Imagine this scene. A wannabe autocrat faces a legislature dominated by his political opposition. He fixes elections with gusto, throws his opponents in the jail with regularity, and an opposition leader is even viciously assaulted on the floor of the senate. All to no avail. It seems the people like the idea of divided government. So then tyrannus rex decides to get still more ruthless—the opposition is all enmeshed in some criminal conspiracy, his sock puppet press starts to announce. And one day, law officers charge onto the floor of the legislature as it is in session to serve warrants on a large block of members, and as it turns out just the members he’s most eager to get rid of. Lukashenko’s Belarus, perhaps? Or some forgotten banana republic?
Well, no, actually. This all really happened in George W. Bush’s America. In one of the fifty states. Indeed, in the first state by roll call: Alabama.
In “Vote Machine,” my feature in the current issue of Harper’s, I discuss the steps by which the Justice Department lost sight of its principal mission of law enforcement and was converted over a six year period into a gleaming machine for the purpose of manipulating elections. Some of this has been discussed previously—for instance, the decision to gut the Civil Rights Division so that an operation which once existed to protect minority voters was now actually turned against them, bolstering and helping to drive through redistricting plans that helped net a series of additional seats in the House of Representatives in the 2004 elections; actively suppressing minority voter turnout through an aggressively mounted, and ultimately fraudulent “voter fraud” scheme. To this is added the process of stuffing the ranks of the department with political hacks hired into career positions; a series of high-profile selective prosecutions of political opponents, and the careful suppression of criminal investigations which could be damaging to the G.O.P.
But the single most spectacular political perversion of the mechanics of the Department of Justice started in Alabama and is still running strong this very week. In the Heart of Dixie, one of the reddest of the Red states, the G.O.P. decided that the Justice Department furnished all the tools it needed to achieve its long-cherished plan of taking over the state legislature. The Alabama G.O.P.’s march for a political lock on Alabama politics began in the early nineties with a playbook authored by Karl Rove. As Joshua Green detailed in a masterful piece in The Atlantic, Rove saw a clear path for political victory in Alabama, and it ran straight through the chamber of commerce and judicial elections. The Clintons still held sway in Washington, but Rove was laying the groundwork for a permanent Republican majority in Alabama. The second stage involved taking the governorship, which was achieved in 2002 and repeated in 2006, on both occasions with vital support from Washington. At the core of this effort was the Justice Department’s highly dubious prosecution of Don E. Siegelman, pursued with the involvement of Karl Rove and aggressively championed by William Canary’s “girls,” namely, his wife Leura Canary, and client Alice Martin, the state’s two U.S. attorneys.
Now the third phase of this campaign is moving into high gear. The third phase is being pursued with the backing of the three essential pillars of the Alabama Republican establishment. First, the party machinery proper, with the support of Governor Riley and one of the key prospects to succeed him, state Senator Bradley Byrne. Second, Alice Martin, the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham. And third, the Birmingham News, the Republicans’ principal media mouthpiece. The essential theme of this campaign is “those corrupt Democrats.” The essence of Democratic corruption is simple: they teach at junior colleges! This means that they “double-dip,” taking a second salary. Now, virtually every member of the legislature takes a second salary. But in the brain-dead Koolaid-dispensing rhetoric of the G.O.P./Birmingham News, there is something inherently corrupt about taking a salary for teaching at a junior college. And note that it’s fine if the other paycheck comes from a four-year college, for instance.
What’s so special about the junior colleges? You just have to look at the numbers. The legislators who work in the junior college system are almost entirely Democrats. And a good many of them are African-American. So there you have it: two groups targeted for elimination. The theme is spun through a campaign to “clean up” the state’s junior college system. The targets consist essentially of a group of Alabama state representatives who work in junior colleges. They will be tarred as “corrupt double-dippers” and a special effort will be made to take each of these seats.
