“In my day,” he said, “politics in Alabama was a dirty business, if it was done right.”
And it was.
I can recall many a time when I sat out at the Poutin’ House with my late father and his friends and took in the stories of the “dirty” done under the guise of legislative business by Democrats who were not only the majority, they were everyone.
They told tales of the “mystery whiskey” that would appear in a legislator’s hotel room to comfort him after a long day of legislating, courtesy of … the legislator knew.
And the time a bottle was mistakenly delivered to the room of a dry-county prohibitionist representative who blew the whistle on the whole thing.
Or maybe the bottle was delivered on purpose. Hmmmm.
And how the state Legislature made it a point to limit legislation regulating the cosmetology industry to one year and one year only, so every year those cute beauticians would come to the Capitol to “lobby” for their cause.
Or how those Montgomery masters — House Speaker Rankin Fite, floor leaders George Hawkins and Joe Dawkins, and Mr. Kimbrell — were so accomplished at trading votes, at rewarding supporters and punishing obstructionists, that new legislators were taught a little ditty just to remind them not to forget:
Hawkins, Dawkins, Kimbrell and Fite,
If you want a road, you’d better vote right.
Then, in the fullness of time, came the era of the GOP and in the place of mystery whiskey we heard talk of reform and accountability. Instead of good-old boys who read their hometown weekly newspapers and sent cards to every high school graduate who might vote for them, we had legislators with serious countenances and corporate connections who read The Wall Street Journal and never missed a prayer breakfast.
During the Republican rise there were still sparks of the old legislative lunacy, like the time a Republican senator punched a Democratic senator, though the fact that the Republican (like so many in the GOP) was once a Democrat may have been a contributing factor. There was also a Republican governor removed from office even though one of his defenders claimed he “wouldn’t have done what he did if he had known what he was doing” — an excuse no self-respecting Democrat would have hidden behind. And a stripper arriving at the home of a Republican legislator at 1 in the morning, courtesy of ... might have been a Democrat.
But it was not until this session that Alabama Republicans rose to the heights once claimed and held by Alabama Democrats.
It is not so much what they did that reminded me of the good-old days when Democrats did it right, but how they did it.
Slipping the so-called “Alabama Accountability Act” by the toothless opposition was a masterful display of political shock and awe worthy of Hawkins, Dawkins, Kimbrell and Fite. Then, to top it off, the victors justified the way the bill was rammed through by pointing out that if they had taken the time to announce its coming and, heaven forbid, allowed a public hearing, “the pressure on these members would have been so intense” the thing might not have passed. An old-time Democrat would never have been so candid as to admit that they did what they did knowing what they were doing.
All this brought back a story told to me by the late Pete Mathews, who knew well what went on behind the scenes during those Democrat days.
It seems that Speaker Fite was having trouble getting a particular bill passed. A couple of freshman legislators, as yet uninitiated in how the system worked, were opposing the act on principle — something seldom seen then or now.
So Speaker Fite called them into his office and put the matter to them plainly.
“Fellows,” he said, “I need your help.”
After a moment of awkward silence, one of them spoke up. “But Mr. Speaker, this just ain’t right.”
“If it was right,” the Speaker replied, “I wouldn’t need your help.”
This last session, that principle was restored to the Legislature as the old “end justifies the means” approach was dusted off and pushed to center stage. Even with a veneer of ideology and sprinkling on a bit of “take your medicine, it is good for you,” it is apparent that the folks with the votes are ready and willing to use tactics once used by Democrats who ran things to keep other Democrats in line.
I am not sure who taught them, maybe the former Democrats, but somewhere Republicans learned how Alabama politicians have always gotten things done. Last session, they went out and did it.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.