2 years ago

The 15 events that defined Alabama politics in 2015

2015 Year in Review Alabama Politics

2015 was a wild year in Alabama politics.

A reality television star drew tens of thousands of Alabamians to his presidential campaign rallies.

A sitting governor got divorced. A sitting Speaker’s political career survived an entire year under indictment.

Same-sex weddings took place at courthouses around the state. Taxes were raised. The Confederate Battle Flag was lowered. Refugees were rejected. And a football program was resurrected.

Here are–in no particular order–the 15 events that defined a tumultuous year in Alabama politics.

Governor Bentley’s State of the State address

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the 2015 State of the State Address, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Whether it was politics or his personal life, 2015 was by far the most turbulent year of Dr. Robert Bentley’s tenure as Alabama governor.

After securing re-election in November of 2014, Bentley tacked left on a variety of issues, from taxes to government healthcare, and ruffled some feathers by ordering the Confederate battle flag removed from the Capitol grounds. In August, his wife announced she was leaving him after 50 years of marriage.

The moment that telegraphed what Alabamians could expect from their chief executive in 2015 came in early March when Bentley delivered his annual State of the State Address.

He demanded companies “pay their fair share” and gave a full throated defense of his plan to raise taxes by $541 million. He also hinted at expanding Medicaid, a move that many on Goat Hill expect to come in 2016.

Same-sex marriage comes to Alabama

Flickr User wenzday01
A federal judge in January issued a ruling striking down Alabama’s constitutional ban on gay marriage on the grounds that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The ruling was put on hold while the United States Supreme Court debated same-sex marriage. The High Court ultimately struck down same-sex marriage bans across the country, effectively creating a constitutional right to marriage and prompting several Alabama counties to exit the marriage business all together.

The religious liberty implications of the ruling are still a hot-button issue that won’t be resolved for years to come.

Hubbard survives another year on top

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn)
It is a testament to Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s (R-Auburn) sheer tenacity that he remains the Speaker 14 months after being indicted on 23 counts of felony public corruption.

His power, once unrivaled in state government, is somewhat diminished. He is no longer able to bend the legislature to his will. But in spite of being openly challenged for the gavel for the first time, his position appears to be secure for now.

Hubbard’s long-anticipated trial is scheduled to take place next year. The outcome will shape Alabama’s political landscape for years — perhaps decades — to come.


Senator Jeff Sessions dons a "Make America Great Again" hat at Donald Trump's Mobile rally.
In what the Washington Post described as “something between a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and the Daytona 500,” Alabama became the center of the political universe for one night in August when Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 touched down in Mobile.

Tens of thousands of Trump supporters flocked to Ladd-Peebles Stadium for what many believe was the largest event to that point in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The event had national significance, signaling that Trump’s unexpected rise in the polls could be buttressed by legitimate support on the ground. It also elevated Senator Jeff Sessions’ national profile. Alabama’s junior senator appeared on stage with Trump, and the billionaire real estate mogul adopted his immigration and trade positions just days later.

But the event was about more than a single night — or even a single candidate. Trumpapalooza established Alabama as a must-visit state for serious presidential contenders, thanks to the SEC Primary.

Since then, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and others have all made a serious play to compete and win in Alabama.

Syrian refugees refused

Hundreds of Syrian refugees waiting for the next train in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Josh Zakary)
Governor Bentley in mid-November became the second governor in America to announce his administration would refuse to accept Syrian refugees.

He later signed an executive order directing state agencies to utilize “all lawful means necessary” to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state.

The Bentley administration and the White House have been at odds over whether Bentley — or any governor — has the authority to issue such an order. But to this point, no refugees have been sent to Alabama.

Confederate flag toppled

Confederate Battle Flag
Governor Bentley ordered the Confederate Battle Flag removed from the Capitol grounds the morning of June 24th, sparking a backlash among many Alabamians who consider the flag to be a part of the state’s history that should not be erased.

Bentley said his order was partially in response to the Charleston church shooting, but more about doing the “right thing.” It also undoubtedly had a lot to do with Alabama’s economic development efforts, which some state leaders worried could be damaged if they resisted the national push to eradicate the flag in a symbolic gesture after the Charleston tragedy.

