1 year ago

The City of Demopolis lights path for Black Belt economic revival

DEMOPOLIS – Most people know the hardships of Alabama’s Black Belt — poverty, declining populations, lack of access to quality education and health care.

However, in northern Marengo County, one city has defied the worst of these trends.

Located on the bank of Tombigbee River, near its fork with the Black Warrior River, is the 200-year-old city of Demopolis. French colonists founded the Demopolis, a term for “The People’s City,” in 1817 and over time it was settled by other Europeans and American planters from the East Coast.

Initially, as Alabama developed from the south up, Demopolis was the last stop on the river before the advent of the lock and dam system.

Old Coca-Cola Mural, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

Over time, the city benefitted from the various boom and bust cycles of agribusiness – cotton, cattle and catfish. Warehouses on the banks of the Tombigbee River attracted riverboat traffic. Later came the pulp and paper industry, lumber and timber, and cement made possible by the chalk in the soil.

Demopolis is a fair distance away from the hustle and bustle of Alabama’s metropolitan areas. Despite being connected by a four-laned U.S. Highway 80 and 20 minutes from Interstate 20/59, Demopolis is an hour-and-45-minute drive from Birmingham and Montgomery, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Mobile.

However, for those unfamiliar with Demopolis, it is one of the bright spots in the beleaguered Black Belt.

Education and Workforce Development

Demopolis Mayor John Laney sees his city’s model as a way to cure the region’s woes, which he argues requires regional cooperation.

“I think for the Black Belt itself, in this part of Alabama, to be successful, it won’t be any one area,” Laney said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “It has to be all of us working together for the success of each other. I think Demopolis can be a very strong part of that team and I think we are doing things as a community to help improve and gain momentum towards that improvement.”

As an example of this cooperation, Laney highlighted growth in the Demopolis Higher Education Center, a dual-enrollment facility comprised of high school students and continuing education for adults from around Marengo County.

“You ask yourself, well how did that occur?” he said. “It occurred because people work together – that being the Alabama Community College System has taken an interest in the Black Belt, that being the vice-chancellor, Jeff Lynn, and the chancellor, Mr. Jimmy Baker, and Shelton State.”

John C. Webb Home, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

“Those two entities have come in and are actively working to increase educational opportunities, not only for high school students, so that they’re work-ready when they come out of high school,” Laney continued. “But ultimately the goal is to have both programs in place for unemployed people as they want to gain the skills to participate in the workforce, as well as underemployed people that want to improve their level in the workforce.”

According to the Demopolis mayor, the success is all about team effort.

“It’s not any one thing. It’s everybody doing a little bit to where the total effort is greater than anything any one person is doing,” he said.

Laney argued that workforce development is “critical.”

“The number one thing, in my opinion, is that you have a labor force or demonstrated that you can train a labor force in an area that a company is looking to locate,” he said. “And if you don’t have that capability, or demonstrate that you have that capability, you’re not going to get a second look. You probably won’t get a first look.”

Demopolis Theater District (J.Poor/YHN)

Internet-readiness, Proximity to Interstates and Airports Highlight Infrastructure Offerings

Demopolis has three nearby industrial parks – one on its south side, another near its airport and one in the city of Linden, the county seat of Marengo County, approximately 17 miles away. According to Laney, all three parks have the “AT&T Fiber-ready” designation.

“We have two companies just in the last 12 months that have … relocated its corporate headquarters from an area that did not have good internet communication to Demopolis because of high-speed internet connection because their business takes them all over the Southeast,” Laney explained.

He added, “We have another company that was located just outside of our city limits that relocated their corporate office to inside our city limits, again, to get access to that high-speed internet because their operations literally go throughout the United States. It’s hard for a business to function today without that access to high-speed internet access.”

Rosenbush Furniture Company Building (now the Marengo County History and Archive Museum) (J.Poor/YHN)

Demopolis is located on the U.S. Highway 80, a major east-west thoroughfare, which over the last decade-and-a-half has been fully four-laned from Interstate 65 near Montgomery to Interstates 20/59 near the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

“Having that four-lane access has made a big difference if you’re going from here south,” Laney said. “Again, if you’re going from here to Montgomery, having that four-lane access has made a big difference because it cuts down that travel time.”

Laney also touted Demopolis’ access to four commercial airports within a two-hour radius of his city: Meridian, Miss., Montgomery, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

“From here you have got a lot of flexibility as to where you choose to fly out of,” he said.

Overcoming the Rural Hospital Crisis

For much of rural Alabama, the loss of population has led to the loss of health care options, primarily hospitals. However, in early 2018, Demopolis’ Bryan W. Whitfield Hospital partnered with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Health Systems.

“They’re beginning to show their benefit because they’ve just been instituted in the last four months,” Laney said. “But having that partnership with UAB is a key to helping our hospital turnaround because our hospital is a regional hospital, not a Demopolis hospital.”

As Laney explained, the hospital serves more than just the immediate area. Now it serves the entire west central Alabama portion of the Black Belt, making it a “regional health care center.”

Demopolis Public Square (J.Poor/YHN)

Downtown Revitalization Through Ordinance Enforcement

For new visitors to Demopolis, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the abundance of historic structures. There’s no shortage of Greek revival antebellum homes, brick walls with murals advertising products of another era and a theater district that once showcased the talents of 1920s silent screen star Henry B. Walthall, boxer Jack Dempsey and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Laney credits a revitalization effort underway in his city’s downtown to the enforcement of dilapidated property ordinances already on the books in Demopolis.

“It’s interesting because, for years, we’ve had ordinances on the books,” he said. “But we are now actively enforcing our ordinances. Two things we have going are first, our dilapidated housing program and in the last two years, we’ve taken down 20 dilapidated properties throughout the city to improve the quality of life throughout the neighborhoods.”

Rooster Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

The other ordinances, Laney pointed to, are the “maintenance ordinances.”

“If you had come to this city six months ago, you would see vines growing down the side of buildings, trees growing out of gutters, windows broken,” he said. “But by taking advantage of those ordinances, we have started to make a turn there so that when potential investors come to our city, they are seeing fewer and fewer buildings that are rundown. They are being maintained properly to hopefully make for a more attractive place that someone would be willing to invest their money.”

Recently, Demopolis’ downtown has had a rebirth with the opening of a new jewelry store, clothing stores and two restaurants.

If You Create Jobs, Other Quality-of-Life Amenities Will Come

For Laney, his primary objectives are not to bring in big-box retailers or any other types of commercial business, but instead to increase employment so that ultimately there is more disposable income for such pursuits.

“[W]e can talk about movie theaters,” he said. “I’ve talked to the people that own the movie theaters in Tuscaloosa. We can talk about bowling alleys. I mean, we can talk about more restaurants. But until you get disposable income, you talk, and you talk, and you talk.”

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create the infrastructure to attract businesses to create the jobs so that we will create the disposable income that will attract those other businesses,” Laney explained. “That’s the key to our success.”

Laney credited the Marengo Economic Development Authority, which has been successful in securing federal U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money for the Demopolis Hickory Mill, the maker of drumstick billets and ax handles.

Demopolis-based Robertson Banking Company Building (J.Poor/YHN)

Another promising effort Laney touted was the agency’s successful effort to lure Superior Inland Terminals to Demopolis and re-establish it as a riverport, which would give Demopolis the opportunity to capitalize on being on the Tenn-Tom Waterway System.

Presently, the recently launched operation is focusing on aggregates, unloading/loading of coal and wood pellets hauled from Selma to Demopolis by truck and then bound for the port of Mobile by boat.

In August, Demopolis will host the Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken 14-Year-Old World Series.

“That will be out at our Sportsplex,” Laney said. “The Sportsplex is in good condition as it is, but we’re investing in it over the next several months to raise it to that world series quality so that people coming in from different places in the United States to participate in this event will feel like they’re coming to a special place.”

Gaineswood, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

A Plea to the Alabama Department of Commerce

The leaders of economically struggling regions often complain that the State of Alabama government has put too much of a focus on the bigger cities while neglecting rural areas.

Laney told Yellowhammer News that is no different for the Black Belt.

“Jobs are the key to the success of the Black Belt,” he said. “One of the concerns that I’ve had as mayor is that I’ve watched, looked at things on a statewide basis – you see a lot of focus on the Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

Trinity Episcopal Church (established 1834) (J.Poor/YHN)

Laney argues that the Department of Commerce should revisit their incentive programs to encourage companies to locate in rural Alabama counties. According to Laney, as the state attracts more business to metropolitan areas, jobs become more concentrated in the cities, and more people abandon rural counties to take those jobs.

He noted that as people depart rural areas, it impacts hospitals, which lose their patient base; and it impacts the local skilled workforce, which is the lifeblood of economic development.

“I think the overall health of the state would be far, far better if there was more focus towards incentivizing companies to not only locate in the MSAs but also the rural counties,” Laney added. “I’m not talking about just the Black Belt, but I think this would be a general statement for all the rural counties in the state of Alabama. I think that seriously needs to be revisited.”

The Rivers as a Natural Resource

While Demopolis attempts to improve its standing as a riverport, currently the main benefit of proximity to the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers has been industrial.

