Gov. Kay Ivey’s blackface incident is an ugly remnant from a bygone era that — a half-century later — is out of place and inappropriate.
Ivey apologized last week. She said that despite not recalling the blackface incident described by her then-fiancé Ben LaRavia on Auburn campus radio back in 1967, she offered “heartfelt apologies for the pain and embarrassment” the event caused 52 years later.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, Alabama’s most prominent African American elected official, was quick to react. She took to social media to condemn Ivey.
“Racism — in any of its forms — is never acceptable, not in the 1960s and not now. Governor Ivey’s actions were reprehensible and are deeply offensive,” she wrote in a three tweet reply. “Her words of apology ring hollow if not met with real action to bridge the racial divide. To truly move forward, we must engage in an open & honest dialogue about race and our state’s painful past to ensure no group of Alabamians feels marginalized.
“Alabama cannot escape its painful history without reconciliation & Gov. Ivey’s admission today only deepens open wounds. Only real efforts, not words, can end the racial disparities that exist in Alabama in health care, education, wealth and housing, to name a few. @GovernorKayIvey, there’s a lot of work to do!” she added.
Long before the blackface revelations, Sewell had been an outspoken Ivey critic, in particular for her reluctance to expand Medicaid. According to Sewell, expanding Medicaid would be a lifeline for the rural hospitals in her district, in the heavily African American Black Belt region of Alabama.
“We have missed out on millions — actually billions of dollars in the state of Alabama in not expanding Medicaid,” Sewell said at a town hall event in her hometown of Selma last November. “We could use that money, and the fact that we don’t have that money means that so many of our rural hospitals are under threat of closing. I don’t have to tell the Black Belt.”
Ivey is also a daughter of the Black Belt, albeit of a very different era. She grew up in Camden, the county seat of Wilcox County. In the past, she had rejected overtures to expand Medicaid, especially back in 2018 when it was a central focus of her Democratic gubernatorial opponent Walt Maddox.
As of now, we do not know how these revelations will impact Ivey. In the early stages of her first elected term, Ivey had been riding high. She was one of the most popular governors in the country, which is perhaps a result of following in the footsteps of one of Alabama’s most loathsome governors, Robert Bentley.
Then came an increase in the gas tax, a ban on abortion without exceptions and the now-failed toll bridge proposal. And now this.
Luckily for Ivey, the national media has done very little with her blackface scandal. To date, it has not approached a fraction of the scrutiny Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced.
However, this might be the best time for Democrats in the Alabama legislature to push for Medicaid expansion, especially since all but two of the 36 Democrats in the entire legislature are African American.
Early in 2019, some Republicans warmed to the idea of Medicaid expansion. State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, the longest-serving member currently in the legislature, outright said he and his colleagues were going to take a closer look at Medicaid proposals.
Now is the time for State Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, and his House of Representatives counterpart, State House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, to make an aggressive push for this policy achievement.
Nothing is ideal for Democrats facing a supermajority on the other side of the aisle. However, this might be the best opportunity they will get for Medicaid expansion, believed to be a top policy priority for Alabama Democrats, both at the federal and state levels.
With a governor who will be looking for ways to dispel claims of racism; a handful of Republicans open to the idea; and a willing and eager Alabama Hospital Association, the chips seem to be falling into place for Democrats to achieve Medicaid expansion. The biggest hurdle will be charming a Republican supermajority that is hostile to the idea of Medicaid expansion, a core tenet of Obamacare.
The Ivey blackface scandal sent a shockwave through the Alabama political universe, and it will likely have consequences. This is the reality Republicans will need to be prepared to consider, if not confront.
Kay Ivey acknowledged wearing blackface at some point in the 1960s, which in our world of ever-shifting goal posts is taboo. As a governor who champions herself the economic-development achiever, luring those big corporations may prove difficult with the racism moniker.
However, such a gesture in expanding Medicaid might rehabilitate Ivey’s image and better position her for the future.
Alabama overwhelmingly elected Kay Ivey. As cynical as it may sound, it could come with an unexpected price of expanding the entitlement state here at home.
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