Friday, January 16, 2015

Don Siegelman: The Wrong Cause for the Wrong Reason

I know this post will likely not be received with much support or much enthusiasm. It will probably draw lots of criticism, but I cannot be silent any longer. The legality of Don Siegelman's conviction and subsequent incarceration has now taken the form of a particularly persistent conspiracy theory. A desire to punish Karl Rove for his legitimate crimes in other arenas has suspended the laws of logic and good sense. Many cause célèbre like these develop their own forward momentum and group-think.

Allow me to provide my own credentials. I registered to vote at a local Siegelman for Governor headquarters when I had just turned 18. I voted for him that year, 1998, and for his re-election in 2002, four years later. At the time of Siegelman's first campaign, Republican Forrest "Fob" James held the highest office in the state. An unapologetic good old boy from rural East Alabama, James had been governor years before, but had run back then as a Democrat. The consensus opinion among Alabamians and even those within his own party was that, as a former football player, Fob had played a few too many downs without a helmet.

The consummate party insider, Siegelman methodically rose up through the ranks of the Alabama Democratic Party one rung at a time. It was no secret to anyone that Don eventually wanted to be Governor. Nakedly ambitious, Don saw his chance and took it. Those close to him felt that perhaps he should have stayed a little longer in each office he achieved, be it Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, or Secretary of State. Siegelman refused.

Lieutenant Governor Siegelman saw his chance with an unpopular incumbent in office and made the most of it. But even those who voted for him were voting less for Don Siegelman and more as a protest vote against Fob James. The Mobile Democrat and challenger almost exclusively campaigned on a single issue, copycatting Zell Miller and Georgia's education lottery to fund college scholarships for deserving high school seniors. A live, televised debate between the incumbent Republican and his Democratic challenger showed evidence of the latter's one-track mind. Question after question was doggedly directed back to the lottery and its virtues.

When eventually passed in the Alabama legislature and put to a popular vote, the education lottery failed. The front page of the Birmingham papers the next day showed a plainly shocked Siegelman observing election returns. It would later be learned that, one state over, gambling interests in Mississippi had funded anti-lottery efforts, contributing to its defeat. But even so, Siegelman had the vast remainder of a term to fill. He limped through the rest of his time in office, signing into law only modest legislation. He ran for re-election and lost a cliffhanger election that was eventually won by Republican Bob Riley.

It makes no sense to me why Karl Rove or any Republican would make a concerted effort to go after a one-term Governor whose time in the political sun had largely expired. In the prosecution's case, Siegelman was roped in with Richard Scrushy, a crooked businessman and self-promoter who had artificially inflated the profits of his company for his own gain. During an earlier trial in which he was the sole defendant, to save his hide, Scrushy paid off whomever he could to win his own Amen corner, eventually securing his innocence, along with a newly adopted, transparently self-serving religious streak.

Few people defend Scrushy these days, as he served his own stint in jail. Siegelman maintains his supporters, which now include The New Yorker. At the time of the trial, some argued that Siegelman was being roped in with Scrushy in an effort to punish the latter at the expense of the former. This was well before any arguments of Republican meddling were introduced. Be it known that I consider it a possibility that Siegelman may be guilty by association, but his overgenerous patronage system likely shows ample evidence of improprieties. He was known in his time in office to incautiously assign the spoils of victory without checking backgrounds first.

Certain political intangibles like personal charisma shouldn't matter, but we all know that they do. Siegelman is not a particularly charismatic figure. He often comes across as distant and diffident, and not nearly as perceptive as his elite education would have one believe. An informal nickname among the state press was to call Don "The Golden Flake." For those not familiar with Alabama, Golden Flake is a Birmingham-based company that makes a variety of snack foods. It is particularly well-known for its potato chips.

Until I see proof of dirty tricks, I maintain that Don Siegelman is guilty as charged. Karl Rove is more than slick enough to cover his tracks. Once more, I think Rove has bigger fish to fry. Why he would take the time to involve himself so transparently in the affairs of a small state with so little to gain personally keeps me skeptical. Many on the Left want Rove held accountable, as do I, but this is a dead end. Surely there is something else out there beyond a toothless ex-politician whose ship sailed long ago.

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