“Being on a river – where it has helped Demopolis more than any other activity is it is a very good source of water for these big mills.”

Overlooking the Tombigbee River, west of downtown Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

He cited the nearby Alabama Power Greene County steam plant and other mills operated by Georgia-Pacific and Westrock.

“As far as being a river port, that’s what we’re trying to develop, and that’s where Superior Inland Terminals we view as being the beginning of that,” Laney outlined.

Still Reaping the Benefits Cooperative Integration

Demopolis is known for how it avoided much of the strife that took place throughout Alabama, including in the nearby city of Selma, during the Civil Rights Era. Locals take pride in that, and to this day, Demopolis City Schools continue to benefit.

“Back in the ‘60s, during the period of integration, Demopolis city leaders – black and white – were faced with a decision, and that decision was do we let the federal government tell us how to integrate, or do we do it ourselves and try to do everything we can to help our public school systems survive?” Laney explained. “City leaders came together, put together our own integration plan, took it to Washington to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice approved the integration plan.

Confederate Monument on Main Avenue at Capitol Street (J.Poor/YHN)

“And we have, without a doubt, one of the best public school system you’ll find in the state of Alabama,” he continued. “The private school systems in this area have been relatively weak because of our strong public school system. One-third of our student body comes from outside of our city limits.”

“It’s because we, meaning all the citizens of Demopolis, work together for the success of this city,” Laney added.

The Closing Sales Pitch

When asked to give a closing argument as to why someone should consider Demopolis over other options, Laney highlighted all the quality-of-life amenities already in place and the low cost of living. That, he argued, makes his city a place not only to open a business and raise a family but also to retire someday.

“We are an ideal community for small-to-midsize businesses,” he said. “We have a ready-and-able workforce. We’ve got great schools. We’ve got a great hospital. And we have a good quality of life.”

“We’re an ideal location for a retirement community because of our cost of living is very reasonable compared to a lot of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” Laney added. “Again that goes back to our medical facilities. If you’re a retired person looking for a quality place to live with good medical care, we definitely should be on your list of places to consider.”

Bluff Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

History backs up the claim, as evidenced by the number of well-maintained historic structures, Laney said.

“Demopolis is a historical city,” he said. “We’ve got Gaineswood. We’ve got Bluff Hall. We’ve got Lyon Hall. We’re open for business every day with regard to historical tours.”

“One of the things that makes Demopolis so vibrant is the interest that people take in our city in general,” Laney added. “This city doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because you have a lot of people who love this city and care for this city.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

25 mins ago

7 Things: Trump loves Alabama, impeachment limps along, driver in Rod Bramblett’s death indicted for manslaughter and more …

7. Some seem to want paroles sped up

  • After it was found that the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles was not following its own rules, pardons were stopped and then slowed. Now, some lawmakers seem to want that process to speed up, but the current leader doesn’t seem so keen on that idea, even though it isn’t his role.
  • When Director Charlie Graddick spoke to lawmakers Thursday, Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) questioned the policy changes and the slowdown in paroles.

6. Alabama teen kills three family members and then goes to school

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  • Landon Hudson Durham, a 16-year-old high school student, has been charged with capital murder in the stabbing deaths of his mother and his own two 13-year-old twin brothers before going to school as if nothing happened.
  • The bodies were found on Tuesday by a family member, but Durham wasn’t found until Wednesday morning after a member of law enforcement saw him walking on a state road. He was taken into custody without incident.

5. Free stuff for everyone doesn’t appeal to everyone

  • U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has made headlines multiple times for her plan to cancel student debt up to $50,000 for those making less than $100,000 per year if she’s elected president, but she was recently confronted by a voter for her plan that would cause a lot of students to get “screwed.”
  • The voter described how his daughter is currently in college, and that she doesn’t have student loans because he saved up to pay for her college and he asked if he’d get a refund, but Warren replied, “Of course not.” The father then said, “So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?”

4. Trump’s pro-life coalition

  • Friday, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is planning to reveal a pro-life coalition. The “Pro-Life Voices for Trump” will be led by Marjorie Dannenfelser, who stated, “From appointing pro-life judges to defunding Planned Parenthood, President Trump’s track record demonstrates he’s the most pro-life President in history.”
  • Trump is aiming to make the pro-life movement a huge issue in his campaign as another way to rally voters and encourage people to vote in the 2020 election, focusing on his changes to the courts that could clear the way to overturn Roe v. Wade.

3. Teen in Bramblett case has been indicted

  • Johnston Edward Taylor, 16, has been indicted for manslaughter by a Lee County judge for the wreck that killed the Voice of the Auburn Tigers Rod Bramblett and his wife, Paula.
  • Taylor’s bond in the case was previously revoked after two additional speeding tickets and one for reckless driving. His arraignment is scheduled for January 31; his trial is set to start on May 4.

2. No one is watching impeachment — everyone is already decided

  • As the boring and unwatched impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate continues, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has brought even more absurd comments to the spotlight by claiming that President Donald Trump’s conduct “puts even President Nixon to shame.”
  • Even as the theatrical histrionics continue on the floor of the Senate, it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be no witness or documents added to the trial and that it will probably be over some time next week.

1. Trump vague about Alabama’s U.S. Senate race

  • President Donald Trump tweeted out polling stats from the Alabama Farmers Federation, which showed former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading at 35%, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville at 31%, U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) at 12%, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore at 8% and State Representative Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) at 1%.
  • While the polling data is about two months old, Trump added in the tweet, “I LOVE ALABAMA!” Sessions’ campaign manager Jon Jones said that this shows “Republican voters in Alabama solidly back Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate race.”

1 hour ago

State Rep. Terri Collins: Why I am endorsing Bradley Byrne for Senate

After considering all the candidates, I am endorsing Bradley Byrne in the Republican Primary for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat.

Over the years, I’ve worked with Bradley on a number of issues important to our state. I’ve also been able to get to know him on a more personal level, and he is exactly the type of person we need to represent us in the Senate.

Bradley is the Christian, conservative fighter that we need in Washington to protect our Alabama values. There are a number of very troubling issues right now that really strike at the core about what it means to be an American, and we need a strong senator like Bradley Byrne who will have our back and not back down from the fight.

Bradley has been under attack recently by the Democrats for speaking out and standing up for his faith and what he knows is right. I commend Bradley for not backing down when the going gets tough.

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This past legislative session, Alabama was in the national spotlight for standing up for what a majority of Alabamians know to be true: life starts at conception. I was proud to sponsor the Human Life Protection Act, which sets up a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade and recognizes the sanctity of life. I appreciated Bradley’s support and encouragement as we went through the fight to pass the bill.

It was a fight, but Alabamians don’t back down from a challenge when the going gets tough. We fight for what we know is right. As a sixth-generation Alabamian, I know Bradley has that fighting spirit in his blood. We need Bradley in the Senate to fight for our rights, fight for the sanctity of life and to get us back to the foundational values that have made America so great.

Bradley has also been standing up for life in Congress. He is a pro-life champion who has consistently voted to protect the unborn, defund Planned Parenthood and make sure that all human life is protected. Bradley has a 100% record with National Right to Life and an A rating from Susan B. Anthony List, a leading pro-life organization.

Bradley and I want the same things for this state. We want Alabama to be a prosperous place to live, work and raise a family. Bradley understands and knows how to get the job done. On day one, he will be ready to go to work for Alabama, and I know he will serve our state well for many years.

I’ve seen Bradley go through fights before – just as we were in a fight over the pro-life bill last year – and I can say that no one is better prepared for the fight in the Senate than Bradley.

So, I encourage everyone to join me in voting for pro-life champion Byrne for U.S. Senate. He is the Christian, conservative fighter that will make Alabama proud.

Terri Collins is a state representative from Decatur

2 hours ago

NASA’s Space Launch System positioned for key testing phase

The rocket which will return Americans to the Moon is now in place for a key testing phase. Known as “Green Run,” this series of tests will examine many of the rocket’s systems together for the first time in preparation for launch.

Now secured to a test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the full Green Run for Space Launch System (SLS) will last about two months.

“This critical test series will demonstrate the rocket’s core stage propulsion system is ready for launch on missions to deep space,” Stennis director Rick Gilbrech said. “The countdown to this nation’s next great era of space exploration is moving ahead.”

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Developed by Boeing in Huntsville, and powered by four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines, SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built. It stands 212 feet high and 27.6 feet in diameter.

“Delivering the Space Launch System rocket core stage to Stennis for testing is an epic historical milestone,” said SLS stages manager Julie Bassler. “My team looks forward to bringing this flight hardware to life and conducting this vital test that will demonstrate the ability to provide 2 million pounds of thrust to send the Artemis I mission to space.”

The Green Run culminates with an eight-minute, full-duration hot fire of the stage’s four RS-25 engines to replicate the 2 million pounds of thrust required at launch.

Once the Green Run is complete, the next time the RS-25 engines fire up will be at launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Before the rocket arrived in Mississippi, Boeing SLS vice president and program manager John Shannon noted that the engine tests at Stennis will reveal even more information about the vehicle’s systems.

