Sweet Home Politics

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018   |   Español

Category Archive: Opinion

  1. Are Birds of a Feather Indicted Together? (A Cliff Sims Story)

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    If you missed Part One of my series exposing Yellowhammer president Cliff Sims, “Dont’ Get Yellowhammered,” be sure to check it out here.

    Last week I had enough.

    I read the last biased, misleading Yellowhammer “News” article I could take without calling attention to its glaringly false reality. You know the article I’m talking about… “Ala. State Rep. indicted, points to evidence of coordinated political attack.

    Earlier that day, Rep. Barry Moore (R – Enterprise) was arrested and indicted on four (count them — four) felony charges involving his lying under oath to a grand jury. What did Sims do next? He attempted to tell us that Moore’s lying wasn’t what got him arrested by a Republican attorney general… it was actually because of a coordinated political attack!

    Sims has, for years, abstained from writing articles reflecting poorly on his friends in power, but this story must have hit too close to home. The yellowhammer could not hold its beak shut this time — so, instead, it started whistling a different tune.

    Never mind that the closest thing Cliff Sims has to a yellowhammer is his own yellow belly, he and his friends in Montgomery decided it was high time to do a little propagating. Instead of continuing to ignore the Lee County grand jury that has been discussed, at length, for months, they would now acknowledge it and insist that democrats and liberals were behind it the whole time.

    Last I checked, Republican Luther Strange was still attorney general of Alabama, Cliff — so no dice.

    Why is it that Sims goes to such great lengths to distort the truth and mislead his readers? Evidence reported here at Sweet Home Politics would suggest, at least in this case, it is his longstanding relationship with Rep. Moore.

    Sims and Moore are both from the Wiregrass; Cliff managed Moore’s House campaign in 2010; Moore was a member of Cliff’s wedding party; the list just goes on and on.

    In a previous interview, Moore told Sweet Home Politics, “I taught Cliff Sims Sunday school, offered him his first job.”

    Before he was indicted, Moore was caught in another lie… he deliberately listed an out-of-town address as his full-time residence on a country club application. All to save $100 each month – a small amount when compared to the thousands in state contracts Moore received. When Sims named Moore the most conservative legislator in Alabama, perhaps what he meant to say was Moore isn’t afraid to lie over $100 bucks.

    I wonder if that was the lesson Moore taught Sims in Sunday School… after all, Sims sure isn’t afraid to lie and distort the truth on his blog.

    Sims and Moore are, in fact, such good friends that they own property together. Want to guess which one?

    Bingo! According to a Jefferson County tax assessment, Moore and Sims co-own the very property Moore tried to claim as his primary residence on his country club application — a property located a whopping 192 miles away from his actual residence, as listed by the State of Alabama.

    Cliff Sims, Barry Moore Property Tax Assessment

    Sims’ shady dealings do not stop there, however. We’ve all heard of Eminem’s Slim Shady… but increasingly, Alabama is home to its very own Sims Shady.

    For much of the past year, Sims has written extensively on Ala. Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn. Ala. Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn calls for coal industry to be silencedThe irony of Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn’s populist rhetoricDunn is making a mistake cozying up to AARP; the list just goes on and on (literally, see here).

    Eddie Curran, former reporter for the Mobile Press-Register, writes that Sims wrote a story tying protestors at a July 17, 2013 Alabama Public Service Commission meeting (complete with photos) to Dunn, yet Sims never showed up to the meeting that day. In fact, Sims published an entire video of the protest on his website.

    As Curran put it:

    Yellowhammer, in a story purportedly written by Sims, purported to quote some of the protesters. I say purportedly because Sims wasn’t there that day. The person who filmed the meeting and protest for Yellowhammer said Sims called him from Birmingham and directed him to focus on the protester carrying the “I Love Dunn” sign.

    Curran went on to report that the cameraman was paid, not by Yellowhammer, but by Montgomery consulting firm Swatek Azbell Howe & Ross (more on that here).

    When asked his thoughts on how Sims and Yellowhammer News had portrayed him, PSC Commissioner Dunn told Sweet Home Politics, “[A]nyone who has seen the Yellowhammer blog’s many stories about [me] knows at least the outline of an ugly myth Yellowhammer has been fabricating – for well over a year now – about who I am and what I believe.

    “To provide you a candid assessment of Cliff Sims and his Yellowhammer website involves anything but a positive message,” Dunn stated. “Mr. Sims has shown himself, time and again, to be an unprincipled individual who tells lies casually, deliberately and often.”

    In an interview last week, one Montgomery lobbyist (speaking on condition of anonymity) went so far as to say, “It has been known for sometime and is beyond speculation that the Yellowhammer blog run by Cliff Sims is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Speaker and those in his inner circle. And I don’t know anyone who would claim otherwise… His website is about as fair and balanced as MSNBC.”

    Dunn is famous for calling for the first formal rate hearings for Alabama’s public utilities in more than 30 years. By doing so, he immediately drew fire from Sims and PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, who attempted to rebrand his request as a “war on coal.”

    Sitting in a Durham, NC coffee shop, I spoke with a staff member of the Energy Foundation (who Sims has also written about) on their efforts in the South. When asked if she thought Dunn was on “their side,” she laughed. “Terry Dunn has been a supporter of using coal as long as he’s been on the commission. We’d love to have him as our friend — he’s just not.”

    Moore; Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard; Terry Dunn… the list of those for whom Sims has attempted to change the news narrative gets rather lengthy.

