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3 years ago

Happy Warrior: A little-known Alabamian is conservatives’ secret weapon in DC

Congressman Gary Palmer's Chief of Staff William Smith.
Congressman Gary Palmer’s Chief of Staff William Smith.

For the past 15 years, a little-known Alabamian has been a secret weapon for some of Congress’s most conservative lawmakers. He calls himself a “Happy Warrior,” who is a level 15 conservative on scale of 1-10. And he has a famous name, though he’s never been confused with a movie star while walking around Capitol Hill.

His name is William Smith. And at first blush, his life probably sounds pretty familiar to many people from the South.

“I center my life around 3 things: faith, family, and football,” Smith explained while sitting in Yellowhammer’s downtown Birmingham offices.

But a deeper look into his life story reveals a fascinating journey that has taken him from the fields of rural Alabama, to the golden coast of California, to the halls of power in Washington D.C.

After growing up in Ozark, Alabama, Smith attained his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Alabama. He went on to earn a masters degree in library science from UNC Chapel Hill before moving to the west coast to be a research librarian at the University of Southern California Law School.

It was while he was soaking up the SoCal sun that Smith received a phone call that would change his life.

“About 10 months into the job I received a phone call from a guy named Ed Haden, whom I had worked with at the Alabama Supreme Court,” Smith recalled “He said, ‘I’ve got a job and I want you to take it.'”

The job was a staff position on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which included one of Smith’s home-state senators, Jeff Sessions.

Committee staffers are tasked with crafting much of the policy that gets enacted into law. It’s often an arduous job that includes long hours, intense research and very little fanfare. It was right up Smith’s alley.

“I must have been insane (for taking the job) because at the time I was literally working 35 hour a week and playing a lot of golf,” he laughed. “But I said I’d take it.”

Smith immersed himself in the work for the next four years (2001-2005), quickly becoming a highly respected policy expert before deciding to return to his home state to practice law. It proved to be a short-lived detour. Just over two years later he returned to D.C. and soon found himself back in familiar surroundings. Sen. Sessions had risen to become the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and asked Smith to join him once again, this time as his chief counsel. When Sessions became the ranking member of the Budget Committee, Smith joined him once again as chief counsel on the committee tasked with the monumental undertaking of crafting the federal budget.

Although African-Americans have for generations tended to support liberal Democrats, Smith said being a conservative Republican came naturally to him, thanks to the values instilled in him while growing up in rural Alabama.

“Why aren’t more (African-Americans) Republicans?” He asked rhetorically. “You could look at some people who are out to make a profit and prey off people, like some of the national leaders, like Al Sharpton. But down in the local area where I grew up the values are more consistent (with conservatism). You would find traditional marriage, pro-life and all of those values that are consistent. I think anyone who thinks their values are inconsistent hasn’t really examined the (African-American) community that well.”

How to turn the appeal of conservatism into a “30-second sound bite,” Smith lamented, is the difficult part.

“The difficult thing is when a liberal says, ‘I’ve got a government solution for you,’ it’s hard to come back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got a limited government principle.'”

But while Smith may struggle to boil his conservative ideas down into made-for-television soundbites, he has flourished while helping Sen. Sessions and other conservatives craft key reforms, from entitlements to immigration and countless issues in between.

In late 2014, Smith’s work caught the attention of a fellow policy wonk, Gary Palmer, the former think tank president whom Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District had just elected to represent them in the United States House of Representatives.

Palmer invited Smith to be his chief of staff, the top post in congressional offices. Smith accepted, making him the only black Republican chief of staff in Congress, although it’s a distinction he has not spent much time thinking about.

“Most of the interactions I have with people have to do with policy,” he explained. “I think most of the people who have interacted positively with me is because they share my philosophy. Most of the people who have interacted negatively with me is because they are not as conservative as I am. If I have received any resistance it has to do with the philosophy that makes me say, ‘No, just because we (in government) can do something here doesn’t mean we should.’ I don’t think it has anything to do with race.”