“The next big unknown for the program is when we put together the cryogenic liquids and oxygen tank and hydrogen tank and we look at the plumbing and all the systems and make sure they remain tight and perform as expected,” Shannon outlined. “We have high confidence that they will.”

Once the next round of tests concludes, the rockets are refurbished before the 10-12 day trip to Florida.

Shannon estimated that refurbishment will primarily involve inspections. He stated that in “a high vibration, high acoustic environment,” the question for team members becomes “did we break anything?” He cited thermal protection fixes as something that will need to be done because the fuel tank contracts when cold cryogenics are loaded in it, then expands again as it warms back up.

“By the time we take this vehicle to Kennedy Space Center it will be an extremely well-understood vehicle and we’ll have really high confidence in flying it,” Shannon concluded.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

14 hours ago

Hurts on Saban: ‘He’s been nothing but supportive’ — ‘It was great to see him’

MOBILE — Following the Hallmark-like reunion of University of Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and his former star quarterback Jalen Hurts on Wednesday at a Senior Bowl Week practice, Hurts spoke about how much the moment meant to him.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Hurts recounted what was said between himself and the legendary coach.

Asked by one of the interviewers about Saban visibly laughing during the reunion, Hurts explained, “Well, I was walking over there, talking to Ellis [Ponder], he’s the [football] operations guy at Alabama. And I was saying, ‘Coach is going to smile when I walk over to him.'”

Indeed, Saban was all smiles.

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“And he smiled,” Hurts continued. “And I go, ‘Coach, I haven’t seen that smile in a long time.'”

“So, it was good to see him,” he concluded. “You know, Coach Saban and I have a really great relationship. We’ve been in touch throughout the season, and he’s been nothing but supportive for me. It was great to see him.”

You can watch the Yahoo interview here.

Saban told reporters on Wednesday before the reunion that he still considers Hurts as one of his players and a member of the Crimson Tide family.

Hurts is playing for the South Team during the Senior Bowl, along with outgoing Bama players Jared Mayden, Terrell Lewis and Afernee Jennings. Those four players and Saban took a group picture together on Wednesday.

Hurts on Monday was presented with a two-sided helmet ahead of Saturday’s Senior Bowl game; one side is a replica of his iconic No. 2 Bama helmet, and the other has the Oklahoma Sooners logo on it. That special helmet, however, will be preserved by Hurts rather than worn during the game.

Get tickets to Saturday’s Senior Bowl game here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

15 hours ago

Trump: ‘I LOVE ALABAMA!’

President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon exuberantly tweeted his affection for the state of Alabama, however the image he sent out along with the tweet has political observers in the Yellowhammer State collectively scratching their heads.

Along with his caption of “I LOVE ALABAMA!” Trump tweeted out a graph depicting the topline results of an Alabama Farmers Federation poll that was conducted in early December on the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

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To be clear, this polling data is at least somewhat outdated. Almost two full months have passed since the survey was conducted, and Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) has since started advertising on television.

You can read about that poll from Yellowhammer News’ original reporting here.

While people not-named Donald Trump may speculate as to why the president tweeted out the poll now — and exactly what he likes about it — only Trump really knows at this point.

Ultimately, all of the top GOP Senate campaigns right now are just as confused as the general public about the tweet.

However, it is noteworthy in and of itself that Trump tweeted anything at all about the primary. He has remained silent on the race since initially answering questions after his former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions entered the primary in early November.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News on Thursday, Sessions campaign manager Jon Jones reacted to the tweet by saying, “President Trump loves Alabama — and Alabama loves our president. Alabama gave President Trump one of his biggest margins of victory in 2016, and as this and other polls have shown, Republican voters in Alabama solidly back Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate race.”

“It’s easy for politicians to talk big now, but when the chips were down in 2016, Senator Jeff Sessions was President Trump’s strongest ally. Jeff Sessions is the conservative fighter Alabama needs in Washington, helping to advance the Trump agenda in the U.S. Senate,” he concluded.

Lenze Morris, press secretary for Byrne’s campaign, also reacted in a statement.

“We’re excited the president is watching this race. That polling is over two months old, and we know this is a close race. Bradley Byrne is going to win,” she said.

Former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper, Jr. (R-Montgomery) on Thursday afternoon told Yellowhammer News that the one thing above speculation is that Trump is looking forward to Alabama sending a second Republican senator to support his agenda in Washington, D.C. All of the top three Republican Senate contenders, Hooper said, would handily defeat Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) in November, which is the ultimate goal.

Trump’s Alabama approval rating has consistently been among the nation’s highest — if not the highest.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn