County politics at stake: Courthouse gangs and the GOP: More change in Alabama?
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Nov 15, 2012 | 1984 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this year’s election, the Alabama GOP pushed the slogan “from the courthouse to the White House.” When the votes were counted, the clean sweep Republicans hoped for did not materialize, but the gains they made were significant.

Although efforts to make President Obama a one-term president failed, Alabama Republicans overwhelmingly delivered the state’s electoral votes to the challenger. Moreover, the GOP captured the last statewide office that had eluded them when Democrat Lucy Baxley was defeated in her bid to stay on the Public Service Commission.

On the national level, Alabama Republicans hold both seats in the U.S. Senate and six of the seven U.S. House seats. Republicans also hold six of the eight seats on the state Board of Education. The only places Democrats retain any semblance of power are in districts with black majorities and in the county courthouses.

Though the courthouse power also is shifting toward the GOP, the shift was not completed in the last election and is not likely to be completed anytime soon.

Though Democrats’ ability to stay entrenched in county political offices may have disappointed Republicans, it hardly could have been surprising. The very conservatism that attracts so many Alabamians to the GOP also keeps Alabamians voting for those they know at the county level, regardless of party affiliation. That same conservatism keeps party-switching from being more frequent than it is. Split tickets are not uncommon when you have friends and neighbors in both parties.

Nevertheless, the trend is there. Soon, the courthouse gangs in most counties will be Republican.

The question, of course, is: So what?

Most courthouse offices are policy-following, not policy-making positions. Probate judges, circuit clerks, tax assessors and tax collectors must abide by laws they did not make. They can only obey what the state Legislature has handed them.

However, these offices can be the foundations on which powerful coalitions are built. Within the laws they must follow, county officials — especially judges — have the flexibility that allows them to do favors and make arrangements that leave constituents beholden to them.

This has been the meat on which courthouse gangs have fed throughout history, and it likely will be the feast Republicans anticipate when they win these offices. Once they are sitting at that table, the GOP can invite whomever it chooses to dine with. In county politics, that is no small thing.
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