    “That Mr. Sims would deliberately try to fool his readers into believing such lies speaks volumes about Yellowhammer – and about Sims himself,” Dunn stated. “Worse, perhaps, are Yellowhammer’s ongoing efforts to persuade the people of Alabama that I am anti-coal and a secret supporter of Obama and his apparent desire to shut down coal-fired power plants. My record reflects just the opposite, but Mr. Sims has never felt the need to back up his lies with evidence of any kind.”

    In April alone, a special grand jury in Lee County saw the arrest of both Rep. Greg Wren (R – Montgomery) and Rep. Moore. If these yellowhammer birds of a feather flock together, will they all be indicted together?

    I suppose we’ll have to wait to see which song the yellowhammer sings next.

  2. Don’t Get Yellowhammered (A Cliff Sims Story)

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    Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.

    The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.

    That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

    – The Prestige (2006)

    The preceding passage from the Academy Award nominated The Prestige tells us a lot about showmanship. In order to survive in their chosen field, magicians must be talented. They must woo and wow us with their right hand so that we cannot see the “trick” being performed with their left.

    For the past several years, Alabamians have been wooed, wowed, tricked and duped.

    In 2011, a classmate of mine at The University of Alabama, Cliff Sims, started a political commentary blog called Yellowhammer. That was Act One, or “The Pledge.”

    Sims showed us something common. Something ordinary. A college student created a blog. He billed it as commentary at the time and never as “news.” It was his opinion, and a narrow conservative one at that.

    In March 2013, Sims gave his blog a facelift and a name change. This was the Second Act, or “The Turn.” From this point on, what Sims wrote would be called “news” — Yellowhammer News, to be precise.

    Political insiders in Montgomery have long questioned Sims’ rise to success, his source of funding, his uncanny ability to receive news before it actually breaks and his political motive.

    “It has been known for sometime and is beyond speculation that the Yellowhammer blog run by Cliff Sims is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Speaker and those in his inner circle. And I don’t know anyone who would claim otherwise…,” said a Montgomery insider and lobbyist.

    Eddie Curran, former reporter for the Mobile Press-Register, recently uncovered evidence linking Montgomery juggernaut Swatek, Azbell, Howe and Ross (SAHR) as a financial backer to some of Yellowhammer’s work. SAHR is, perhaps, best known for one of its partners (David Azbell) receiving a $96,000 taxpayer-funded consulting contract each year from Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and the Alabama House Republican Caucus. SAHR partner David Azbell also co-authored Rep. Hubbard’s book, Storming the State House.

    Confused yet? “The Turn” is designed to be tricky.

    Yellowhammer is notoriously fawning in its coverage of Hubbard and of those loyal and associated with the speaker,” writes Curran. Speaking on the subject of a cameraman hired by Sims to do video work, Curran states, “it was the Swatek firm, not Yellowhammer, that paid him $2,500 for his work … and a related video on Yellowhammer.”

    But none of this is the finale to Sims’ trick… “The Prestige,” or the third act, goes beyond any bias-funded political news blog. The third act involved taxpayers’ money.

    Last week, Rep. Barry Moore (R – Enterprise) was indicted and arrested on four felony charges. It was recently reported by The Alabama Political Reporter and Sweet Home Politics that Moore has been involved in more than a few shady deals

    Moore relayed threats from Speaker Hubbard to kill 100 jobs for the town of Enterprise if Moore’s opponent did not drop out of the race. Moore falsified a document in an attempt to receive a special rate at his country club. Moore sold his house to an Enterprise company for $650,000 … the same company that was to receive $2 million from the State of Alabama for economic development. After being elected, Moore received $60,000 in state contracts.

    Several weeks ago former Rep. Greg Wren (R – Montgomery) resigned from office and was arrested on ethics charges. He took a plea bargain to avoid prison… his plea bargain mentions Speaker Hubbard three times.

    Hubbard is mentioned in Moore’s indictment, also.

    And what has Sims, who has obvious connections to Moore and Speaker Hubbard, had to say about Moore?

    He praised and championed him as “the most conservative legislator” in Alabama. The two purchased property together. Moore even got Sims his first job, and Sims served as Moore’s campaign manager. Moore was in Sims’ wedding. The sort of information that a “journalist” should disclose when covering something as important as an politician’s arrest under charges of fraud. But no…

    There’s nothing to see here, folks! In an article today on Moore’s indictment, Sims even attempts to convince us that Moore was the latest casualty of a “coordinated political attack.” The right hand may have attempted to dupe Alabamians … it may have even been caught today… but the left hand (probably the only time Cliff has been “Left” in his life) is somewhere in the back reminding everyone that Moore is the good guy.

    “The proof is in the pudding, and Cliff’s pudding has barely ever even acknowledged the Lee County investigation and subsequent indictments and pleas,” the Montgomery insider said. “His website is about as fair and balanced as MSNBC.”

    When Moore was arrested last week, everyone was watching the right hand … while Sims attempted “The Prestige” with the left.

  3. Inside the Statehouse with Steve Flowers – April 27, 2014

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    A good many of you found last week’s historical column interesting. You seemed fascinated about the vast diversity regarding the folks who settled in South Alabama versus those who homesteaded North Alabama at the state’s origination.

    You found it even more interesting how close the secession from the Union vote was in 1861 with the vote falling in line with regional sentiment with South Alabamians for and North Alabamians against secession. However, the most enthralling passage was my brief mention of Winston County and its legendary stand to secede from Alabama when Alabama seceded from the union. This bold anomaly really piqued your interest. Therefore, this week I will expound on the in-depth details of the story of the “Free State of Winston.”

