Before dismissing our comparison between the proceedings in Montgomery and the popular Fox network TV program, consider this:
Alabama is a common theme. Three prominent Idol contestants from previous seasons — Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Bo Bice — have deep Alabama roots, almost as deep, if not more so, as the proceedings in Montgomery.
Both Idol and the state Lege have sponsors. The commercial breaks and product placements shown during broadcasts of Idol are obvious enough. (Notice all the Coke products in front of the judges next time, if you doubt.)
On Goat Hill, the lawmakers who are bought and paid for by lobbyists keep their sponsorships on the down-low. But they are no less lucrative for lawmaker and special interest.
The auditions to join either can be cringe-worthy. William Hung's 2003 Idol audition became famous for its energy and lack of polish or talent. Clips of his so-bad-it's-good performance of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" are an Internet favorite. "You can't sing, you can't dance, so what do you want me to say?" one Idol judge says to Hung.
Auditions for the Legislature — otherwise known as campaigns — can be similarly pathetic. Crude and hateful gay-baiting has been used. (See 2006's silly GOP attacks against local state Rep. Lea Fite, D-Jacksonville, who is no candidate to march in a gay pride parade any time soon.) And then there's the general endless campaign material touting a candidate's outsized devotion to hunting, protecting families and defending "Alabama values." The audacious presentation of these candidates as simple country politicians with hunting rifles and six-figure campaign war chests would make William Hung proud.
What happens to alums of Idol and Goat Hill?
Kelly Clarkson was the big winner in Idol's first season. Post-Idol, she is a well-known recording artist who recently released her fourth major-label album. Other ex-competitors have established themselves as performers; that list includes Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Studdard, who performs on June 6 at Anniston's Music at McClellan.
Though none have recording contracts, as far as we know, many state lawmakers have gone on to bigger and better things on the national stage.
Mike Rogers was in the Alabama House for multiple terms, representing Calhoun County constituents. Today, he is in his fourth term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Similarly, Richard Shelby, the Alabamian who has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1986, was once a member of the Alabama Legislature, serving two terms in the 1970s.
Occasionally, scandal visits both locations. With Idol, it's the odd topless photos of female contestants that create a buzz. Topless photos — thankfully, so far! — are not a problem among state lawmakers. In Montgomery, the sensational scandals involve one senator — Charles Bishop, R-Jasper — punching a Senate colleague, or a lieutenant governor — Steve Windom — clandestinely urinating into a jug while presiding over the state Senate.
For more mundane outrages we have state lawmakers — Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Birmingham, and Rep. Sue Schmidt, D-Toney — convicted on corruption charges.
And what about Simon Cowell, American Idol's blunt-speaking judge who calls 'em like he sees 'em? The consensus among many Goat Hill observers is that Alabama Education Association honcho Paul Hubbert is Cowell's equal. Hubbert typically doesn't publicly rip apart lawmakers. Instead, he wields influence to either kill or advance legislation with a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Cowell's views can propel a performer to superstardom or shatter a career at its genesis. That's a pretty nifty trick for a TV show.
For one more session of Montgomery's "Alabama Idol," Hubbert could say the same thing. Last Wednesday a party celebrated Hubbert's four decades with the AEA. The soiree was attended by top-drawer Alabama Democrats as well as some Republicans, all gathered to pay tribute to the man so powerful he is known as the state's unofficial governor.