So, how does one of the most conservative people on Capitol Hill fill out his staff? A tough interview process that weeds out the unprincipled applicants from the “Happy Warriors.”

One of the questions he asks all interviewees, Smith revealed to Yellowhammer, is “On a scale of 1 to 10, with liberal being 1 and conservative being 10, where do you rate yourself and why?”

Where does Smith himself rank?

“I would say on a scale of 1 to 10 I would probably be a 15,” he quipped, garnering a chuckle from everyone in the room.

Once those applicants make it through Smith’s crucible and onto the team, he runs a different type of office than many veteran staffers may be used to.

“When I say the philosophy is faith, family, and football, that’s really what it is,” he explained. “So we live out our faith, we care for our families, and we talk about football. If we do all of that we are going to have fun. Nothing is so serious in the office that we need to have a crisis moment. Now, the stuff we are working on is serious. We want to see the debt reduced and religious liberties protected.

“You have to be a ‘Happy Warrior,'” he continued. “We have to go in and fight to limit the size and scope of government. When we win, we are going to high five. When we lose, we are still going to high five because we enjoyed the battle. That’s kind of the mentality we need to have in the office. We want people who come in, roll up their sleeves and work hard. But you have to have joy, whether you win or lose. Those are the people we try to recruit.”

We had to ask Mr. William Smith if he ever got confused with the Hollywood actor of the same name.

“Well, I don’t think anyone has ever confused me with being Will Smith the movie star, except for when I first moved to Los Angeles,” he laughed. “Anytime you have the name Will Smith and your name goes into the phone directory the young girls begin to call. So when I moved to L.A. I had to disconnect my answering machine because everyday I would receive a number of phone calls from Will Smith fans wanting me to call them back.”

Smith’s phone is still ringing, even though he’s in D.C. But now, Alabamians can rest assured he’s advocating for a limited government solution to whatever problem is being thrown at him from the other end of the line.


26 mins ago

Walt Maddox finally has a plan for Medicaid expansion and it’s pretty bad

Alabama Democrats love bad ideas.

They also have no clue how to pay for these terrible ideas, even though some have tried to figure it out, bless their hearts.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walt Maddox has been pushing the media-friendly idea that if we would just expand Medicaid. all would be well, unfortunately, he knows almost nothing about the program.

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As Yellowhammer News exposed yesterday, Talk 99.5’s Matt Murphy embarrassed Maddox on the issue:

MADDOX: There are 33 states that have gone along with the expansion of Medicaid. There are six more that are considering it.

MURPHY: You know how much the state budget for Medicaid is right now?

MADDOX: Not offhand —

MURPHY: It’s about a quarter, a quarter of the total budget. Twenty-four percent of the total budget is Medicare and that is expected to over the next decade go up to as much as 35 percent of the total state budget and I’m wondering how we stop that.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also has no idea how to pay for the program.

MADDOX: You take a combination of taxing the existing gambling that is here and sports gambling. And that will be what you put in your general fund as your offset to it.

The problem is this doesn’t even come close to actually covering the cost of his idea.

If he is capable of getting the legislature to allow existing gambling to be taxed, liberal columnist Josh Moon speculates it would only bring in $15 million.

If he is capable of getting the legislature to pass a sports gambling bill, we can look to Mississippi and see that they are projecting that they will collect $30 million in taxes. Granted, Mississippi is about 60 percent of the size of Alabama, so if we play with the math that puts Alabama at about $50 million a year in revenue.

Play with the math any way you want, but the guy proposing these measures is clearly out of his depth. Clearly, Maddox has no real clue what the numbers are and we still aren’t anywhere near the $150-$200 million that he acknowledges his proposal will cost.

This remains a media favorite talking point with no substance. It’s time for Walt Maddox and his campaign to figure out how to pay for his proposal.

@TheDaleJackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a conservative talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN

2 hours ago

Huntsville City Council candidate’s ties to Bernie Sanders revealed in ad — ‘Few things are scarier than socialism’

On Monday, Dr. Mary Jane Caylor’s campaign for Huntsville City Council released a creative new social media ad that invoked her opponent’s ties to socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

With Halloween on the horizon, Caylor hit her opponent, Frances Akridge, with the tagline “few things are scarier than socialism… Especially in our local government.”

Akridge, the ad says, has donated to liberal campaigns across the country, including Bernie Sanders for President, Rick Nolan for Congress (Minnesota), Katie McGinty for Senate (Pennsylvania), Nelson for Congress (Wisconsin), Zephyr Teachout for Attorney General (New York), Nanette Diaz Barragán for Congress (California), Deborah Ross for Senate (North Carolina), Chase Irons for Congress (North Dakota), Maggie Hassan for Senate (New Hampshire), Paul Clements for Congress (Texas), Morgan Carroll for Congress (Colorado), Russ Feingold for Congress (Wisconsin) and Pramila Jayapal for Congress (Washington).

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While local races are normally less partisan than statewide or national races, Caylor’s campaign tied Akridge’s “ultra-left” activities to the local level, saying that Huntsville would be hurt by socialist City Council policies.

“Imagine how much of your money Frances Akridge will want to tax and spend… We cannot afford to let Frances Akridge traffic in her big-government values to our City Hall,” the social media caption reads.

It continues, “Huntsville’s bright future demands fiscal responsibility and a budget that is overseen by an experienced, conservative leader. We need the conservative, proven, and principled leadership of Dr. Mary Jane Caylor.”

Caylor has an extensive resume of public service, including past experience as superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, executive director of the Huntsville Bicentennial, member of the Base Realignment and Closure recruitment team and a four-term member of the Alabama State Board of Education. She was also crucial to the establishment of the Veteran’s Memorial in downtown Huntsville.

On her website, Caylor lists education, infrastructure, community safety, supporting first responders and being a good steward of taxpayer money as top issues. Akridge names community recreation, “maintenance & enhancement” and health along with safety and education.

In response to Caylor’s ad, Akridge shared a Facebook post that read, “Huntsville municipal elections are SUPPOSED TO BE nonpartisan. And now we have this crap.” The post did not dispute any of the ties to socialist or liberal candidates or that Akridge would govern as a socialist on the city council.

According to Caylor’s campaign, in the October 9 Huntsville City Council District 2 election, “the choice is clear: Socialist Frances Akridge or Conservative Mary Jane Caylor.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

Maddox kicks off bus tour in Alabama governor’s race

Gubernatorial challenger Walt Maddox kicked off a statewide bus tour Monday, taking his message on the road as he seeks to gain ground against incumbent Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

The Democratic nominee began the tour in Tuscaloosa where he is mayor.

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Describing himself as the only candidate in the race talking about the state’s “big problems,” Maddox is running on a platform of establishing a state lottery to fund education programs and expanding Medicaid.

Standing with his wife, Stephanie and his two children, Maddox said the race is about ensuring the state’s children have opportunities.

“Our state is not where it needs to be. We are at, or near, the bottom in everything that matters, everything,” Maddox said. “And they deserve to grow up in a state that can provide them the opportunities that I’ve had, that your families have had.”

Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the governor’s office since 1998 when Don Siegelman won after campaigning on a lottery that voters later rejected.

To win, Maddox will need support from some Republicans and independents, similarly to U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and his victory over Roy Moore last year.

Maddox said he thinks he can do that by talking about the issues that affect people’s lives.

He joked he won his first convert in 2010 with his wedding to wife Stephanie, who is a Republican.

Maddox said he hopes to speak with all sorts of voters during the tour, including those “who may or may not vote for you. … But that doesn’t matter because when you put your hand on that Bible, you represent everyone.”

Maddox is proposing a state lottery to fund college scholarships and other education programs.

