6 years ago

The curious resurgence of Alabama’s most powerful Democrat

Seth Hammett, Chief of Staff for Governor Robert Bentley, talks to a group of PowerSouth Management Trainees during a visit with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley at the Capitol in Montgomery, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Seth Hammett, Chief of Staff for Governor Robert Bentley, talks to a group of PowerSouth Management Trainees during a visit with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley at the Capitol in Montgomery, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

In June of last year, Yellowhammer’s video crew was in Governor Bentley’s office inside the Capitol setting up for an interview when the door opened behind us.

“Good morning, Mr. Speaker,” one of the governor’s staffers said as he stood up.

I turned around in the cavernous wood-paneled office expecting to see Alabama’s current House Speaker Mike Hubbard, but instead was greeted by Alabama’s immediate past House Speaker Seth Hammett.

Without any further explanation, nothing about that story is particularly interesting or noteworthy. But upon further consideration, it is probably one of the most unlikely scenes in American politics.

Hammett, a Democrat from Andalusia, was first elected to the Alabama House in 1978. Twenty years later, he was elected Speaker of the House, a lofty perch from which he ruled Alabama’s state government for the next twelve years. He saw the Republican wave coming in 2010 and decided to retire from public office rather than be relegated to irrelevance in the crumbling House Democratic caucus.

As Hammett was exiting the scene, Robert Bentley, a little-known Republican House member from Tuscaloosa, was capping off his meteoric rise out of obscurity and into the Governor’s Mansion.

The two men — and their associated political parties — were headed in opposite directions in Alabama.

And yet here was Mr. Hammett, a Democrat’s Democrat, standing in a Republican governor’s office, and not just as a guest, but as his closest adviser, his chief of staff.

His appointment had been announced roughly a month before, but it was my first experience seeing him there first-hand, and the cognitive dissonance was tough to ignore.

Let’s imagine an alternate universe for a moment:

Mitt Romney wins the White House in 2012 and ushers in a new Republican-controlled executive branch whose primary objectives are to roll back the Obama Administration’s policies and take the country in a new direction. He will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to rally support for a Republican legislative agenda and place like-minded Republicans at the top of every agency. And to top it all off, his right-hand-man, his go-to-guy, his closest confidant will be Nancy Pelosi.

Wait, what?

That’s right. In our alternate universe, former Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has decided that if she can’t beat ’em, she should join ’em, and Romney has made her once again one of the most powerful and influential people in the world by installing her as his top staffer — someone who is effectively the president when the president’s not in the room.

That scenario is so beyond unrealistic it’s almost unfathomable.

And yet it is an almost exact parallel to the real-life Bentley-Hammett partnership that has emerged on Goat Hill.

Some of Gov. Bentley’s other staffing decisions during his first term also raised some eyebrows.

In the 2010 general election, Bentley beat Democrat Ron Sparks, whose policy positions included support for ObamaCare, the stimulus and expanded gambling in the state, as well as opposition to school choice. But after the election, Bentley almost immediately turned around and hired Sparks to be the director of the newly-formed Alabama Office of Rural Development. In our alternate universe, that would be something like Romney keeping Obama on to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office.

Gov. Bentley then appointed Democratic State Rep. Neal Morrison, who chaired the Contract Review Oversight Committee, to the Cabinet position of Commissioner of the Department of Senior Services. He also asked Hammett to briefly be the director of the Alabama Development Office, where he served for six months. Other Democrats have since then been appointed to staff positions in other parts of the administration.

So to return to our alternate universe one final time, it would be like Romney bringing Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight committee, into the administration to run The Administration on Aging and having Pelosi do a brief stint as U.S. Trade Representative.

But all of those hires — while they were highly unusual not only because they crossed Party lines, but also because they were so numerous — pale in comparison to Gov. Bentley’s decision to elevate a Democrat who was the face of everything Republicans ran against in 2010.

The Pelosi comparisons continue to be an almost perfect fit.

Just like the California Democrat, Hammett was the fundraising machine that kept Democratic legislators awash with cash. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much money he raised and distributed because PAC-to-PAC transfers made it impossible to track the money, but public campaign finance reports reveal that he personally gave tens of thousands of dollars to dozens of Democratic entities and candidates, including disgraced former State Rep. Terry Spicer, who’s currently serving a prison sentence for pleading guilty to accepting a bribe.

And much like Pelosi oversaw the passage of ObamaCare, Hammett spent a dozen years at the top of the House shepherding various Democratic priorities, from passing tax hikes and a lottery bill to blocking teachers union-opposed education reforms and spending cuts.

But one of the most interesting aspects of Hammett’s impressive resurgence is that he’s managed to do it all without having to take the pay cut that would normally come with being a staffer employed by the state.

Although Hammett serves full-time in his role as chief of staff, he remains a full-time paid employee of PowerSouth, where he is Vice President of Business Development.

“Seth Hammett is on executive loan and does not receive a salary,” a spokesperson for the governor told Yellowhammer recently. “This was the arrangement we had when he served as ADO Director in 2011.”

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that anything improper has taken place during Hammett’s tenure in the Administration. The governor’s legal counsel cleared the hire with the Alabama Ethics Commission, who signed off with the caveat that Mr. Hammett not “use his influence with the Governor’s Office to benefit PowerSouth.” He continues to submit financial disclosures as if he were a public official.

But it is anything but a typical scenario for the governor’s chief of staff — Bentley’s voice when he’s not in the room — to be on “executive loan,” whatever that means, rather than a state employee.

Hammett’s rise, like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Alabama Democratic Party, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and unlikely feats of sheer political survival in recent memory. But it also may offer some interesting insight into the leftward tack the governor has taken since his landslide re-election victory left him no longer concerned with facing the voters again. And it’s something worth watching as we inch toward what promises to be a contentious 2015 legislative session that could often pit Republicans in the Legislature against the Republican administration, with Hammett right in the middle of the action.


8 hours ago

Jim Zeigler considering ‘exploratory’ effort for Alabama governor in 2022

After much speculation, Gov. Kay Ivey announced her intentions to seek another term as governor in 2022 earlier this month.

Despite what were perceived to be controversial positions on pushing the Rebuild Alabama Act that raised the gasoline tax, her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in determining what could remain open and closed and a failed Mobile Bay/I-10 toll bridge proposal, Ivey is still riding high in polling with strong approve-disapprove numbers.

However, State Auditor Jim Zeigler, whose term as auditor will be over after 2022 and is ineligible to run again because of term limits, told Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show” on Friday that he was considering a run for governor in 2022.

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“I believe it’s very important for Alabama taxpayers, for the state government, for our future to have a viable opponent who has been raising issues and trying to hold the Ivey administration accountable,” he said. “And that is why I am considering myself setting up an exploratory campaign to test the waters for a gubernatorial run. Who else is there — who else took the lead in blocking the toll bridge over Mobile Bay? Who else took the lead in blocking Amendment One that would have taken away your right to vote for school board members and have them all appointed by the Governor? Who else took the lead in blocking this prison rental plan that would have had us paying over $3 billion over 30 years and then owning zero equity in the prisons, a terrible business plan?”

“I don’t know,” Zeigler continued. “If not me, then who?”

If Zeigler runs against Ivey in 2022, it would not be the first time the two of their names appeared on a ballot in a race against one another. In Alabama’s 2020 Republican primary, Zeigler took on Ivey in a race for state delegate for the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Ivey prevailed with 7,182 votes to Zeigler’s 1,729 votes — a margin of 80.6% to 19.4%.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

12 hours ago

Alabama’s May unemployment rate drops to 3.4% — Post-pandemic rate at lows; Record high wages

Alabama’s post-COVID pandemic economic recovery seems to be humming along based on data released Friday by the Alabama Department of Labor.

According to a press release, Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington revealed Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted May unemployment rate is 3.4%, down from April’s rate of 3.6%.

The 3.4% rate tops the May 2020 number of 7.9%.

“May’s rate represents 75,458 unemployed persons, compared to 79,319 in April and 174,680 in May 2020,” the release said. “May’s unemployed count is the lowest in 2021.”

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(ADOL)

“Our record-breaking streak is continuing in May, and we hope that it continues throughout the rest of the year,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in the statement. “Yet again, we’ve dropped our unemployment rate and each month we are getting closer and closer to our pre-pandemic record low unemployment rate of 2.6%. Our economy is adding jobs, and earlier barriers to joining the workforce have been significantly reduced. In fact, there are more job postings than there are people counted as unemployed! Alabama is, once again, open for business.”

Data showed that wage and salary employment grew last month by 4,700.

“Monthly gains were seen in the leisure and hospitality sector (+5,000), the trade, transportation, and utilities sector (+2,500), and the education and health services sector (+1,200), among others. Over the year, wage and salary employment increased 123,000, with gains in the leisure and hospitality sector (+37,100), the professional and business services sector (+23,000), and the manufacturing sector (+22,900), among others,” the release said.

Average weekly earnings for the private sector rose to a new record high of $974.12, up $66.91 over the year, according to the Department of Labor.

“As we continue to see improvement in nearly all sectors of the economy, we’re also seeing record high wages in Alabama,” Washington added. “Once again, our average weekly wages are at new record high, representing an almost $67 per week over-the-year increase. Both the leisure and hospitality and manufacturing sectors are showing record high wages as well, with significant yearly increases. The economy is responding as we expected to labor force fluctuations brought about by the pandemic.”

Broken down by county, Shelby County led the way with a rate of 1.8%, followed by Blount, Marshall, Franklin and DeKalb Counties.

Wilcox County topped the highest in the state with an unemployment rate of 8.8%.

When broken down by municipalities, Alabaster had the lowest rate at 1.7%. Selma had the state’s highest, coming in at 7.0%, followed by Prichard at 6.5% and Bessemer at 5.2%.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

12 hours ago

Shelby warns Biden on defense cuts — ‘Military investments in China and Russia … outpace U.S. investment’

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) fired his own warning shots over what he views as an inadequate defense budget proposal from President Joe Biden.

