For a century, the Alabama Democratic Party held power in the state legislature with little competition. Even as the national Republican and Democratic parties shifted positions on issues like civil rights, the infrastructure state Democrats had built was enough to keep the party in power until 2010.
But by the 21st century, party leadership had atrophied. By 2017, the party was a shadow of itself. And Democratic candidates publicly argued they received little support from party bosses focused more on maintaining power than winning elections.
The surprise election of Doug Jones may have changed that. A new understanding of what was possible, sparked an insurrection against ADP Chair Nancy Worley, thrusting State Rep. Chris England into the role.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re examining “the Doug Jones Effect.” England joins the show to discuss how Jones – and anger at Donald Trump – catalyzed efforts to rebuild the Alabama Democratic Party. He gives a frank assessment about what it will take to establish a two-party system in Alabama and the efforts to unite a divided party.
We also spoke with David Mowery, a political strategist who has worked with candidates from both parties, about how the election of Jones changed politics throughout the Southeast.
Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Rep. Chris England. You can listen to the whole episode here.
Rep. Chris England on changing politics in the Southeast
And it’s more or less like a just a, almost just a confluence of different things that are now creating this sort of energy and space for progressive thought in the south. I mean, you’re talking about Doug winning in 2017, which made a lot of things seem possible. Then you look over at Stacey Abrams who, depending on who you talk to, should’ve won that election in Georgia. You look at Andrew Gillum, who lost in a very close race.
And then now you look at Mississippi’s Senate race. You look at Georgia’s Senate race where I saw a poll today where both the special election and the regular election looked to be within the margin. And then depending on the polls you’re looking at in South Carolina, it appears that Jaime Harrison may be winning currently.
I don’t think anybody would’ve ever thought that in an Alabama Senate race, that the Democratic incumbent has more money than the Republican and is up on TV, constantly, routinely, much more than the Republican has the opportunity or the resources to be. So obviously there is something there that has created some belief in our area, and I think you see it manifesting in campaigns across the southeast in places where you wouldn’t traditionally see heavy democratic involvement.
Rep. Chris England on the fall and rebirth of the Alabama Democratic Party
To put this whole thing in the appropriate context, when I got first elected in 2006, I walked into a Democratic supermajority. But it wasn’t a Democratic supermajority in the truest sense of the word. If you look at some of the legislation that had actually worked its way through the system–just for example, our stand your ground law in Alabama was actually a Democratic initiative. Many of the criminal justice reforms that are now kind of popular and gaining momentum are actually pushing back on a lot of the things that were adopted [in Alabama with] majority Democrats. And many other things.
President Obama’s election kind of brought some issues to bear. And if you watch the Democratic Party through 2006 to 2010, you get an idea that many people had begun to divest themselves of what a national Democrat was and created an Alabama Democrat that was much more local and, ultimately, much more personal. The candidate mattered more than the party did.
There was a separation created when Republicans started branding and creating a very catchy short message that separated identity from the actual politician. Now the party actually mattered [more than the candidate]. You saw many Democrats who had been in office — white Democrats who have been in office — retire rather than run again. You saw many others just get beat by just straight up party affiliation.
So, you went from 2006 to a Democratic supermajority to, [in] 2010, a Democratic super minority that was further entrenched four years later. Dual track that with the fact that many white Alabamians who initially identified as Democrat were moving to the Republican Party.
It also manifested itself within the party apparatus. [The State Democratic Executive Committee] was kind of was atrophying overall because it was shedding many of its white Democratic members, which further empowered Dr. Joe Reed, and many others who had been on who had been stalwart loyal Democrats for the entire time.
I think many people kind of get that lost, in the sense that Dr. Reed is the minority caucus chair. It’s his responsibility to make sure that Black Democrats have a voice and a seat at the table in State Democratic Executive Committee. But I think you’re very correct when you say many people that had been in power for such a long time had started to rest on their laurels a bit and allow the Republicans to sneak in through the backdoor. By the time we kind of realized what was going on, it was too late.
Now, as you kind of work your way towards 2017 and Doug Jones wins, it becomes a little bit easier [to get a change in Alabama Democratic Party leadership] when you have a sitting US senator who needs to be reelected. To now get the DNC and many others to realize that we have to have a working party apparatus in order for Democratic candidates to be successful.
I think many people begin to understand that we had a pathway, we had a very narrow pathway, but we had a pathway to change leadership. And also, a very narrow pathway to create a foundation to where we are, in 2020, working hard to get Senator Doug Jones reelected, and many other Democrats up and down the ticket.
It required a change in leadership. And it required an investment by the Democratic National Committee. It required an investment by [DNC] Chairman Perez, who was very helpful in this process. But it also required realization of the public at large that, in order to be successful and competitive and to really give Alabama another perspective as far as politics are concerned, that you had to have a viable second voice. You had to have a viable Democratic Party.
And I think what you’ve seen is that there were many people who were on the outskirts waiting for an opportunity to become involved and just needed an avenue to do so. People who didn’t want to give money are now actually contributing. People who wanted to volunteer but were afraid to do so at the time are now actually engaged and volunteering. You’re hearing many people who are more interested in helping message in the South to make us successful. To not only try to convince people that used to be Democrats to come back to the fold, but actually going after those disaffected voters that had given up who now have seen some hope and are coming back to the fray.
When you see Doug Jones win in 2017 and you see the party leadership change, it’s just two things that kind of verify that there is viable Democratic initiative, momentum, and leadership in the state of Alabama. So now it’s worth the investment. Here we are in 2020 and we have an infrastructure. A party that has fundraised and has generated enough revenue and funding in order to hire almost 50 [employees]. We have well over a million dollars in our coffers right now to prepare to not only go after November 3rd this year, but to build a foundation to go after 2022 as well.
I would love to say it’s all because of my dynamic and charismatic leadership. But I know better than that. There are actually people who were just champing at the bit to get back involved and get into this movement and see if we could realize the potential Alabama has and, meanwhile, get Doug reelected and create a viable Democratic Party.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention there are a number of other things happening at the same time that drive this train forward, including a president that is divisive but motivating at the same time. You would love to say intellectually we could have these great discussions, and I change your mind on something. But, generally, what pushes people a lot faster and a lot harder, is being mad about something, being pissed off about something. And President Trump is very good at pissing people off and driving them to work to get him out of office. I think all these things are working together in Alabama and across the country.
To hear more from Rep. Chris England about the future of the Democratic Party in Alabama, listen to the full episode here.
Reckon Interview Season Three
- One: The fight for the vote and how to ensure your vote counts
- Two: How the South created modern politics and what’s at stake in 2020
- Three: How the South nearly blocked women’s suffrage
- Four: To live here, you have to fight: Coalition building in the South
- Five: A system broken by design: The politics of health care
- Six: The death of ‘stick to sports’: The politics of football
- Seven: Can the South handle another recession?
- Eight: ‘It’s not random’: The origins of America’s broken justice system
- Nine: The South vs. The Establishment: Jaime Harrison discusses the South Carolina Senate race