Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Truth About Don Siegelman

Six years ago, the former Democratic Governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, was sentenced to prison on a corruption charge. His defense was then, and continues to be now, that he was unfairly charged and convicted because of a political vendetta against him. Certain progressive voices have consistently believed Siegelman’s own self-serving spin, desperately wanting for the Governor to be vindicated. Overturning the charges would concede that the prosecution’s case was politically motivated. According to the narrative the Governor has consistently advanced, an innocent man was placed behind bars.

Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to take up Siegelman’s appeal. Since being declared guilty, the former Democratic Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General of the Heart of Dixie filed a series of persistent appeals. Governor Siegelman is to be commended for reinventing himself, post-conviction. In serving as a martyr, he has achieved a kind of renown and popularity he never managed while in office. Many who have placed full faith in this netroots cause célèbre do not understand the real story.

Legal challenges aside, Don Siegelman would have otherwise been an uneventful one-term Governor. Methodically rising up the rungs of state politics, Siegelman began his slow climb the tried-and-true way. While enrolled in the University of Alabama in the late 1960’s, he was the Machine-backed candidate for Student Government Association President. Generations of future political talent had been groomed in this exact same fashion. While achieving his undergraduate degree, Siegelman was a member of the elite Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

The Machine was a shadowy, manipulative, often malevolent institution that used intimidation and entrapment to secure victories for its favorite sons. Greek concerns and demands were paramount. Independent voices were deliberately ignored, locked out of decision making entirely. This system continued unimpeded until Joe Scarborough, former U.S. House Republican and current MSNBC host, helped to dismantle the Machine during his time at the Capstone.

Those who intended to make a career out of state and national politics began the process this way. Siegelman was groomed from a young age to achieve and hold high elective office. Famously ambitious, he never made much of a secret that his ultimate goal was the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery. Siegelman was the consummate Democratic party insider. Those on the inside felt that the rising star should have taken the time to serve longer at each post he attained. They thought he ought to have been a better Attorney General or Secretary of State, but, invariably rolling their eyes as they said it, each noted the same thing. “Don wanted to be Governor.”

The Alabama Democratic Party has long been divided into two de facto partions. These are largely predicated on race, even today. The two only come together for the sake of expediency. The white Democratic Party is often criticized for being Republican-lite. The black Democratic Party can be less conservative, especially since its members usually are elected from minority-majority legislative districts created as a product of the Civil Rights Movement. Black or white, Siegelman made all the right connections inside the morass, favoritism, and cronyism contained within the Party. All he needed now to ascend to the highest office in the state was the right opportunity.

Siegelman’s chance arrived when he ran against Forrest “Fob” James, an unpopular incumbent who had once served in the same office twenty years before, that time as a Democrat. James had embarrassed himself multiple times, once famously remarking that he thought state government ought to be run as efficiently as a Waffle House. Few voters knew what the challenger stood for or even who he really was. They just wanted the Anti-Fob, someone who might make Alabama look a little less ignorant, cornpone, and uninformed.

The Mobile native’s sole term was marked by most observers as mediocre. He had run for office on a single-issue platform, promising to enact a lottery, the proceeds to be earmarked for college scholarships to be dispensed to deserving students. In truth, it was a carbon-copy of former Georgia Governor Zell Miller’s education lottery plan, enacted some years prior. In accordance with state law, the initiative first had to be voted on in a statewide referendum. Unlike in its Eastern neighbor, Alabama voted down a lottery. Having risked his entire political capital at the beginning of his term, the wind was effectively knocked from the Governor’s sails. Siegelman proved to have few other ideas.

He limped into a re-election bid against the man who would eventually unseat him, Republican U.S. Representative Bob Riley. The 2002 Gubernatorial Race proved incredibly close, and Siegelman eventually lost the county, Baldwin, that he needed most. At first, the county had been declared for him. A voting machine malfunction, later corrected, placed the winning tally in the column of his opponent. Unlike the 2000 Presidential Election, this despite a mere 3,000 vote deficit that cost Siegelman the race, a mass recount and obsessive legal maneuvering would not be forthcoming.

Siegelman had, honestly, not helped his case. The now lame-duck Democrat had even declared victory prematurely, in a dramatic news conference, before all the votes were counted. Whoever choreographed the media event decided that, prior to their father’s victory speech, both of the Governor’s children should wish him vocal congratulations, on camera, for the win. This gesture was classic Siegelman, arrogant, defiant, and ultimately powerless behind the bluster. It should be noted, however, that the Associated Press had also jumped the gun, declaring, for a time, the wrong winner on Election Night.  

This was the Don Siegelman I and millions of other Alabamians knew. When allegations surfaced that Siegelman had traded government favors for campaign donations when he was governor and lieutenant governor four year before, there was no public outcry. There was no love lost. It’s easy to be cynical about the politicians who inhabit the Alabama Capitol, a building housed on a parcel of land known as Goat Hill. In the same state that birthed George Wallace and a thousand other lesser names, those who pursue a career in state politics are often automatically assumed to be unfit stewards of the public trust.

On Tuesday, The Gadsden Times summarized the Governor’s predicament.

Regardless, it will be the final act in a tale that grew from a state corruption investigation to a national crusade, after Siegelman alleged that he was the victim of a plot hatched by Republican politicians and prosecutors, with Karl Rove as the ringleader, and various liberal groups looking for evidence of the GOP’s nefariousness took up his cause.
We’ve always viewed that stuff as a partisan sideshow from the core issue here: Did Siegelman “sell” [co-conspirator] Scrushy a seat on a state hospital regulatory board — an unpaid post that he’d held under three previous governors, both Democratic and Republican — in return for a $500,000 contribution to his failed state lottery campaign?

Siegelman was crafty enough to harness partisan anger to get himself off the hook. Despite his wholehearted embrace of the progressive blogosphere, multiple high courts have found sufficient grounds that his conviction should stand. In his twenty-six years in politics, the former Governor made significant enemies, and few in the state have much affection or regard for him. Indeed, they never did.


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