorial candidate in a contested primary, botches that candidate’s last name, and nearly forgets the name of the only two Black women on the statewide ticket. And then what? Do we become yet another punch line? Does the Democratic Party think twice before investing in the Deep South again? What about the folks we need to be active in order to push this party to the left and give Alabamans a real choice at the ballot box? I have been active in this party since I was 15, and I almost quit; what about the young progressive witnessing this madness for the first time?
Leftists, progressives, and reformist liberals need to organize and then retake this party first. Much like the Civil Rights Movement made the South a battleground in the struggle for justice and equality 50 years ago, so too have today’s Moral Mondays, The Dream Defenders, and Texas’ Unruly Mob. We need to have a party that listens to, walks alongside, and becomes a part of that continual stream of resistance to reaction, revanchism, and regress. And maybe we will have kind of party by the time bids are solicited for the 2020 or 2024 DNC.
Until then, the Democratic National Committee should look to place its convention elsewhere.