During a full Senate Committee on Appropriations review of Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 Department of Defense budget request, Shelby expressed his concern that the administration’s defense spending plan placed the nation at a disadvantage compared to its adversaries.

“The National Defense Strategy provides a road map for what the Department of Defense needs – at a minimum – to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia,” explained Shelby. “Anything less jeopardizes readiness, the recapitalization of capital assets, and necessary investments in new and emerging technologies.”

Shelby, who currently serves as vice chairman of the powerful Senate committee, believes that not meeting current national defense demands sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world.

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“This year, the budget proposal signals to the world that this administration is not committed to investing in readiness, training, state of the art equipment, and technological overmatch,” Shelby stated. “With military investments in China and Russia continuing to outpace U.S. investments, I find it hard to believe that the requirements outlined by General Dunford just four years ago are no longer instructive.”

This critical assessment from Alabama’s senior senator comes less than a month after the highest-ranking U.S. military officer described the nation’s relations with China and Russia as “fraying.”

In an address to graduates of the United States Air Force Academy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “Right now we are in a great power competition with China and Russia. And we need to keep it at competition and avoid great power conflict.”

Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

Shelby addressed both officials in his remarks, stating, “The world is a complex and dangerous place and I know that you both understand the magnitude of the challenges we face from our near peer adversaries who seek to undermine the United States’ position as a world leader and dominant military power. China and Russia are formidable adversaries and China, as you have acknowledged Secretary Austin, is proving to be a true pacing threat. China seeks hegemony – militarily, technologically, economically, and geopolitically – and is making unprecedented investments to see that to fruition.”

“Meanwhile, Russia is nearing the end of a massive military modernization program that saw its defense spending increase 30 percent in real dollars over the last 10 years,” he added.

Shelby concluded that he could not support an effective cut in defense spending in 2022.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

13 hours ago

U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl urges Biden to undergo tests for ‘mental impairment’

U.S. Representative Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) joined 13 of his congressional colleagues in urging President Joe Biden to undergo an examination to determine his mental fitness to serve.

The group cited a string of embarrassing verbal gaffes by the president as the basis for their request.

In a letter sent to Biden on Thursday, the Republican members of Congress explained, “We write to you today to express concern with your current cognitive state. We believe that, regardless of gender, age, or political party, all Presidents should follow the precedent set by former President Donald Trump to document and demonstrate sound mental abilities.”

They continued, “Unfortunately, your mental decline and forgetfulness have become more apparent over the past 18 months. In March, you forgot the name of the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, and the Defense Secretary, though you had said ‘Secretary Austin’ just a few minutes prior.”

In addition, the letter cites Biden’s telling of an Amtrak story with an inexplicable timeline, forgetting the first line of the Declaration of Independence and obvious disorientation during a visit to Texas as examples for why they believe Biden is in need of cognitive testing.

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The list of gaffes attributable to his mental acuity seems to be piling up for the 46th president.

During the G7 Summit in England recently, he asked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce the South African president.

RELATED: Biden lashes out at media member and Alabama native Kaitlan Collins over Putin — ‘You’re in the wrong business’

Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce has questioned whether Biden’s cognitive state is a national security liability.

Biden has received criticism in the early stages of his administration for calling on only a predetermined list of reporters during press conferences. The most recent instance of this occurred while Biden was in Geneva, Switzerland, for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Carl and the other letter signers pushed for transparency with any medical assessments being made, as well.

“We encourage you to follow the example set by President Trump by undergoing a cognitive test as soon as possible and immediately making the results available for the American people,” they concluded.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

14 hours ago

ALGOP chair John Wahl: AEA resurgence ‘a concern’; Reminds GOP candidates ‘not a good idea’ accept their campaign contributions

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) seemingly flexed its muscle at the end of the 2021 legislative session by successfully pushing through a two-year delay to the Literacy Act, which mandates children be able to read at a third grade level before proceeding to the fourth grade.

Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed the delay, but it left political watchers wondering if this was just the beginning of the AEA’s return to the forefront of Alabama politics.

During an appearance on FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show” on Thursday, Alabama Republican Party chairman John Wahl said it was indeed a concern for the party.

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“[I]t’s funny you bring that up because at one point in the past, there was actually a resolution passed by the state party, I believe, that was saying Republican candidates should not take money from the AEA because of their influence and the concern they would have over direct policy,” he stated. “So, of course, that’s a concern. That type of influence from anybody pushing to regulate themselves is never — you don’t want a group regulating themselves. That’s not good for policy.”

While there was a resolution in place that pertained to AEA campaign contributions to Republican candidates, Wahl said it was not an outright ban but a “strong recommendation” not to accept their money.

“I need to go back and look at the resolution in-depth,” Wahl said. “But I believe it was a resolution, so it’s not a direct ban. There’s no teeth to it. But it was a very strong recommendation to candidates — that it is not a good idea to take that money.”

“[T]here were jokes about how the AEA controlled the state and had a vast amount of control over policy and what would happen with the Governor’s office, the state legislature,” he explained. “So much of that has gotten better since Republicans have taken control. But you’re right — we’re seeing a resurgence, at least of their involvement. Hopefully not their influence.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.