    Winston County is a quiet rural county of about 24,000 people. It is about 75 miles northwest of Birmingham. Its closest neighboring cities of any size are Jasper and Florence. It is nestled into the heart of Northwest Alabama. In fact the county newspaper in Haleyville is named the Northwest Alabamian.

    Like many rural counties in our state, there are a lot more trees than people. The William Bankhead National Forest encompasses most of Winston County. The county was named for Alabama’s Gov. John Winston. He served two terms as governor from 1853 to 1857.

    Winston was not from that neck of the woods. He was a slave-owner from Sumter County but a staunch Jacksonian Democrat who stood up to the railroad interests. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the inevitable secessionist movement began. Lincoln’s platform as the newly minted Republican Party candidate was to abolish slavery.

    South Carolina was the first state to secede. They were soon followed by Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Later Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas left the Union. These southern states became the Confederate States of America.

    Many reasons were given for seceding. However, the primary reason was that Lincoln planned to abolish slavery. The men who controlled these states’ political machinations did not want to give up their slaves.

    On April 12, 1861 shots were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. These shots were the beginning of the Civil War. Once the shots were fired, the last four states to join the Confederacy quickly seceded as well.

    When Virginia seceded, their western mountainous counties had no intention of leaving the Union so they formed their own state of West Virginia and stayed with the Union. A similar occurrence was festering in Alabama. The folks of North Alabama were similar to the mountain people of West Virginia. They did not have plantation style farming. They were small yeoman farmers who cultivated their own 40 acres with one mule. In short, they did not own nor did they need slaves. Therefore, they felt like they did not have a dog in the fight.

    These North Alabama counties did not care much about the slave issue nor secession. These folks in North Alabama had more in common with their neighbors and cousins to the north in Tennessee, which was the last state to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. These North Alabama hill farmers were very religious and extremely independent.

    Winston County epitomized this independent virtue. The hill people of Winston County owned no slaves, worked their own fields, went to church and did not want to be bothered. When Alabama held its secession convention in 1861, Winston County voted overwhelmingly for a 22-year-old schoolteacher named Christopher Sheats to be their delegate. Sheats and Winston County refused to sign the secession document. The residents of Winston County were proud of Sheats. They were in approval. The independent people of Winston County were not going to be pushed around. They saw Alabama’s secession from the Union as their rationale to secede from Alabama.

    The rest of Alabama and the Confederacy resented Winston County’s insubordination. However, the people of the Free State of Winston stood their ground. In July 1961, a meeting took place in Winston County at a place called Looney’s Tavern. They officially seceded from Alabama. However, the resolution was more of an act of neutrality. Winston County wanted more than anything to just be left alone. It was a call for neutrality where an estimated 3,000 people, almost the entire population of Winston County, attended the meeting.

    Today, if you travel through Winston County and drive by the courthouse in the town of Double Springs, you will see a statue of a Civil War soldier, half Union and half Confederate, commemorating the county’s divided loyalties during the war. The legacy of the Free State of Winston lives on.

    See you next week.

  4. Grace Along the Journey

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    The church that I attend when I’m back in Birmingham has a part of the service called “Grace Along the Journey.” It’s basically just a fancy, less-revivalistic way of saying “testimony,” and the stories I hear and the people I meet remind me why I continue to see the church as a safe place for humbled souls working together to make faith meaningful—even in the face of the doubt and fear promoted by others in the name of faith. When I began the process of coming out to friends a couple of years ago, I secretly confessed that my ideal of local progress would be seeing someone like me, a gay believer, get the opportunity to share their faith journey and have it be received as just another testimony. That time, fast approaching as it might be, has yet to arrive, but amidst the occasionally hateful shouting of some of our state’s “leadership,” I can be silent no more.

    In a time when cultural warriors claiming to be Christ-followers are setting the public perception of the faith, aided no doubt by those who would just as soon see Christianity fade into irrelevance, gay Christians of all stripes have a responsibility to speak out and tell our stories. Like any group of people, we are diverse in our opinions, in our backgrounds, and in our experiences. As more of us speak out, a greater picture of the gay community will emerge. What I can present is just a glimpse into one life, marked by very particular circumstances, but I hope the story of this gay along the journey will help people understand some of what it means to be a gay Christian in the South.

    Growing up as the son of a Baptist minister, I learned three things that have really helped me through life: 1) The Church is made up of (usually) well-intentioned, yet wholly imperfect people. 2) Family is the truest microcosm of the church: unconditional, boundless love from people who also have an innate ability to find and push every one of your buttons. 3) Moving opens you up to so many new people and experiences, and only after you’ve left a place do you really discover where home is (at around the fourth or fifth move, that last lesson finally sunk in).

    Aside from being a minister’s kid, one other important caveat informs my personal journey: I do not carry many outward “signs” from the lazy stereotypes about gay guys (which seems increasingly to be the case these days). Thus, my childhood days were free from the hellish taunts and bullying that so many of my braver brethren faced. I was able to grow up in a “tacit closet.” People didn’t ask, so I wasn’t going to tell. There was no need to fake a relationship to prove my straightness; instead, I leaned fully into my acerbic, misanthropic side and eschewed the whole dating scene altogether.

    This was my mindset when I returned to Birmingham from Virginia in 2006 to enroll at Samford University. Samford, for those who might not know, is Alabama’s largest Christian university. For this minister’s kid who planned on becoming a professor, Samford was the best of both worlds, and, honestly, I have never regretted attending there. Still, the culture around the school was conservative, very traditional. Aside from pockets of toleration, it was clear this was not the place “to let my freak flag fly.”