Of course, in the old days, the Justice Department would raise a fit about a scheme that aims to disenfranchise state legislators, and particularly those from a racial minority. However, in the Bush Administration, the Voting Rights Section will never step in the way of a plan likely to elect more Republicans to office. Consequently, the Voting Rights Division advised Alabama last Friday that it had no problem with a rule that would preclude those who draw a salary from teaching at a junior college from serving in the state legislature. This move should be good for a solid half-dozen G.O.P. seats in the next election.
Indeed, the modern Alabama G.O.P. doesn’t believe in going into the field the old-fashioned way–by identifying a strong candidate to stand in the district, raising money for a campaign, and contesting the seat on the issues. This approach is entirely too expensive and speculative. The new strategy involves using tax-payer resources to trash political opponents. The U.S. Department of Justice is to conduct criminal investigations, the essence of which is meticulously leaked to the cooperating press in an effort to smear Democratic political figures. A couple of Republicans are being thrown in for good measure, as an imagined defense against the obvious charge of political manipulation. Alice Martin has prepared a dozen or more grand jury subpoenas to sitting legislators.
As this was getting underway, Martin conferred with her staff about a media spectacular. She described a plan to send a platoon of federal marshals, backed up by television media crews, into the Statehouse to serve subpoenas on law-makers on the floor of the legislature. This would be carefully timed just to make the evening news.
And on Thursday the appointed day arrived. Martin directed that her action plan go into effect. She dispatched a group of federal marshals to Montgomery, accompanied by a television crew, with instructions to go serve grand jury subpoenas on a large group of mostly Democratic legislators. Then the plan went amiss. The Speaker of the state house, instructed the chamber’s own law enforcement personnel to bar the way, and Martin’s grandstanding was blocked. It didn’t make the evening news. Martin’s media hopes were crushed.
Martin’s effort is fully and continuously coordinated with senior figures in the Republican Party, and no effort is made to disguise this fact. Martin’s key political control in the process continues to be Bradley Byrne, a senior G.O.P. political figure likely to seek the Governor’s mansion, and the man “hand-picked” by Governor Bob Riley to “deal with” the junior colleges. Martin appears to coordinate every step in her schemes with Byrne. According to an account by the Associated Press, Byrne actually “arranges the service” of subpoenas for Martin, and most recently facilitated her raid on a state legislator’s office inside a local junior college. These measures dispense even with a pretense that the Martin campaign is divorced from a partisan political calculus.
The Birmingham News continues to play media management for Martin and Byrne and works strenuously to furnish an air of plausibility to what is in fact a political scheme of exceptional crudeness. And it’s curious that the News, reporting on the issuance of subpoenas on Thursday, decided that in the end its readers didn’t need to know all the sordid little details of Martin’s hare-brained plot. So the whole little escapade in which marshals were dispatched to the statehouse to deliver up Martin’s subpoenas went down one of those little memory sinkholes for which the Birmingham News is now so famous.
But indeed, it was an essential fact. Nothing else that Martin has done in the last several months has betrayed quite so comprehensively her partisan political motivations. And now, it’s time for Congress to take up this issue.
My former partner, Michael Mukasey, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee with a promise that the tools of the Justice Department would not be used for partisan political games while he was installed as Attorney General. But Alice Martin has made a cuckold of her boss the Attorney General. And now it’s time for Congressional oversight to shine a very bright light on Ms. Martin, her still-uninvestigated perjury problems (Update, April 22, 2008: Harper’s was informed on April 17, 2008 that the perjury investigation against Alice Martin was concluded on November 28, 2007, with a finding by the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility that Alice Martin “did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment.” More information on the OPR’s findings is available on this site.) and the various political schemes that dot her political landscape–from a Democratic governor to a small army of Democratic legislators. Martin has concluded that the tools of justice exist to enable her to do the dirty work of a political party and to make good her own escape into party politics when her term as U.S. attorney lapses, as it will in only a few months. Her betrayal of the public trust is breath-taking, and it should not go without a challenge.