Watching TV this morning I was treated to one of the more insincere spectacles I’ve seen in a while, and no, it wasn’t a political ad.
The new Facebook ad where they try to pull a Wells Fargo and talk about how great they were up until they weren’t great, sort of made the bile rise in my throat this morning. Sure Facebook, NOW you’re not going to sell our information. I believe that. I believe that as much as I believe if I go anywhere online and look at a product that I won’t immediately start receiving ads for that product. I believe that as much as I believe Mark Zuckerberg really started Facebook so people can connect and make new friends. I believe that as much as I believe my Google Home isn’t listening to every word I say and plotting to kill me in my sleep.
Perhaps the only good thing about seeing something like that first thing in the morning is it helped prepare me for listening to the political ads while driving in to work. Don’t get me wrong, political ads are an important part of our process, but there are still many politicos who believe wrapping themselves in the flag, thumping the Bible and gushing about their own integrity is more important than talking about what they’re going to do in office.
With the primaries less than a week away now, most of us are still mulling over options and trying to figure out which candidates really do appear to be most sincere in their efforts to improve the way we live. The governor’s race is likely to be a barn-burner before it’s all over, and thankfully there are some quality candidates there, and other top-of-the-ticket races are certainly attracting a lot of attention.
A little closer to home, there’s the bizarreness of the House District 99 race that has almost enough candidates to field a baseball team and includes Herman “Spanky” Thomas and former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones.
But one Mobile County race that’s flown under the radar a bit might be the strangest of all.
In House District 102, we actually have the publisher of the Citronelle Call News newspaper running for public office. I’ll admit this may concern me more just because we were always taught in journalism school that media people should not get personally involved in politics or even make political donations. Certainly running for office while still running a newspaper would have earned a big fat F in the Media Ethics class.
But not only is publisher Willie Gray running for that seat, he’s clearly using his newspaper for political advantage by putting ads for himself on the front page and elsewhere throughout his newspaper. He kicked off the campaign by ceding himself a half-page of column space to announce the run — complete with a huge picture of him with his grandkids. Not long after that, the Call News featured a front-page photo of Willie standing with elected officials for a story about a school opening. Gray was listed as the paper’s publisher and House candidate in the photo cutline.
I haven’t seen a newspaper publisher so in love with printing pictures of himself in his own paper since Charles Foster Kane. Maybe Willie is Citronelle’s own “Citizen Gray.”
It might make it less obvious if news about his opponents — Shane Stringer and Belinda Shoub — hadn’t been nearly non-existent. Both candidates have admitted running against a newspaper publisher presents unusual problems, including not feeling that advertising in the Call News would be possible for them.
Gray’s campaign relies heavily on talking about his experience as a wee ball coach and taking credit for new schools built in the north part of Mobile County. We’ll have to take his word for his coaching prowess, but taking credit for schools being built seems a bit self-congratulatory.
He also talks a lot about integrity in his ads, but I’ve never quite been able to swallow his claims the Call News spent 25 years with 5,000 or less paid circulation, but managed to grow to an average of 21,500 paid circulation in one year (He IS Citizen Gray!), according to his 2015 ownership statement, sworn to and filed with the U.S. Postal Service. Actually, his claim is mathematically impossible.
When Lagniappe spent two years trying to make the laws concerning public notices/legal advertising more open and fair, we got to see Gray operate firsthand in the Legislature as he stood in a committee meeting fighting against any changes and claiming a newspaper circulation far higher than reported in his publisher statements. So when he started running for office, I had my doubts about his intentions or how seriously he takes honesty inside the hallowed halls of the capitol.
Gray and Rep. Jack Williams seem to have decided to run as some kind of package deal for the north part of Mobile County, and I’m not so sure it’s going to be a good deal at the end of the day. Williams is leaving his House 102 seat to go after the Senate District 34 seat formerly occupied by Sen. Rusty Glover.
Much as it has been with Gray, the Call News has all but ignored coverage of Williams’ opponent, Mark Shirey, while Williams has gotten the ink. But it was a recent campaign flyer sent out by the Williams campaign that raises the most red flags.
The mailer went to voters in the district and claimed, among other things, that Williams had been “honored to stand with our Senator Rusty Glover and shut down the Legislature until South Alabama was rightfully given its fair share of the BP money to fix our highways.”
Williams also claimed twice in the flyer that, “Senator Rusty Glover asked me to run for his seat.” Glover has publicly denied encouraging Williams to run, and Williams even backtracked after being questioned about his claims.
As for Williams’ recollection that he “shut down the Legislature,” the would-be senator appears to be referring to a short filibuster that came shortly before our local delegation was rolled over by the rest of the state so the vast majority of the BP money could be shoved into the general fund and used to plug holes in Medicaid. Williams’ flyer was either written by someone who had little acquaintance with the facts, or who thought north Mobile County voters would be easily tricked by mentioning Rusty Glover a couple of times.
Some incumbent members of the Legislature have privately expressed concerns about Gray and Williams’ running as a “team” and also about how anyone could possibly expect Gray’s newspaper to cover him fairly should he be elected. Those concerns seem perfectly reasonable and are exactly why most publications would never allow something like this to happen.
In the end it all boils down to whether Gray is more sincere about running a newspaper that truly meets the community’s needs or about becoming a politician. He can’t do both.