He said expanding Medicaid, as 34 states have done, could stop the closure of rural hospitals, which have been shuttering in rural communities due to financial pressures.

“If you are in Haleyville, Alabama right now you’ve had to experience an increase in taxes because your hospital is on the verge of closing.

If you are in Alex City right now, your hospital could close. All because we didn’t expand Medicaid.”

Maddox also continued to take jabs at Ivey for refusing to debate him.

The Republican incumbent said last week that there was no need for a debate because “Alabamians know my record. They know what I stand for.”

“One thing Governor Ivey can’t avoid is the Nov. 6 election,” Maddox said. “The people will ultimately determine this with their ballot. It doesn’t hurt me that she doesn’t want to debate. It hurts the people of Alabama.”
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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4 hours ago

Federal lawyers say 14-year-old oil leak is getting worse in Gulf of Mexico

Federal government lawyers say a 14-year-old leak is releasing much more oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico than officials previously claimed, and it may be getting worse.

A Friday court filing in a case involving Taylor Energy Co. says 10,000 to 30,000 gallons (37,000 to 113,000 liters) daily is leaking from multiple wells around a drilling platform toppled by 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

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That estimate is far above the 16,000 gallons (60,500 liters) of oil that the U.S. Coast Guard estimated in 2015 had been spotted in slicks over seven months.

The government cites a report it commissioned from a scientist who has studied satellite images of persistent oil slicks and sampled floating oil at the site about 10 miles (16 kilometers) offshore.

That report also suggests that while the amount of leaking oil decreased after some wells were plugged in 2011, the leak may be getting bigger again.

“There has been an uptrend of the areas of the slick during the last two years,” wrote Oscar Pineda-Garcia, who runs a company that maps oil spills and is an adjunct professor at Florida State University.

New Orleans-based Taylor said only two to three gallons was leaking daily out of mud on the seafloor.

Spokesman Todd Ragusa said the company disputes the government’s new estimate and will respond in court.

“The government’s recent filing is completely contrary to the comprehensive, sound science acquired by world-renowned experts, including those regularly relied upon by the government,” Ragusa wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

A 2015 AP investigation revealed evidence that the leak was worse than the company, or government, had publicly reported during their secretive response.

Presented with AP’s findings that year, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that was about 20 times larger than one cited by the company in a 2015 court filing.

Friday’s court filing also says Taylor and the Coast Guard met in August and discussed plugging more wells as part of an effort to eliminate the persistent oil sheen seen at the site.

The wellheads are more than 400 feet (120 meters) underwater and buried under 60 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) of mud.

Taylor sued the government in January 2016 to recover millions of dollars it set aside for work to end the leak.

The suit claims regulators violated a 2008 agreement requiring the company to deposit approximately $666 million in a trust to pay for leak response work.

The company argued the government must return the remaining $423 million.

The government’s lawyers disagree, though, saying no change to the agreement has been made and the money should remain on deposit until the work is done.

“The trust requires — and has always required — that Taylor complete all of its decommissioning obligations before the trust can terminate.

The United States’ denial of Taylor’s request for a release from its existing obligations does not constitute an imposition of a new obligation,” the lawyers wrote.

Waves whipped up by Ivan triggered an underwater mudslide that buried a cluster of oil wells under treacherous mounds of sediment.

In 2011, the company finished drilling a series of “intervention wells” to plug nine of the wells.

Using Coast Guard pollution reports, West Virginia-based watchdog group SkyTruth estimated in December that between roughly 855,000 gallons (3.2 million liters) and nearly 4 million gallons (15.1 million liters) of oil spilled from the site between 2004 and 2017.

Garcia writes in his report that the oil is thick enough that people need to wear respirators because of fumes.

