As I’ve spent the vast majority of my life living in places where the residents always felt locked outside the circle of power in their respective state capitols, the concept of projecting authority at the state level is of particular interest.
Maybe that’s too many words. More simply put, the people where I’ve lived are always wondering why they get screwed over in the statehouse.
Growing up in coastal Mississippi, we were labeled “Coast Trash” by the rest of the state and really, until the casino boom started in the ‘90s, the needs of mighty Jackson and parts north typically dominated. As Mississippi and Alabama frequently serve as mirrors for each other — and not just because of their oddly drawn boundaries — things look much the same here. Only worse.
Mississippi has a much smaller population than Alabama, and Jackson isn’t tremendously bigger than other major metro areas, so the political power and money does seem to be spread a bit more evenly. The disparity is much greater in the Yellowhammer State.
Mobile and Baldwin counties often feel like prisoners of a (sometimes) benevolent dictatorship run by clowns in the state Legislature who appear to take particular pleasure in treating the coast as little more than a great place to vacation.
If you need proof of that, look no further than the massively unfair BP Settlement Plan adopted last year. Legislators took the attitude that the two coastal counties that suffered the most economic damage and the only environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2012 deserved a little less than 16 percent of the $760 million coming from BP. The other 84 percent was dumped into the general fund, used to repay previous raids on the Alabama Trust Fund and poured into the gaping maw of the Alabama Medicaid Agency.
We here in Southwest Alabama were left with $120 million that will be primarily turned into roads and bridges. And the general attitude projected behind the scenes by legislators leading the charge to pay for past sins with BP money was that the coast had already been “made whole” because the Baldwin County beaches were posting record numbers a couple of years after the spill.
Of course, those same legislators didn’t really take into account “making whole” the shattered seafood industry in Bayou La Batre or the plethora of much-needed environmental projects that should have been funded by the money we bled for. But why should they care? There’s really very little our part of the state could do other than pull a Bobby Knight and lie back and enjoy it.
Imagine if the roles were reversed and it was Birmingham that was about to get screwed out of $100 million. You can’t imagine that because it would never happen. The Big Ham has the clout. The Big Azalea doesn’t. Can you imagine trying to redistribute the TVA money enjoyed by and handful of counties in North Alabama? They’d scream bloody murder.
I write this as we get ready to select the Republican candidate in the race for U.S. Senator. No matter who wins in the runoff or general election, our area loses clout. Homeboy Jeff Sessions is gone, to be replaced by Luther Strange of Birmingham, Roy Moore of Gadsden or Doug Jones of Birmingham. Having worked for a U.S. Senator, I can tell you that while they do represent the whole state, their home counties tend to get a little extra love.
There’s this urban legend that typically we elect a senator for northern Alabama and one for the southern part of the state. The reality, though, is since 1940 only Jeremiah Denton and Jeff Sessions came from the Mobile area. And Denton only served one term.
If you look at the governor’s mansion, we haven’t fared much better. Don Siegelman was the only Mobile boy to make it to the top in at least the past 100 years. (I grew tired of looking at old governors once they started resembling Grover Cleveland.) Of course things didn’t work out too well for Don either.
Looking at the current state of affairs, Southwestern Alabama isn’t making many waves in Montgomery. We only have a couple of members of our legislative delegation in leadership positions, and one of those is retiring. Sen. Bill Hightower has thrown his hat into the ring to run for governor, so there is some hope. Just be careful, Bill, there seems to be a much tighter definition of ethical misconduct if you’re from Mobile than, say … if you’re from Tuscaloosa.
Some of the issues that create a situation in which the second-largest population center in the state carries almost none of its political power are natural. This area was founded by Catholics and has a different flair than the rest of the state, where Protestants chased off the native inhabitants. There’s also a long, boring drive between Mobile and Montgomery that makes us physically seem a million miles away. People in the northern part of the state love the hills and mountains, while we hang out on our sugar-white beaches.
But most of the power issues are self-inflicted.
While we do have some fine people among our legislative delegation, there are also a number who just seem to be there to collect a check and lack true vision. Few appear to have any desire or ability to rise into important leadership positions. The leaders hold the purse strings.
We also have a media gap that has only worsened over the years. The Birmingham News has always been the state’s big-dog newspaper. The Press-Register, while once a good-sized daily, was for years a pretty pathetic public watchdog. Now it is a shell of itself and Newhouse has centered just about everything in Birmingham.
As a weekly, Lagniappe tries to cover local politics and institutions as well as we can, but we have never enjoyed the kind of support from many of the area’s bigger advertisers that would allow us to project a journalistic presence in Montgomery. Mobile is easy to ignore because of that.
I know there are local “movers and shakers” banding together to try to address the power gap and flip the script. With legislative elections coming up next year there is an opportunity to get rid of some deadwood and find people who will strive for leadership positions.
The irony certainly isn’t lost that at a time when Mobile and Baldwin both are on major upswings, we are becoming more and more politically irrelevant to the powers that be in Montgomery. Until we do something to create some impact north of the Dolly Parton Bridge, they’ll continue treating us like the proverbial red-headed stepchild.