Alabama Governor Robert Bentley resigned on Monday, April 10, avoiding impeachment after he allegedly used state funds to cover up a sex scandal. This is only the latest in a string of statewide controversies — a few months ago, Alabama had an entirely different government. The courts were led by the fanatical Roy Moore, who ignored the Supreme Court’s order to recognize same-sex marriage only to be removed from the bench a few months later. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard took millions in bribes, and was later convicted of 12 felonies. As of Monday, with Governor Bentley’s resignation, leaders of all three branches have been removed from office.
Although these men should be held responsible for their actions, it is too easy to blame them, alone, for their crimes. They were emboldened by a culture of corruption and overcentralization, which put power in the hands of a few organizations. With so much money available, it is no surprise Speaker Hubbard lined his pockets with millions in financial favors. Alabama’s rich and powerful have acted like this for 150 years. An entire vocabulary — such as “Bourbon Democrats” and “big mules” — has built up around this sense of entitlement.
According to Andrew Miller of The Economist, Alabama populism is powered not by prejudice alone, but “by a sense that government [is] a racket and politicians tools of the plutocracy, a deep and often reasonable conviction.” When politicians like Donald Trump promise to “drain the swamp,” they are echoing the populist strategy of Alabama governors like Big Jim Folsom. Folsom ran in the 1940s and 50s as “the little man’s big friend,” and showed his commitment to cleaning up corruption by carrying a mop and bucket around the state. But voters do not even expect these politicians to follow through on these promises—expectations are breathtakingly low.
Distrust of the government runs so deep that many simply want to burn it down. With men like Bentley running the state, that desire is understandable. Familiar corruption was apparent when Governor Bentley recently appointed Luther Strange to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. As Alabama Attorney General, Strange suspended his impeachment investigation of Governor Bentley. One representative said it looked like collusion.
Republicans gained control of the state government in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, winning in part because they promised to clean up Montgomery. They promised to bring back family values and show moral backbone. But what we got was a man willing to officially change his name to “Dr. Robert Bentley” in order for his title to appear on the ballot. We got the same hucksters and snake-oil salesmen that we’ve had for centuries.
We are a state which desperately wants change, and yet makes the same mistakes over and over again. We fall for smooth talkers like Mike Hubbard, who was re-elected in 2014 after a grand jury indicted him on 23 felony corruption charges. We elected Jim Folsom in the midst of a sex scandal, and we elected Donald Trump in the midst of even more troubling revelations. As I argued in “The Alabamafication of America,” we fall for anyone who talks the populist talk. We have given up hope for anything more.
Can Alabama change? A long history of corruption says no, but we should consider what went right in these investigations. We should celebrate the fearless example of Heather Hannah, a staffer for the former first lady. She testified about Governor Bentley’s affair to the Alabama Ethics Commission this past June, over threats from the governor himself. Hannah’s car was painted with death threats, and a rock was thrown through her window in the middle of the night. But she stood firm.
Countless other officials, like the whistleblower Spencer Collier, also chose to serve the state over the governor. Collier, the former Secretary of Law Enforcement, befriended Bentley years ago when they were representatives in the Alabama House. That friendship ended after Bentley fired Collier, an act widely seen as retribution for Collier’s work with prosecutors on the Hubbard case. Collier’s refusal to back down precipitated the governor’s long fall.
There are many causes of corruption in this state, and not all can be solved. But we can control our expectations. By expecting our leaders to act in the public service, we will begin to change their behavior.
Columnist Roy Johnson lays out a list of the secretaries, security guards, and officials who chose the path of public service during the Bentley scandal. If we follow their example, and decide to hold our leaders accountable, Alabama can change for the better.
Image Credit: Sutherland Boswell/Wikimedia Commons