He says bubbles of not just oil, but natural gas is reaching the surface, while his report shows pictures of thick, brown oil emulsions in some places.
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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5 hours ago

Alabama Ethics Commission director responds to Secretary of State Merrill’s op-ed criticizing their ‘ethical political leadership’

After Secretary of State John Merrill wrote an op-ed last week strongly criticizing the Alabama Ethics Commission, the commission’s director, Tom Albritton, appeared on Capitol Journal to push back and give their side of the story, saying, “We did our job.”

Merrill opened his piece by lamenting having “to ask what purpose the Alabama Ethics Commission serves to the people of this state.” He added, “To whom are the elected officials or those seeking public office to look to for ethical political leadership? The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws and regulations it is charged with enforcing, with consistency.”

The dispute centers on the Ethics Commission’s handling of appeals of fines levied by the Secretary of State’s office on campaigns that filed their mandatory financial disclosures late. When fined, campaigns have 14 days under state law to appeal. When a campaign chooses to do so, the secretary of state’s office sends the appeal to the Commission to decide whether the penalty is upheld or not.

Earlier this year, the commission overturned fines even though the appeals were made outside of the allowed 14-day window. However, at the beginning of this month, the commission refused to rule on tardy appeals, saying they do not have jurisdiction after the window closes.

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Even though Merrill’s argument in the op-ed was titled “The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws,” the issue at hand is actually that the commission did enforce the law this time but not in previous times.

This disconnect, and the op-ed itself, led Albritton to say, “We did our job. The op-ed piece was a little bit confusing to me in terms of exactly where the criticism is … If the point was that we hadn’t enforced the law, that’s what I don’t understand, because that’s specifically, exactly, what my commissioners did – was enforce it.”

He also voiced his displeasure that Merrill chose to write an op-ed – which said, in part, “without communication and cooperation between our agencies … the [law] does not work” –  instead of continuing dialogue directly between the commission and the secretary of state’s office on the issue.

“Well, to be completely honest with you, I was a little bit disappointed in the manner in which that was handled,” Albritton told host Don Dailey.

In the latest batch of appeals sent to the Commission by Merrill’s office, “there were a number of files where their office knew that they were filed well after the 14 days, yet they instructed the filers to go ahead and appeal, which is not supported by the language of the code,” Albritton added.

He continued, “So, we wrote their office and asked if they disagreed that we didn’t have jurisdiction [on the late appeals]. And instead, the op-ed piece was filed.”

Albritton reiterated that the Ethics Commission enforced the law this time, yet was criticized for it.

“[W]hat the Commission did, was simply looked at that group of files and found that there were a number that were simply filed too late, so we affirmed the fines that had been imposed by [Merrill’s] office. And now, it is their obligation to go enforce those fines by collecting on them,” Albritton explained.

Merrill argued in his op-ed, “[W]hy have they just now become aware of these appeal date issues? Each appeal delivered to the Alabama Ethics Commission is delivered as a file which includes each file that was not timely filed and a copy of the date the appeal was filed.”

The Ethics Commission director admitted that his office had made mistakes in ruling on late appeals earlier this year.

“Look, I’ll be the first one if we made a mistake to admit that we made a mistake,” Albritton said. “And in that earlier group of files, the 14 days … is something that my office did not pick up [on].”

However, while admitting the Commission’s role in these previous mistakes, Albritton also questioned why Merrill’s office had knowingly sent them appeals that were late.

“Now, again, we are dependent on [the secretary of state’s office] to point out to us if someone has filed outside of the 14 days, and in a way that it is very clear that that’s what happened. The preference would be that they not send over things that the law says that we have no jurisdiction over,” Albritton emphasized.

He reiterated that hearing the late appeals previously “was an oversight by my group,” adding “I’m not sure what my commissioners will want to do” with those corresponding fines that were overturned.

Merrill wants these fines reimposed since the commission did not have jurisdiction at the time they ruled.

“It’s the position of the secretary of state’s Office that these specific matters were improperly set aside and should be reinstated by the commission,” Merrill wrote about the fines that were improperly overturned earlier this year.

Watch, starting at the 50:35 mark:

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn