On the first floor of the State Capitol in Montgomery is the physical office for Alabama’s secretary of state. That is where for the last six years, two months and 27 days, John Harold Merrill has performed the duties of Alabama’s 53rd secretary of state.
And he would be that precise with the timeline given the opportunity.
Under normal circumstances, there is no reason for the average person to know who holds the office of our secretary of state. But Merrill sought to change that during his tenure.
He made it his business to be seen at least once annually at Rotary, Kiwanis and Republican club meetings between Ozark and Tuscumbia. In his Goat Hill office are Alabama maps with pins representing stops on official visits as secretary of state throughout the years.
“I would tell you since January 1 of this year, we’ve already been to 36 counties for 147 unique visits to those 36 counties. We look forward to making the other 31 before December 31 of this year,” Merrill proclaimed during a radio interview roughly 24 hours before he finally succeeded in making his name a known commodity.
In case you missed it, last week Merrill was initially accused in a report from National File, a conservative website, of engaging in an extramarital affair. He initially denied the allegations in radio interviews, but was forced to come clean when confronted by Connor Sheets and Kyle Whitmire of AL.com, who had audio to back the reporting up.
In just a few days, more people learned his name because of his sexual indiscretions than all the political pancake breakfasts and buffet lunch social occasions he has attended in every part of Alabama over his last two decades as a politician.
John Merrill’s wandering eye was one of the worst-kept secrets in Alabama politics. If you can look past the graphic details of some of the reporting of the affair, not many can say they were surprised by news of infidelity.
But Merrill is just another member of state government to be caught up in a scandal of this nature.
What is it about Montgomery that fosters this behavior?
For some reason, time in Alabama’s center of power leads to the making of bad choices.
Dating back to at least “Big” Jim Folsom, politicians get elected to office, leave their hometowns to conduct the business of state government, and while in the capital city, they lose their damn minds.
It is not that Montgomery is a particularly exciting town. It has gotten a lot better over the last decade, but is still not “New Orleans on the Alabama River” or anything like that. There are no drunk bachelorette partygoers on pedal pubs going up and down Dexter Avenue.
Well, at least not yet.
This is not a phenomenon that is true of just Montgomery. It happens in Washington, D.C., as well.
There is no shortage of corrupting influences in the nation’s capital. But at least when someone goes to Washington, D.C., to serve in the legislative branch, they are responsible for a $4.4 trillion budget. Compare that to the roughly $10 billion the Alabama Legislature is responsible for doling out to the education trust fund and the general fund.
At the executive level below governor, elected officials like secretaries of state, who are intended to be mid-to-upper-level managers of bureaucracy, get swept up in a culture of Montgomery that apparently lends itself to misguided decisions.
It has an impact on the electorate. Most shrug it off as “Montgomery gonna Montgomery,” but it also makes uninspiring candidacies like Gov. Kay Ivey’s a winning strategy.
Primary voters have knee-jerk reactions and want normalcy at the upper echelons of state government.
“Wow, the 70-something-year-old governor had an inappropriate affair with a staffer. How is that even possible? Let us go with the 70-something-year-old female candidate. Maybe that will eliminate that as a possible outcome with the next governor!”
That it has, at least thus far.
In exchange, big business gets its governor. With a lower chance of having an occupant of the Governor’s Mansion who is less likely to have a personal scandal that embarrasses Alabama, once again, you have someone with political capital to raise gas taxes, promote ending elected state school board members and, of course, float the idea of a $6-each-way toll for passage across Mobile Bay.
As for Merrill, his office is in the spotlight. The secretary of state is also the state’s chief election official. Election integrity is the issue du jour for Republican voters nationally. And for the most part, Merrill had done a good job with Alabama’s elections.
Given Merrill and the spotlight he has put on the state, would Alabama voters opt for a boring candidate with a premium on someone less likely to embarrass the state?
Would you rather have a bulldog on election integrity with a zipper problem or someone in the squishy middle of outstanding moral character?
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