Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Alabama’s narrow election, the sewer system crisis, & a new national park

Most of the country is still exhaling after seeing the results of Alabama’s special election on Tuesday night. Democrat Doug Jones narrowly defeated Republican Roy Moore—49.92 percent and 48.38 percent, respectively—to win a U.S. Senate seat. Moore, who has publicly made homophobic and racist comments, faced multiple allegations of pursuing underage women, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.

The race was competitive long before these accusations came out, according to Katherine Webb-Hehn, who wrote about election night for Scalawag. It was unclear until the final seconds who would win. Many white voters in Alabama stood by Moore after the accusations were revealed, even as the number of women accusing him increased. The Republican National Committee cut ties with him, then endorsed him. President Trump endorsed him via Twitter, though he’s now backtracking. (As of this writing, Moore has still refused to concede.)

As this Atlantic story explains, for weeks heading up to the election, news media reported that the weight of the race depended on black voters. “Six of 10 black voters stopped by a New York Times reporter in a shopping center last week didn’t know an election was even going on, a result the reporter took to mean overall interest was low,” Vann R. Newkirk II wrote. “The Washington Post determined that black voters weren’t ‘energized.’ HuffPost concluded that black voters weren’t ‘inspired.'”

The state expected about a 25 percent turnout for the special election. “Apathy in Alabama politics runs rampant these days as political corruption has tainted every branch of government,” Webb-Hehn wrote. But more than 1.3 million of Alabama’s 3.3 million voters participated—a turnout of 40 percent. They especially showed up in urban areas like Montgomery and Birmingham, with high black populations, while waning in rural white counties that went for Moore. Still, 63 percent of white women voted for Moore, an echo of the 2016 presidential election results, while 98 percent of black women voted for Jones.

I had knots in my stomach leading up to election day, and it wasn’t just because the race was a test of how low Republican voters and lawmakers would go to keep their party in office. From the beginning, the coverage of the race was unsettling: major media swooped in, profiling the rural white voters who still planned to vote for Moore and making them all seem as bad, if not worse, than a man who propositioned teenage girls. As Newkirk wrote, they portrayed black people as responsible for saving the state, since they comprise about a quarter of the population.

Until this week, major media didn’t report much on the systemic racism, oppression and abject poverty in Alabama that led to these circumstances. Alabama’s government has passed strict voter ID laws, preventing low-income people of color from voting, and closed DMVs across the state in rural, predominantly black counties. The state’s voting districts have been gerrymandered to prevent Democrats from winning. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the U.S., with a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent in some counties. It ranks 47th in education and healthcare access.

Local and regional media have long reported on this context. I thought it important to shine a light on solid journalism that’s come out of the South lately that discusses the many challenges plaguing Alabama. Here are just a few that came to mind (if you have other reads, I’d love to see, so please send them my way):

  • The Bitter Southerner on how a roadtrip from New Orleans to Selma helped three friends explore—and reckon with—the meaning of Southern heritage.
  • My story for Undark on the rise of tropical diseases in Lowndes County, a rural area in between Selma and Montgomery, where there is little sewage infrastructure and third-world living conditions.
  • Scalawag on the purple tide in Alabama politics, written just a few months before the election.
  • The Whitman, Alabama documentary project, in which Alabama residents read Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

If you’ve exhaled completely already, take another big breath. Jones still must be sworn in, and Democrats are calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to do it soon so Jones can vote on the Republican tax reform bill. Then what happens, now that there’s a Democrat in a major Senate seat in Alabama? It’s hard to tell— the political, environmental, and economic issues that will impact Alabama residents have been overshadowed by the controversy around Moore.

Jones supports the Affordable Care Act, which covered 178,000 Alabamians last winter. He is pro-choice in a state that has introduced dozens of anti-abortion laws in recent years. He has said he supports a path to legal residence for DACA recipients, the undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. The first Democratic senator elected in Alabama in 25 years, Jones also breaks the tradition of climate deniers in the state legislature. Although he has said he believes in science and wants to work to curb climate change, the issue was not discussed much during his campaign. Meanwhile, Alabama is already seeing major effects of climate change, including long-term drought, flooding, extreme heat waves, and sea level rise.

The progress Alabama—and the South—made deserves to be recognized, but the systemic oppression will not disappear, and the beliefs of the nearly half of voters who chose Moore have not shifted. There are even more burning questions now: will the attention fade as quickly as it came on, or will the media continue to dig into Alabama’s strengths and weaknesses? Will profiles of residents be more robust, well-rounded, and accurate, or will they only surface when people line up outside polling booths? Will voters hold Jones accountable, or just assume the status quo since Moore isn’t in office?

It is likely, unfortunately, that everyone’s interest piqued because this election was such a stereotypical Southern controversy, one that no one really has the answers to because it is incredibly complex and energy-intensive to understand. What happened in Alabama—and what will happen now that the election is over—speaks volumes about the state of this country, but it’s much easier to conclude that it only speaks volumes about the South. It will take a concerted effort, on the part of voters, the media, politicians, and watchdog groups all across the U.S., to make sure the truth stays in the light.

Stories worth your time 

The Sunshine State gets less than half a percent of its electricity from solar, while generating two-thirds with natural gas from other states. A Center for Public Integrity investigation shows how Florida is doubling down fossil fuels even though it’s seeing effects of climate change. WMNF also has a rundown of what you need to know about Florida’s Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities.

For CityLab, Mason Adams takes a look at how Roanoke became a thriving Appalachian town by restoring its downtown, building affordable housing, and inviting in an Amtrak station.

A must-read from the Post and Courier on how state legislatures across the U.S. rewrote the rules for how utility companies pay for new power plants, shifting financial risks away from them and onto customers.

I wrote a story for the Daily Beast on the rise of flooding in inland states, and how it’s stressing the nation’s crumbling stormwater system infrastructure. The same day it published, a water main burst here in Louisville, turning a low-income neighborhood into a river for most of the day.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interactive longform story about four coastal colleges and how they’re prepping for climate change effects like sea level rise and extreme weather events. “How do we get our arms around what these challenges are,” one vice president said, “but yet recognize we have to operate an institution that, by and large, is open 360 days a year?”

News flying under the radar

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will provide $450,000 to expand seafood farming and develop environmentally sustainable ocean farming off the East Coast.

At the same time, the Trump administration is set to open waters in the Atlantic for offshore drilling from 2019 to 2024, replacing an Obama-era plan that ruled the territory out.

Virginia’s Water Control Board approved permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipelinethis week, but then the verdict took an unexpected turn. The Washington Post reports regulators are delaying the effective date until several environmental impact reports are completed, which could be by next spring.  But in North Carolina, the pipeline owners are suing landowners, asking federal courts for a “quick take” of properties.

Community interest is growing around the new Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, Alabama, even though the agency and the nonprofit Harriet Tubman Home have yet to finalize how the park will be managed.