Why Steve Marshall can’t focus on pressing Alabama problems
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall prior to the State of the State address by Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Montgomery, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall got sued last week over some comments he made a year ago about the state’s near-total abortion ban.
Marshall went on a radio show last year to suggest that assisting an Alabama woman’s efforts to get an abortion out of state was “potentially criminally actionable.”
Physicians and clinicians say that read of the law violates their free speech, due process and travel rights if they share any sort of information about abortion or reproductive care outside Alabama (still legal, to varying degrees, in about 35 states).
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Marshall’s office said in response to the suit that he would “vigorously enforce Alabama laws protecting unborn life.” But legal issues aside — and these are serious issues — I’m struggling to understand the logistics here.
What does anyone gain if a lawyer from the attorney general’s office drags a person into our overloaded courts because health care services exist in another state?
Are we going to pull a state trooper off a murder investigation to chase a health care provider or a reproductive rights advocate for the high crime of providing information to an adult woman?
Which leads me to think about the attorney general’s other priorities.
In May, Marshall traveled to Washington, D.C., to tell members of a U.S. House committee how awful it was that some private companies allow investors to consider the ongoing climate crisis in making investments.
Specifically, Marshall was attacking environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards. These are a set of tools used by investment firms to screen the environmental or social impacts of policies pursued by publicly-traded companies. It’s an investment approach for people who want their money to support a certain set of goals.
No one forces an investor to do this. Like any sort of investing, it’s a strategy with a specific end and attendant risks. Past idealism is not a guarantee of future performance.
There are legitimate questions about firms using ESG as a kind of greenwashing. But that wasn’t why Marshall was worried.
“The global elites in the private sector have taken our country on a climate crusade, without the approval of Americans, in the most undemocratic and unlawful way possible,” Marshall said. “The high cost of woke ESG policies threatens to crush middle-class Americans if permitted to proliferate and will impede critical industries in states like Alabama.”
The attorney general seemed to miss the irony of later boasting that conservative attorneys general would defend the free markets. Pressed on this point by House Democrats, Marshall doubled down on the conspiracy theory in a Wall Street Journal commentary where he managed to work in Bud Light – and, of course, transgender youth.
That wasn’t surprising. Marshall has been an enthusiastic combatant in Alabama’s war on health care for transgender minors. But he’s also accused President Joe Biden of attacking gas-powered cars (that pesky climate change, again) and done all in his power to thwart the Equal Rights Amendment. His inaugural address in January mentioned Roman legions on the Rhine as much as specific Alabama concerns.
This isn’t to say Marshall is completely uninterested in Alabama issues. His office supported an increase in fentanyl penalties in the Legislature this spring. And in May he joined a lawsuit trying to stop robocalls.
But couldn’t Marshall focus on some other problems?
Like Alabama having the third-highest rate of homicide deaths in the nation? Marshall offers supportive talk to police officers, prosecutors and crime victims, but beyond that he hasn’t offered much in the way of concrete policy ideas. In his January inaugural he said he had “addressed the failures that have caused our state to be less safe,” but Alabama’s homicide death rate increased from 21.4 per 100,000 in 2018 (Marshall’s first full year in office) to 26.4 per 100,000 in 2021 (the last year numbers are available), according to the CDC.
A big reason for that? Firearms. Alabama is one of the nation’s leaders in gun deaths, in no small part because of the lack of gun restrictions in the state. If Marshall said anything about a 2022 law that allowed permitless concealed carry in the state — a law the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association vociferously opposed — I haven’t seen it. It’s a lot easier to find the attorney general’s feelings on transgender individuals than firearm mortality.
How about the state’s prisons, where rampant physical and sexual violence makes it unsafe for everyone behind bars? Well, in the wake of two U.S. Department of Justice reports detailing appalling physical and sexual violence in the state’s correctional facilities, Marshall said he would not be “bullied” into a consent decree with DOJ — which helped address rampant sexual abuse and harassment at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2015 — effectively daring the Trump-era DOJ to take the state to court. (Which they did.)
Or our power bills? Alabama’s residential power prices are higher than any neighbor not named Florida. This is really more of a job for the Alabama Public Service Commission, but since the commission nods politely at any rate a utility proposes, a little grandstanding on the issue would be nice.
I doubt the attorney general is inclined to do any of this. But even if he did, there’s no political incentive for him.
Marshall is term-limited and looks to be angling to run for another office in 2026. Since Alabama is, in effect, a one-party state, Marshall is playing to the activists in the Republican Party, not the broader electorate.
And generally speaking, conservative activists don’t want solutions to their problems. They want targets for their frustrations. Which encourages politicians to attack marginalized people and share hazy conspiracy theories.
The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,000 miles away and Alabama’s foreign-born population is only 3.5% of the state, but you’ll hear Alabama Republicans attack immigrants because that’s what the activists want, however cruel and boneheaded it is. Transgender youth are an even smaller share of the population, which only encourages dangerous attacks.
There’s an ugly Alabama tradition of going after soft targets to score political points ahead of elections. Tackling guns or electricity prices? That’s hard. Yelling at Washington or at women doing things you don’t like? A lot easier.
It’s a cycle Alabama can’t escape. Attack the world outside; ignore the actual problems here. It’s short-sighted and self-destructive. But it’s what works for our leaders, even if they’re not working for us.
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