Bentley breaths life back into the gambling industry

(Photo: Flickr user Dallas1200am)
Alabama’s anti-gambling movement, propelled by the state’s large swath of evangelical Christians, considered Governor Bentley an ally until last month when he stripped the Attorney General’s office of the power to enforce gambling laws and paved the way for VictoryLand to reopen.

It had been a rough year for pro-gambling interests prior to that moment. A push to expand casino gambling in the state failed along with the annual push for a lottery, and Senator Del Marsh (R-Anniston), the state’s most powerful lawmaker and a gambling supporter, said he would not reintroduce gaming legislation in 2016.

It is still hard to imagine casino gambling legislation passing, but with another budget crunch on the horizon, the lottery could once again get serious consideration.

The leader of an interdenominational organization that lobbies the Alabama legislature on behalf of the Christian community issued a stern warning earlier this month: “Illegal gambling is taking over this state.”

Gang of Nine emerges in Alabama Senate

TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.
The Alabama Legislature raised taxes by roughly $100 million in 2015, far less than Governor Bentley pushed for, but enough that it sparked contentious debates over three grueling legislative sessions.

The majority of the Legislature ultimately supported a package that combined three tax increases with two measures aimed at reforming the state’s dysfunctional budgeting process. But while the majority of lawmakers viewed combining reforms with tax increases as a palatable compromise, a group of nine staunchly conservative senators refused to bend, consistently voting “no” and sometimes launching into filibusters of tax bills backed by their own party.

The “Gang of Nine,” as they became known, probably did not win a lot of friends on Goat Hill, but they undoubtedly kept the tax burden on Alabamians from increasing much further than it did. If they continue to stick together, they will continue to be a powerful bloc in the Senate.

PSC drops energy rates in spite of increased federal regulations

Public Service Commission Jeremy Oden, Commissioner President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Chris "Chip" Beeker
The Alabama Public Service Commission led by PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh in early December secured a rate reduction for Alabama Power and Alagasco customers, in spite of increasing costs the companies continue to incur due to federal environmental mandates.

A drop in the price of coal and natural gas made it possible for Alabama Power to offset some of their regulatory costs this year, compelling the PSC to push for a 2 percent reduction in the retail cost of electricity through 2016. Alabama Power expects to return an estimated $120 million to customers through the end of next year.

The move was a crippling blow the state’s environmentalist movement, which had previously cloaked its anti-coal agenda in pro-consumer rhetoric. The environmentalist’s “favorite Republican” is running for a slot on the PSC again in 2016, nonetheless.

Jeff Sessions endorses Richard Shelby

Sen. Richard Shelby (left) and Jeff Sessions (right)
With the anti-incumbent sentiment at an all-time high, longtime U.S. Senator Richard Shelby drew four primary challengers in his bid for a sixth term.

But as quick as the campaign started, Shelby got a boost from his colleague Jeff Sessions, whose credibility among grassroots conservatives is unmatched.

Sessions’ endorsement effectively chopped the legs off of rival campaigns, who were yet to even have the opportunity to make their case that conservatives should rally behind an alternative. Conservative columnist Quin Hillyer told liberal political blog al.com he believes Sessions is so popular in Alabama that an endorsement from him would mean a six-point bump in the Yellowhammer State for a presidential candidate.

The race will undoubtedly heat up in January as voters start paying attention and ad dollars start to fly, but the state’s most trusted conservative has already weighed in, and there’s no amount of money that could buy that kind of street cred.

AUE quietly enters the scene

University of Alabama System Chancellor Dr. Robert Witt
A coalition of education leaders in early December announced the formation of Alabama Unites for Education (AUE), an advocacy group that appears poised to fill the void left by the precipitous decline of the Alabama Education Association (AEA).

The most significant policy debates in the coming years will likely center around what to do about the state’s ever-expanding General Fund Budget, which threatens to devour more and more education funding.

With AUE, the education community will have a powerful voice in the debate, without all of the baggage and nefarious tactics of the AEA.

The photo voter ID battle rages on

A woman prepares to vote in 2006. (Photo: Nathaniel Shepard)
After the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced it would close down 31 rural drivers license offices due to budget cuts, voting rights activists cried foul and accused Alabama of trying to limit minority citizens’ access to photo ID, which is required to vote.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sued the state, insisting that requiring voters to show photo ID is “discriminatory” and would disenfranchise over 250,000 Alabamians, many of them black and latino, in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Even Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders weighed in on the issue, while Republicans dismissed the claims and noted that all 67 Alabama counties have a Board of Registrars that issues photo voter I.D. cards for free.

UAB football returns

UAB Football Team celebrates early in the 2014 season (Photo: Shanna Lockwood)
In December of 2014, the University of Alabama-Birmingham announced it was shuttering its football program, becoming the first Division 1 school to make that decision since Pacific did so in 1995.

Six months later, in a stunning reversal, the school announced the program was coming back. Five months after that, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees announced its support for UAB to build a $12-15 million football operations facility. This month the school released a list of the first 19 players it has committed to play in 2017.

The UAB football revival has been viewed as an enormous positive for the university and the local community, but the political implications are significant as well.

Had the UA Board of Trustees and the UAB football advocates not found common ground, the effects would have rippled throughout the coming year’s legislative session.

BP settlement finalized

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in October announced the state’s final settlement with BP concerning the damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The agreement is set to bring approximately $2 billion dollars to Alabama in reparation for the economic and environmental damages resulting from the spill.

But not everyone was happy with the deal. Some Gulf Coast lawmakers expressed their frustration at how that money will be appropriated.

“The settlement is severely flawed because it puts too much money under control of the federal and state governments,” said Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL1). “A better settlement would have directed more money into the RESTORE Act process and allowed our coastal communities to decide how the money should be spent.”

“We need the state Legislature to remember two facts,” added Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. “One is that there were real economic and environmental consequences from the oil spill which continue to this day. The second is that our region is a tremendous economic engine for the entire state. Returning more of the settlement to coastal Alabama is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good common sense.”

Public pension reform picks up steam

Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner (Photo: Wikicommons)
Public pension reforms have received off-and-on interest from the Alabama legislature over the years, but momentum for reform picked up significant speed in 2015.

The renewed interest is thanks in part to math — the pension system is underfunded and taxpayers are sending to it almost $1 billion per year — and partly because Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) CEO David Bronner has infuriated conservatives in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Bronner was caught on camera in October reciting a lengthy list of foul-mouthed grievances with the citizens of Alabama and their elected representatives. His most stinging criticisms were reserved for conservative Alabamians, who he believes are irrationally opposed to higher taxes and expanding government healthcare programs.

Bronner has enjoyed a four-decade run as one of the most powerful men in state politics. But if major RSA reforms are advanced in 2016, 2015 may be remembered as the year his ego finally caught up to him.


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9 hours ago

Longtime journalist, Tuscaloosa native and Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne dies

Longtime New York journalist and Tuscaloosa native Les Payne has died at age 76.

Payne’s family confirmed his death to Newsday, where he worked for nearly four decades, rising through the ranks from reporter to associate managing editor. The newspaper reports Tuesday that Payne died unexpectedly Monday night at his home in Harlem.


Newsday Editor Deborah Henley says Payne established a standard of journalistic excellence that has been “a beacon for all who have come after him.”

Payne oversaw foreign and national coverage, was an editor of New York Newsday and wrote a column. He was part of a Newsday reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for a series titled “The Heroin Trail.”

He also was a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

(Image: Darlene Lewis/Vimeo)

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

9 hours ago

Peggy Sutton is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact

Peggy Sutton did not start out wanting to create a powerhouse food business. She just wanted to eat like her grandparents did.

Sutton, a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, planted grains at her home in Fitzpatrick about 15 years ago and waited for them to sprout. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people made flour from spouted grains, not from crops harvested with a combine.

Sutton soaked the grains in mason jars in 2005, dried them and then ground them into flour with a small mill in her home.

“I was blown away by the taste,” she told Kitchn.com in 2015. “It was so good, and I was hooked. And to me, that’s actually the most important thing.”


The real benefit, the secret to Sutton’s commercial success, were the health features. She told Kitchn.com that flour from sprouted grains preserves vitamins and minerals that are eliminated in modern farming. Those nutrients produce naturally fortified flour.

At first, Sutton tried to spread the gospel of sprouted grains, but friends and relatives asked Sutton if she could just make the grains for them. She did, and To Your Health Sprouted Flour Co. was born, according to the company’s website. More than a decade later, Sutton’s idea has grown into a business that produces more than 3.6 million organic whole-grain sprouted flour a year and is the largest supplier of organic sprouted flours in the world.

The production moved from her home kitchen to a commercial kitchen inside a barn in 2006 and four years later moved up to a 7,200-square-foot facility. The company added a second facility in 2013 and expanded again in 2015. To Your Health Sprouted Flour Co. employs more than 30 people and ships grains, flours, legumes, seeds, nuts and other snacks to 14 different countries.

Sutton touts the not-too-subtle differences between her flour and the products on sale at the local supermarket.

“It’s the difference between eating a tomato and a potato,” she told Alabama Power’s Alabama NewsCenter last year. “Sprouted flour tastes better, is easier to digest, has more enzymes and is just more nutritious than regular flour.”

Sutton did not just luck into the business. She had spent three decades working in marketing and management positions in Montgomery, Atlanta and Columbus, Georgia. She returned home to Fitzpatrick, a rural community south of Montgomery, to take a job as director of the Alabama Hospice Organization.

Then, the flour business started to take off. Orders grew so fast that she decided to stop making baked goods and concentrate full time on producing flours. It was a call from Whole Foods that kicked the business to a different level. The chain grocery store wanted 10,000 pounds.

“At that time, we were only making about 1,000 pounds a week, but I knew we could do it,” she told Alabama NewsCenter. “Unfortunately, we live at the end of a dirt road, and the trucks couldn’t get in to pick up all that flour. So we had to expand.”

Sutton’s business even has landed her picture on the back of Kashi cereal boxes. She told This is Alabama last year that Kellogg’s, which makes the organic cereal, contacted her in 2014 and decided to use her image after hearing her company’s homegrown story and coming away impressed with the quality of the grain.

“I told my husband, it’s not the front of the Wheaties box, but I’m not complaining!” Sutton told the website.

Sutton will be honored with Gov. Kay Ivey in an awards event March 29 in Birmingham. The Yellowhammer Women of Impact event will honor 20 women making an impact in Alabama and will benefit Big Oak Ranch. Details and registration may be found here.

Brendan Kirby is senior political reporter at LifeZette.com and a Yellowhammer contributor. He also is the author of “Wicked Mobile.” Follow him on Twitter.

BCA endorsement is a real head-scratcher

Campaign season is officially upon us.  Yard signs are popping up at every street corner and on trees along our roadways, the monthly FCPA reports showing candidate fundraising activity are on full display and endorsements are being rolled out by groups across the state.  While there has been an age old debate about the true value of endorsements, especially from elected officials, there is no question that an endorsement from the likes of ALFA, the Business Council of Alabama, the Realtors Association, just to name a few, can prove to be a major shot in the arm for a candidate seeking statewide office in Alabama.


Aside from the very large campaign checks they can dole out at a moment’s notice, these groups have a strong network of very politically active members across the state who ban together to turnout the vote for candidates who align with their interests.  The endorsements, on many levels, can provide a little-known candidate instant “street cred” and very quickly propel their candidacy to new heights.  So, it is no mystery as to why potential candidates can spend more than a year ahead of an election cycle traveling to local ALFA meetings and visiting with key business leaders to lay the groundwork for just the opportunity to win a coveted endorsement.  Quite simply, being shunned by one of these groups may not break one’s campaign but receiving their blessing can certainly make one’s campaign.

The Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, or ACJRC to the Montgomery insiders, was established in the 1990s by a wide range of business associations banding together to recruit and finance conservative judicial candidates to put an end to the “tort hell” environment created over the years by the trial lawyers that had embedded itself inside of the Alabama Court System.  The effort, conducted by none other than famed political consultant Karl Rove, was wildly successful and, over time, turned the state’s court system from one of the least business-friendly in the country into one of the most.  This feat was not easy and the ACJRC continues to work to build a wall around the court system to protect it from anti-business forces.

So, when the Business Council of Alabama made the decision to endorse Mobile County Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart in the race for Supreme Court, to say the other business associations in Montgomery were stunned would be an understatement.  It could be likened to Tua Tagovailoa shedding his Alabama jersey in the National Championship game, walking to the Georgia sideline and lining up at quarterback for them on the next series.  Those who had worked so hard to preserve the coalition were angered because they fully understand the aforementioned benefits that come with a major endorsement.

According to the ACJRC, one should look no further than a case involving South Alabama Brick to understand that Stewart’s judicial record is far from business-friendly.  Her ruling, eventually overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court, would have required business and property owners to warn independent contractors along with their employees of any potential hazards, no matter how large or small, they could encounter while on the job site even if the contractor had more expertise regarding the issue.  Furthermore, the burden of making sure the contractor’s employees were operating in a safe manner would have been unduly placed on the business owner regardless of whether or not the contractor had implemented his or her own operational safety standards.

However, the specifics of this particular endorsement aside, the more important issue may be the fracturing of the coalition on this race and the Business Council’s unwillingness to explain the endorsement to us and others. The civil justice arm of the business community is now pitted against what used to be its single strongest member. These groups have held the line and worked arm in arm for years. The fact that the Business Council would change jerseys on this one is truly a headscratcher.

The Yellowhammer Multimedia Executive Board is comprised of the owners of the company.

(Image — Yellowhammer News Graphic)

10 hours ago

Auburn takes part in urban tree canopy study

Auburn will take part in an urban tree canopy study.

The Opelika-Auburn News reports the city of Auburn and the Green Infrastructure Center entered an agreement to evaluate the canopy, which is layered with leaves, branches and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above. The study looks to improve the planning of any future reforestation efforts.


Recommendations for tree removal will focus on elimination of exotic invasive trees to reduce over-competition, increase diversity and increase forest health.

The Green Infrastructure Center is a non-profit organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The organization will use satellite imagery to map the land cover of Auburn.

“The study will also help create healthier communities by realizing the many benefits that trees provide other than just clean air and shade,” said Karen Firehock, executive director of Green Infrastructure Center.

Firehock said Auburn is one of 11 cities chosen for the study. Other cities include Charleston, South Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, Norcross, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Alabama Forestry Commission is administering a grant to fund the project.

“We’ve been trying to work with the Alabama Forestry Commission for the last couple of years on a variety of projects focusing on green infrastructure,” said Daniel Ballard, watershed division manager for the city of Auburn’s water resource management team. “Trees are the original green infrastructure. They have a few different programs that they manage and one of these being this federal grant that they administer that focuses on urban forests for the specific purpose of improving storm water management.”

Ballard said Auburn was a good fit, because of the city’s continuous growth. He said the city’s impaired watersheds, which are water quality areas of concern, will be part of the study and are always a priority for the city.

“There are areas within the Parkerson Mill Creek watershed, the Saugahatchee Creek watershed, or the Moores Mill Creek watershed that are all priorities for our department,” he said.

Ballard said Auburn was already pursuing a green infrastructure master plan, which will integrate parks and natural areas, greenways, bike paths, sidewalks and habitat corridors.

“This project filled in a gap in that master planning process,” Ballard said. “Although we’re not evaluating urban tree canopy in our green infrastructure master plan, we are in that process looking holistically at the way we manage storm water and not just trees.”

(Image: Auburn University)

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

10 hours ago

Alabama Sheriff’s Association director: Jail food allowance reform ‘should have been done 50 years ago’

Reforming what county sheriffs do with unspent jail food allowances should have been accomplished a long time ago, Robert Timmons, Executive Director of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, told Yellowhammer News on Tuesday.

“It should have been done 50 years ago,” Timmons said. “It’s an antiquated law.”


Timmons pointed to a 2009 article in the Montgomery Advertiser, which reported on some of the controversy around the jail food allowance issue. He went back even further to demonstrate how long this conversation has been going on, pointing to a special report published in 1919 about how the Jefferson County Sheriff was managing such allowances.

Several counties have taken the initiative, not waiting for the legislature to make broad and binding reforms.

Randolph County requires the sheriff to deposit unspent fund into a surplus account. In Russell County, the sheriff is still responsible for feeding prisoners but the county buys the groceries and any excess money goes into the general surplus fund.

Until change comes to all counties, though, Timmons defends the sheriff’s prerogative to keep unspent allowances because it is allowed by law.

“Everything that the Alabama sheriff does has to be administered by an act of legislature. He cannot receive money, he cannot spend money, he cannot create policies outside of his procedure manual.”

As for the quality of inmate food, Timmons challenged the charge that inmates aren’t well-fed.

“Everybody uses day old bread,” he said. “You probably have day old bread at your house right now. They’re eating better than they do on the outside. Most of the inmates will tell you that.”

(Image: National Sheriff’s Association/Facebook)