    If the “tacit closet” shielded me from the schoolyard bullying, nothing could protect me from hearing the ignorant and bigoted attitudes that infused much of the evangelical culture I grew up in. While I was fortunate enough to attend churches on the moderate Baptist side, sparing me the brunt of fundamentalist theology, the culture warriors remained a pesky occupying force. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family was a popular reservoir of sex-education literature, promoting strict gender norms and promulgating the erroneous idea that homosexuality came from a distant father and overbearing mother—a myth so undercut by my family life that I was easily able to discern that Dobson was not to be trusted.

    Since most evangelicals don’t realize that they know gay people, much less are probably related to one, their views of “the gays” depends on these pseudo-scientific explanations, combined with (largely inaccurate) portrayals of a hedonistic gay culture on the coasts. They’ve developed a shorthand of addressing “sinful sodomites” that combines gay-panic/no-homo jokes with consistent denigration of the “tolerance movement.” For a long time, it has seemed clear that gays are not welcome in church, much less heaven. The so-called mainstream Christians might have publically distanced themselves from the rhetoric of Westboro Baptist, but the underlying assumption that “God Hates Fags” has gone unexamined. That someone could be gay and Christian was certainly out of the question.

    In an effort to win the public relations war, many evangelicals have seized on a nicer brand of bigotry—the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra—but condemnation remains the norm. So, I reasoned, I would just keep people at arm’s length—allowing them just enough to think I was a friend, but never allowing anyone close enough to get to know the real me. That way, I could make it through Samford unscathed; whatever acquaintances I had would simply fall to the wayside when I came out from the safety of another city.

    Bryan Kessler

    Unfortunately for my plans, many of the relationships that I formed at Samford, especially at the church that I attended, proved far too strong for me to make an easy, open break. When I returned to Birmingham last year and started helping out with my old church’s youth group, I kept the closet door shut, even if it was as transparent as a screen door. I knew enough about the hateful suspicions about gay men and kids—Birmingham is home to the Boy Scouts, after all—to know that those parents who thanked me for helping out wouldn’t feel quite the same if I was helping while “out.”

    I cared far too much for those kids, many of whom were right around my younger brother’s age and allowed me a chance to be a brother-by-proxy, to trade some abstract openness for the Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, and beach retreats. The church is understandably proud of the type of young adults that the church produces, and, although they didn’t realize it, the group’s very inclusive and loving spirit prodded me along my path to true self-acceptance.

    Of course, evangelical churches in the South are not exactly the best place for openness for a guy like me. So, I left; not because I was pushed out, but because I was scared of having people whom I loved as family no longer feel the same. Fear of rejection and isolation is a constant for gay Christians—which is why Birmingham is incredibly fortunate to have a number of amazing “affirming” churches (a fact that I am even more appreciative of now that I live more than an hour away from the closest gay-friendly church).

    When I left, though, I found myself realizing yet again that final lesson from my childhood: you only realize where your home is once you’ve left it. I felt at home at that church; the ability to get together once a week with fellow believers is a powerful experience, and to do so with a group of people you know are ardently committed to living God’s word and loving others is especially moving. Rejection—even the possibility of it—hurts, but abandoning family doesn’t feel that great either.

    Sure, like brothers and sisters, other Christians can make it hard to be in their family.

    The only times I have ever truly questioned why I want to call myself a Christian came because of ignorant or hateful things fellow believers have done or said. My first real crisis of faith came from seeing fundamentalists demean the faith and ministry of good people like my father who wouldn’t let political and cultural battles overrun their faith—and seeing those whom I thought knew better cowardly raise their pitchforks and join in the witch hunts. Similarly, seeing so many gifted female friends kept from ministry opportunities because of a tortured intertwining of literalism and sexism has made me supremely aware of the ways in which the church is complicit in the continued marginalization of women’s voices—particularly damning since they constitute a supermajority of active church members.

    Over the last few years, the vehemence with which many Christians wage combat against some mythical, all-powerful “gay agenda” has made it harder to see Jesus in friends, family, and the larger body of believers. They have aligned Christianity with the powerful and the oppressive in their fight against anti-discrimination and anti-bullying legislation—as if the “least of these” are somehow not the ones on the receiving end of the abuse.

    If God picked these people to be his “hands and feet” in the world, it appears he forgot about giving them his heart. After all, wasn’t the world supposed to know us by our love? To far too many in the LGBT community, that supposed “Love” sure seems undistinguishable from hate, oppression, and marginalization.

    Yet, as much as the close-mindedness of other believers makes me question whether I really wanted to be yoked to them, I simply cannot justify conceding the faith to these modern-day Pharisees—well-respected, politically-connected pillars of the religious community who are more concerned about parsing the letter of the law than embodying the spirit of God’s love.

    To yield to the religious conservatives and fundamentalists would be to lose the faith of William Wilberforce, Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gene Robinson. These Christians fought against the regressive stream of Christian complacency and pushed against slavery, inequality, segregation, and homophobia. Their lives are the model of a lived-out faith that truly acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God.

    The question that I continue to struggle with is how to balance compassion for a wholly-imperfect, culturally-constrained church with the righteous indignation that fuels us to push the church toward a new age. To love fellow believers does not mean consenting to their ignorance and hate. Instead, I try to follow the lead set by gay Christians such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines, and by allies such as Rachel Held Evans. These amazing believers speak out strongly for their beliefs, often to their own detriment, yet they maintain a spirit of reconciliation that speaks out of love, not anger.

    I have seen others ostracized and hurt for their courage to speak God’s truth. It is difficult to forgive, and it’s even harder to forget. I struggle daily with how to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” for I know that even Uncle Phil, Dan Cathy, and Roy Moore are my brothers in Christ. Their defenders might know exactly what to post on Facebook to make my blood boil and heart break, but we are family all the same.

    To anyone who has been harmed—emotionally, physically, or spiritually—by the actions of an aggressive cultural Christianity, I can only apologize and assure you that, while they might have been gathered in his name, Jesus wasn’t present there. The biblical Jesus never dehumanized people, and he admonished the religiously pious for turning people into “issues.” It is the responsibility of gay Christians and allies to police the actions of our fellow believers—and, until the battle is won, we share the pain they have caused you.

    To my fellow Christians, no matter where you fall theologically or politically, I offer these final thoughts: you might not realize it, but we worship among you. We pray with you when your family suffers; we rejoice when a new baby is dedicated; we mumble with you through the first verse of that new worship song; we laugh with you when the pastor makes a joke, and groan with you when it misses the mark; we take communion with you in recognition of the great things He hath done; and we hope, as you do, that the people we sit in pews with on Sunday really do want us there, do care about us, do think we belong.

    We’re gay. We pray. Get used to it.

  5. “What’s it like being Jewish in Alabama?”

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    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question as I travel outside the state in my role as Assistant Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation (BJF).  Not only are people surprised to find that there is a vibrant Jewish community in the Heart of Dixie, but even more astonished when I tell them that, as a Jew, there is no place I’d rather live.

    Alabama has a Jewish population of less than 10,000 people, about 5,500 of whom live in Birmingham.  But, this comparatively small community has had a significant impact since arriving in Alabama as traveling merchants in the 1750’s.

    Despite the bigotry and prejudice that has long haunted our state, Jews here have not experienced overwhelming anti-Semitism as many outside of the region assume. Jews have played significant roles as business and community leaders and many Jews were influential in the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham and Montgomery.

    While occasionally church-state issues have been sources of tension, Jewish institutions have built great relationships with political leadership and policy makers on both the state and municipal levels.

    While Jews in Alabama are without a doubt thriving members of the greater community, this is not unique to our state. Despite the tragic events that took place in the Kansas City area Sunday reminding us that hateful prejudice continues to exist even here at home, the story of American Jewry is one of success and fulfillment throughout the country.

    However, in a time when we see increased anti-Israel sentiment growing around the world and in the US,  Alabama is exceptional in its unyielding and passionate support for the Jewish state.  This is something of great significance to the BJF and Alabama’s Jewish community, and it is often on my mind at this time of year.

    In the spring of each year Jews around the world celebrate Passover by telling the ancient story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.  While traditions may differ from place to place the story remains the same whether being told in Jerusalem, Brooklyn or Birmingham.

    It is an exciting, albeit familiar, story that captures the power of miracles, the importance of gratitude, and above all the value of freedom from oppression.  We thank God for freeing the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, for splitting the Red Sea and guiding our ancestors across and for caring for them in the desert for 40 years.

    It is only because of this miraculous story that the Jewish people ultimately arrived in the Promised Land — what is today the modern state of Israel.  While the Passover story is well known and of great significance to both Jews and Christians throughout Alabama, what many do not know is that our state has a unique and special connection to Israel.

    In the midst of World War II, the Alabama State Legislature led the country as the first state to publicly call for a modern Jewish state in the Jewish people’s biblical homeland.  Senate Joint Resolution 4, which was approved on June 10th, 1943 read in part:

    Therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Alabama that the establishment of a Jewish homelandbe commended to the considered judgment of the United Nations, not only as an act of justice to the Jewish peoplebut as an integral part of the new democratic world order in which every people shall have the right to self-government and self-determination in accordance with the principles for which we are now waging war.

    In this moment, the State of Alabama, so often criticized for its lack of progressive thinking, took action in the name of democratic principles in a way that no other state ever had.  Alabama, so often thought of as lagging behind in a perpetual fight for justice, was for a moment, a leader in that effort.

    Much has changed in Alabama since 1943, but the staunch support for Israel demonstrated five years before its establishment as a modern state, has not faltered. When I talk about the importance of the US-Israel relationship around the state, I often tell people that I believe Alabama is one of if not the most pro-Israel states in the country.

    This pro-Israel sentiment is cultivated by an informed and vocal Jewish community as well as the passionate support of thousands of our Christian friends throughout Alabama, and nowhere is it more evident than in our state’s Congressional delegation.  The BJF works closely with organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to educate legislators about the importance of the US-Israel relationship, and I am always touched by the interest and overwhelming support they continuously demonstrate.

    Time and time again our Senators and House Members have supported Israel in its efforts to reach peace with its Palestinian neighbors.  They have advocated for military aid to Israel as the United States’ strongest ally in the region and have supported strategic cooperation that benefits both countries. Finally, understanding the grave threat that a nuclear capable Iran represents to both Israel and the US, our delegation has reliably supported increased sanctions against the Islamist regime in Tehran.

    Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East.  It is a country that values liberty, religious freedoms, human rights, and a market driven economy.  These are American values that we as Alabamians hold dear, and just as we should be proud of Alabama’s leadership in 1943, we should celebrate our elected representatives’ on going support for Israel today.

    Passover is considered the festival of freedom for the Jewish people. There is no doubt that our state’s record on promoting freedom and equality is far from perfect, and our past mistakes cannot be ignored or forgotten. However, each Passover I am reminded of the important statement Alabama made at the height of the Holocaust when so much of the rest of the world was silent.

    Alabama’s steadfast support for Israel, then and now, is important to Alabama’s Jewish community, and it is one thing that makes living here special to me as a Jew.  Most importantly, however, it represents a piece of our state’s past and present that all Alabamians can be proud of as we work together to better our state for its future.

  6. When Intolerance Costs Money

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    After years of being harassed by the wacko bird contingent of Alabama politics at both the state and local level, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Alabama’s only federally-recognized Indian tribe, is now hoping to develop gaming operations on its Florida property.

    Earlier this week, Band Chairman Buford Rolin sent Florida Gov. Rick Scott a letter asking for a compact to establish a tribe-operated Class III gaming facility one mile south of the Alabama line, near its existing casino in Atmore, Ala., Gov. Scott quickly agreed to a meeting.

    Federal law allows electronic bingo at the tribe’s Alabama casinos, but to offer Class III options like table games or slot machines, the tribe needs a compact with the state. Such compacts typically enable the state to collect a portion of the revenue the games produce. Florida’s existing agreement with the Seminole tribe, for example, has produced $1 billion in revenue since it went into effect six years ago.

    Alabama’s elected officials, though, have shown no interest in forming such a compact despite the revenue it could generate. Instead, they have attempted time and again to destroy the tribe’s existing Alabama gaming operations, and time and again they have been rebuffed by the federal government.

    Now, the Poarch Band is asking Florida for permission to do there what it can’t do here – offer gaming choices that will create more jobs and produce substantial revenue.

    Personal judgments about gambling aside, what is the logic of prohibiting an Indian tribe from offering table games and slot machines on one side of the state line if they can do so on the other? Indian gaming opponents sincerely concerned about potential negative consequences surely wouldn’t support a policy that, without minimizing those consequences for us, confers all the benefits of gaming on Florida. Isn’t Alabama already losing enough revenue to casinos in Mississippi and lotteries in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee?

    Not according to rabid Indian gaming opponents like state Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, who recently went so far as to exclude Tribal property from proposed legislation legalizing Sunday alcohol sales in Wetumpka, equating the Poarch Band with a business wanting “to expand its privilege to profit from the sale of alcohol in my county.”

    So much for “this land is your land, this land is my land.”

    Paul Bechman, a Republican state house member, objected to the proposal because it was blatantly discriminatory toward the tribe, and Taylor’s petty antics eventually killed the entire effort. For crusaders like Taylor, even local alcohol sales legislation provides an opportunity for political grandstanding if it can be made into a debate about what really makes them uncomfortable – the almost universally accepted idea that Indian tribes should be afforded a significant degree of autonomy in governing their own reservations. The issue is no longer opposition to gaming in Alabama, but instead an inability to acknowledge that tribal territory is not, actually, Alabama.

    Taylor may be the loudest and crudest opponent of the Poarch Band’s sovereignty, but unfortunately he is not alone in the Alabama Republican Party. Our state’s sole Indian tribe, after all, has received a better reception from the Tea Party-backed, conservative Republican governor of Florida than it has ever received from Republican officials in this state. Unlike Alabama’s leaders, Gov. Scott is at least willing to discuss compacts that could produce significant revenue and employ hundreds of people.

    Gov. Scott is just one of many Republicans who has supported Indian tribes and Indian gaming. The federal legislation regulating Indian gaming was signed by Ronald Reagan and sponsored by Sen. John McCain, a later Republican presidential candidate himself. Indian gaming furthers conservative policy objectives because it reduces poverty on Indian reservations and in surrounding communities through economic development and job creation, lightening the burden on publicly funded anti-poverty programs. Tribal compacts also give states an option for allowing revenue-generating casinos while severely limiting the number of places where they can be built, providing a potential compromise between proponents and opponents of legalized gaming.

    Alabama needs more Republicans like Rep. Beckman fighting to reaffirm the party’s proud history on this issue. Otherwise, the Republican message will be obscured by shrill ideologues who bristle at the very idea of a prosperous, sovereign Indian tribe generously contributing to surrounding communities and the state.

    Their intolerance could cost Alabama a lot of money.

  7. Where are the Big Jims of Today?

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    Thanks to the Electoral College, Alabama plays a pretty insignificant role in presidential politics. Only a handful of states actually matter in presidential elections. This is one area in which we are in the same boat as California and New York. What could we in Alabama possibly share in common with those two states? We are token votes for the respective parties our states as a whole vote for.

    The Democrats know they can count the electoral votes along the East and West coasts. Republicans know they will do well in the Midwest and will sweep the Deep South. That’s just how it is today. If Alabama would become a two-party state, as I talked about before, we might actually have more influence not just in elections, but in reaping the benefits associated with being a swing state.

    As a result, presidential elections are usually an interesting, but not captivating experience for us in Alabama. Instead, the governor’s race is the real marquee event. Alabama has been home to some of America’s most colorful politicians. Few would argue the most colorful governor to date would be James “Big Jim” Folsom, Sr. Big Jim was completely uninhibited. He made the average person take an interest in campaigns and go out and vote for him. As a populist, his famous slogan was that he was “the little man’s big friend.”

    Even contemporarily, we’ve had some great election drama and campaign ads. Not to be outdone, in 2006 Big Jim’s son, James “Little Jim” Folsom, Jr. ran an ad in which he enumerated the number of shotguns he owned, how many children he has, and how long he’s been married. He did this while not-so-subtly painting his opponent, Luther Strange, as an elitist, claiming he does not “play tennis at the Mountain Brook Club” and that he’d “rather be hunting instead.”

    And we can’t forget Little Jim’s claim to fame – he brought “Muh-say-dehs” to Alabama!

    But as we near the end of the current electoral quadrennium and face a new statewide election cycle, it can really only be summed up in one word: boring.

    Gov. Robert Bentley will easily win the governor’s race with plenty of percentages to spare, as will most any Republican incumbent. “Back in the day” there was not as much to do for entertainment and campaign season was more like campaign theater for people, as candidates would drive into a town square, stand on the back of a tailgate, and get the crowd all excited to go out and vote for them.

    With that in mind, I often forget this is an election year. Maybe things will get more interesting as the primaries approach, as winning the Republican primary is tantamount to winning the election these days. But I don’t have much hope. Bentley will run on his platform of creating jobs and not taking a salary.  Dr. Parker Griffith will run a respectable campaign challenging Bentley’s record. Vanilla, party of two.

    However, in the vanilla scene that is Montgomery this election cycle, there is one colorful politician that we are going to have to depend on to throw her rouge into the mix: Kay Ivey.

    Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey is facing a Tea Party Republican named Stan Cooke in the June primary, and will face Democrat James Fields in November. This will likely cause her to spend a significant amount of time and money in campaigning and advertising. I for one am glad she is facing opposition. Not because I don’t like her, but because that fuels the best campaign ads.

    We need Kay Ivey to dust off the campaign ad cobwebs around here and throw out some homespun Wilcox County realness all the way from the shoals to the shore. After all, “the People’s Business” is at stake. The People’s Agenda must be fulfilled. The People’s Lieutenant Governor must prevail. The People’s Bourbon must be had neat with the rap of a gavel.

    Honorable mention for campaign ads goes to Dale Peterson, for one of the most epic campaign commercials ever during his campaign for Agriculture Commissioner in 2010. Dale has entered the race for State Auditor, but I feel like the gusto which propelled him to jump off that horse and swing around his rifle may have gone out of him in the intervening years. But I could be wrong.

    Alabamians love a good Governor’s race. We even love a good Lt. Governor’s race if it’s interesting enough. The people deserve more from state government in many ways, but if they are not going to adequately fund our schools and spend their time in session debating about the Ten Commandments, we should at least deserve a fun and dramatic election cycle. Where are the Big Jims of today?

  8. Inside the Statehouse with Steve Flowers – April 10, 2014

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    Alabama has seen its share of industrial recruitment coups in the past few years. In fact, 20 years ago the landing of Mercedes was the impetus that has catapulted us to the top of the nation in automobile manufacturing. Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and the peripheral support manufacturing companies have placed us in the top three states in America when it comes to automobile manufacturing jobs.

    The announcement of the mammoth Airbus plant in Mobile will create over 1,000 jobs for the state. We will now build the largest airplanes in the world in the Heart of Dixie.

    However, when all is said and done, Alabama’s most important industry is still agriculture. The economic impact of Alabama’s agriculture, forestry and related industries is staggering. The total output and employment impact of agriculture and related industries was over $70 billion last year and accounts for over 580,000 jobs. Folks, that’s not just whistlin’ Dixie.

    These numbers are comprised of agricultural industries, which consist of crops, livestock, timber, fisheries and include any food and forest product manufacturing. The figures also include goods and services from any collateral businesses related to agribusiness as well as local labor.

    The reach of agriculture is amazing. On average, agricultural and forest products generate ten jobs per $1 million in direct sales. One out of every five jobs in the state is related to agriculture and forestry.

    Besides the economic impact, they also provide social benefits and ecosystem services that enhance the quality of life in Alabama but are not a part of the economic figures previously quoted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services reports the output and employment impacts of hunting, sport fishing and wildlife watching totals $3.6 billion and over 40,000 jobs.

    The largest agribusiness contributor in Alabama is poultry and eggs. It is number one and contributes $3.8 billion to our economy. It is followed by the cattle industry at $393 million. Surprisingly, greenhouses, nurseries and floriculture production come in third with $237 billion. The nursery business has grown exponentially in recent years, especially around Mobile. Cotton holds fourth place at $138 million, followed by soybeans at $123 million. Grain farming adds $117 million and catfish farming accounts for $108 million.

    To illuminate how big poultry and egg production is in Alabama, it accounts for 66% of the $4.8 billion total agribusiness sales in the state. It is followed by cattle at 8.4%, greenhouses and nurseries at 5.1%, Cotton at 3%, soybeans and other grains at 2.6% and peanuts at 2.1%.

    Forestry continues to be a mainstay of our agricultural economy. It also breeds our state leaders. Both Gov. Robert Bentley and Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan grew up in families that made their livelihoods as sawmill owners. Bentley grew up working at a sawmill in Shelby County.  McMillan’s family ran a sawmill operation in Baldwin County.

    McMillan is doing an admirable job as Agriculture Commissioner. He grew up at a time when Baldwin County was a rural county known as the potato growing capital of Alabama. He remembers the days when Baldwin County schools would close to allow students to help harvest the potato crops.

    As boys, little did McMillan or Bentley know that their beloved home counties of Baldwin and Shelby would evolve into the fastest growing suburban bedroom areas in the state. Baldwin and Shelby counties are now two of the largest and most Republican counties in the state.

    McMillan oversees a department that is vitally important to Alabama. It is probably the third most significant constitutional office, superseded only by the governor and attorney general.

    Folks, to make a long story short, agriculture is still number one in Alabama.

    The Alabama Farmers Federation, led by President Jimmy Parnell and his astute political consultant Beth Chapman, is doing a good job of protecting Alabama farmers’ interest at the capitol. They are primarily focused on State Senate and House races since incumbent Gov. Robert Bentley and John McMillan have only token opposition.

    See you next week.

  9. Inside the Statehouse with Steve Flowers – April 4, 2014

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    The Gallup poll has come out with their ranking of the most conservative and most liberal states in America.

    Last year we were ranked as the most conservative in the country. We lost that mantle to Wyoming this year. In fact, we fell dramatically to number ten. In past years either Alabama or one of our sister southern Bible Belt states took home the title. This year the Western states made inroads into our group in the top ten rankings.

    The most conservative states are always located in the South and West, while the most liberal states are found on the East and West coasts. Thus the label that we like to bestow on Californians is that both they and their philosophy are from the left coast.

    Following number one Wyoming in order of conservatism are Mississippi, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and number ten Alabama.

    The ten most liberal states are Vermont, Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, Maine, California and New Jersey. Not surprisingly, the top ten liberal states all voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012, while all of the top ten conservative states voted for the Republican nominees in the past two presidential elections.

    This same Gallup poll ranked the states on their Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning propensities. As you might expect, the conservative states rank high as Republican havens and the liberal states rank high as Democratic enclaves. There are more Democratic-leaning states than Republican. That probably explains why Barack Obama is President.

    Wyoming, which was ranked the most conservative state, also came in as the most Republican state in the nation. We ranked number nine in the country in Republicanism. Our sister southern state of South Carolina likes to boast of being America’s most Republican state. However, they were ranked number ten, just behind us.

    The most Republican states in order are Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, Alaska, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma, Alabama and South Carolina. The most Democratic states are New York, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, California, Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey and New Mexico.

    Gallup also ranked the states in order of who was the most and least religious. We came in third in the country when it comes to religion. The only two states more religious are the Mormon state of Utah and our sister Bible Belt state of Mississippi. In fact, Mississippi edged out Utah for number one.

    The ranking of the most religious states in America are Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kentucky. The South dominates when it comes to religion. No wonder folks refer to us as the Bible Belt.

    The ten least religious states are Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Connecticut and Hawaii. You can safely say the people in the Northeast are not very religious.

    What this all tells you is that you do not have to be a profound intellectual political scientist to analyze American politics. If you live in the Midwest or South, you are likely to be a religious, conservative Republican. If you live in the Northeast or on the West Coast you are probably not very religious and you are a liberal Democrat.

    In the meantime, our Alabama legislature is determined to prove that they are the most conservative legislative body in America. As this year’s legislative session winds down they are finishing their four-year mission to rid the state of immigrants and abortions and making sure that folks can carry a gun anywhere they want.

    These strident and meaningless stream of ultra right wing initiatives are designed to placate Alabama’s conservative electorate. They may be passed with the intent to become Alabama law. However, they are automatically outlawed by the first federal court, usually after a cursory few hours of review.

    The anti-immigration measure passed the first year of the quadrennium was laughed out of court right away. This year’s anti-abortion bill is so blatantly unconstitutional that a sixth grade civic student would know that it will never be administered.

    This charade is great political year pandering. They also want the rest of the country to know that Wyoming and Mississippi are not more conservative than us. They figure we need to send them a message.

    See you next week.

  10. Will Birmingham’s Sordid Past Finally Pay Off?

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    The story blew up social media like well, a bomb. News that AMC, the station behind hits like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead; was to produce a TV series set in Birmingham. You’d think that everyone would rejoice over the spotlight finding the Magic City, but reaction was mixed. Trepidation came with good reason. After all, the show’s working title is Bombingham.

    The Birmingham Business Journal reported on the premise of the show, and I’ll give you three hints as to what it’s about: “The fragile peace in present-day Birmingham, Alabama is shattered when a murderer from 1963 is discovered and buried demons from the Civil Rights Era resurface.”

    Oh, racism. Here I thought the inner-politics of an storied defense contractor and it’s hidden past of corporate espionage were to be featured. Nope, the thing Birmingham is regrettably most known for has a chance to recapture the nation’s attention. Dead horse, prepare to be beaten.

    Is this stallion dead though? Can Birmingham’s sordid past end up molding a respectable future?

    The first, and really the only time, Birmingham comes up in schools outside of Alabama is when civil rights time comes around. Four dead angels, fire hoses and foundations built from prejudice is the introduction the majority of American children get to this fair town.

    So why are we still talking about it if everyone already knows the role Birmingham played in the war for civil rights? For starters, it’s compelling drama. Over the last few years blockbuster movies such as The Butler and 12 Years a Slave have found box office success by telling the tales of the oppressed. AMC has reason to believe that people are ready to watch TV about racial inequality, and they’re gonna strike while the iron is hot.

    Some believe that Birmingham should ignore this chapter in its history and refuse to acknowledge what happened. That thinking is naive because a lot of good can come from memorability, no matter how nefarious it is.

    All we know about the show is that it will involve racial tensions in some manner. It could be a great story about the dichotomy of the younger progressive generations, and the more entrenched older generations. It could paint a portrait of Birmingham like The Wire sketched Baltimore. It could also be filled with racist caricatures and set the city back further than even our own elected officials work to. Point being, before we decree this as awful we should give it a chance to make it’s case.

    Even if it portrays this city and its inhabitants in a terrible misguided light, it really can’t do anything but help us. I’d rather everyone know Birmingham, even if it is for a tragic past, than for people to ask, “where?”

    Heck our city motto could be: “Come for the racism, stay for the hospitality!” We could plaster it over that awful Pepsi sign.