Boldness in Alabama: The desperation of low expectations.

I witnessed something a few days ago that in over 30 years of reporting in this state I have rarely seen from politicians – boldness.

That came from Charles J. Dean last week in an opinion piece titled, “Gov. Robert Bentley and the sound of boldness“. You might be asking yourself what the Governor did to deserve such praise. Did he resolve to stay out of the campaign to unionize workers at Mercedes-Benz here in Tuscaloosa County? Did he decide that the private affairs of consenting adults was no longer his business? Did he come out and state unequivocally that, hey, maybe this Mike Hubbard guy is kinda unfit for public service? No, no, wait: he decided that the multi-billion dollar tax giveaway to private schools in the form of the Alabama Accountability Act had to come to an end?

No. None of that. Here’s the phrase from Robert Julian Bentley’s fifth State of the State address as Alabama’s 53rd governor that inspired such florid language:

“…Folks I am not going to be a governor who pushes problems aside. We’re going to solve problems as long as I am governor of this state. …I am telling you all this to say this — and to come out of a Republican governor’s mouth – after four years of saying we are not going to raise taxes, and we said that and we have not, I’m telling you the next four years we are going to raise taxes…We have to face the problems and we have to do it with boldness. You have to lead with boldness. Somebody has to take the lead and I am going to take the lead.”

Wow! He is going to have to raise taxes in order to solve a $700 million-plus long-term deficit! While that might be called “common-sense thinking” or elicit a “duh” in, say, Minnesota, it is revolutionary talk in the Heart of Dixie. So where will these taxes come from? Will the former dermatologist and state representative from Tuscaloosa suggest raising the top tax rate to make wealthier Alabamans pay more? Perhaps he planned to end tax giveaways to multinational corporations who afford to pay their taxes to do business in Alabama?


  1. $205 million from a regressive cigarette tax
  2. $200 million from raising taxes on automobiles in a state that is one of only five that does not provide any state funding for local public transit
  3. $47 million from taxing municipalities that provide utility services, a tax that will likely be passed on to those who pay
  4. $31 million from nearly tripling the tax on renting/leasing automobiles
  5. $25 million from ending tax credits on the premiums collected by insurance companies
  6. $20 million from taxing corporations that also do business in other states
  7. $12 million from ending a withholding exemption for workers who had no income tax liability the previous year
  8. $1 million from repealing the excise tax credit for banks

All told, it is $541 million of tax increases. Of that, 85 percent will be borne by the working class. The rest will be borne by corporations. Wealthy Alabamans can sit back on their porch, sip their sweet tea, and never have to worry about such plebeian concerns as bearing the cost for the state’s mismanagement of public money. They will be fine, as they are being asked to shoulder next to none of this burden.

It is easy to laugh at Mr. Dean for having put so much faith and hope into one State of the State address, and it does not help that he brands those who wonder about the curious timing of such a “bold” announcement, over three months after an election, as “cynical”. But then you would have to laugh at a lot of other people in this state as well, because he is certainly not alone.

Alabama has always been a conservative state. For the first 173 years of its existence, it was ruled by conservative Democrats with two notable exceptions. For the last four years, it has been ruled by conservative Republicans, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is predominantly rural state and one in which the religious orders of the day have an outsized influence in policymaking. If you ever doubt that, try to buy a beer in outer Tuscaloosa County on Sundays. Or a beer in Clay County ever.

The continued dominance of conservative politics in Alabama has been undoubtedly assisted by own goals from its opposition. The trials and tribulations of the Alabama Democratic Party have been recounted here in sufficient enough detail to not warrant any further discussion. But then there is the Alabama Education Association (AEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union. After the 1969 merger of the AEA with the Alabama State Teachers Association, which was the union for the state’s Black teachers, it became one of the most powerful interest groups in the state. An indication of its power can be found in the 1990 gubernatorial election results, where AEA head Paul Hubbard, the Democratic nominee for Governor, secured 48 percent of the vote against an incumbent.

How far the mighty have fallen.

The proud AEA was reduced to setting up shadow organizations to run New Coke-style conservative candidates in Republican primaries against actual conservative candidates and officeholders. Well, you know the saying that “Republicans will always vote for real Republicans over fake ones”? Turns out that it is more than a shibboleth, and it resulted in the AEA spending $7 million from its own coffers to end up worse off than they were before. Add that to the $4 million in financing for the campaign that they received from Regions Bank and their lost investments on the stock market, and you have the state’s largest union as broke, leaderless, and ineffective as the state’s second-largest political party.

All of this is, of course, happening right on time for the Republican leadership in the Legislature. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) has filed a charter school bill that the AEA would be hard-pressed to fight in any meaningful way now. The Democratic National Committee seems to have all but forgotten that we exist in the South, and has allowed the ADP to atrophy to levels unseen anywhere else in America. The fanciful notion that the DNC would ever allow state party chair Nancy Worley or vice chair for minority affairs Joe Reed to sully their quadrennial convention by having it in Birmingham is something that, yes, I am giving you full permission to laugh at.

How is a liberal Alabaman supposed to react to all of this? Especially when you see ads like these come across your television:

Of the three candidates whose ads are shown above, two of them serve on the Alabama Public Service Commission and the other is an independent state senator from south Alabama.

So what is to be done? I have written, along with coauthor Cato Uticensis, before on steps that one can take if they choose to engage in reforming the Democratic Party from the inside. It is a noble quest for any who choose to take that on. For my part, I am reviving the Tuscaloosa organizing committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. I will be writing a post about this soon, but the fact of the matter is that Alabama, much like the rest of the South, suffers from a dearth of left-wing organizations that advocate for the working class. The most prominent is the Arise Citizens Policy Project, which advocates for low-income Alabamans and is the biggest advocate in state for the repeal of the grocery tax. There is also a budding Moral Monday movement in this state (of which I used to serve as policy committee chair), which is being led by a capable NAACP State Conference president in Benard Simelton, who also sits on the steering committee of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

But we need more. We need more from those who care about the most vulnerable and neglected communities in our state. We need more from those who get mad and slam their fist whenever they hear about one more tax cut, one more deportation, one more person denied access to the ballot box. We need more, because without a broad-based coalition of people working for progressive change, we will never get more from those who have the power to make it happen. If we are to learn anything in this, the week of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, it is that the old adage from Frederick Douglass holds true yesterday, tomorrow, and forever more: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Desperation is understandable in a vacuum. Let us begin to fill that vacuum with our bodies, our voices, our advocacy. Nothing less is required from all of us.