What: It’s possible that you are so intellectually lazy that you have written off all politics under one of the many convenient cliches: “All politicians are all the same,” or “The whole system is corrupt, man.” Or it may well be that in our society of celebrated distraction, you’ve just decided that politics are boring … or more boring than, say, watching movies, dithering around on Facebook, or slaving over your part-time job so that you don’t get fired like your friends did, resulting in you losing your already-limited ability to put food on the table, pay for child care, or put gas in the car.
And if none of the above applies to you, you might well somewhat care that living in Montgomery means that you leave in the same town as the state’s seat of government. That’s right! That thing what governs ya! That means that part of your hometown pride is sharing a city with a right fancy Governor’s Mansion, a very nice Supreme Court building, and the most shameful of the three branches’ headquarters, a Legislature, a.k.a. the Statehouse.
Where: 11 South Union Street. You know that nice building called “the capitol,” with the scenic dome and everything? Well, that’s not it. If you go in there, you might get a nice tour of some historic (and largely empty) rooms, but that’s a post for another day.
No, we’re actually talking about the building across the street, which is sort of non-descript. It’s a big white box, built in 1963 for the state highway department. The Legislature abandoned the old capitol in the 1986 and has been over in this adapted setting ever since. While it’s certainly better than the historic old capitol building, what with creaking balconies and highly-questionable efficiency on things like utilities, the current set-up is also far from ideal.
You name it, and it’s probably a problem: Parking? Difficult, especially if you need to be there longer than a two hour meter will allow. Space in the hallways? Very crowded, especially if someone is having a special event or lobby day. Space for press conferences? Very sketchy. Most are confined to a sort of awkward pit built in front of the main entrance to the building. Accessibility so the public can attend legislative committee hearings, where true democracy can be displayed as citizen input is voiced? Oh, hell no.
While they have spent millions of dollars to make right proper chambers for the House and Senate, what with big electronic boards showing who voted which way, etc., the building is still clearly not built for public access to observe the professional doings of their elected officials. They spent a lot to fix the place up after recent torrential rains recently flooded the entire parking garage and lower floor of the building, but really, until we fix our state’s broken tax system, we’ll keep applying layers of patches to this bad old building. There’s just no money (or political will) to do anything else.
So if you’re looking for the cool history tours, do the original Capitol, the White House of the Confederacy, the MLK church on Dexter, and places like that. Don’t expect anything special from the Statehouse. Heck, if you’ve got a visitor in town from out-of-state, a Statehouse tour might just leave you embarrassed.
Who: Bicameral, baby! If you live here in Alabama, you’ve got a Senator and a Representative. The House has 105 members and the Senate is a smaller body with 35 Senators. Without getting detailed about the demographics, both houses as comprised in 2011 are overwhelmingly male, incredibly white, 100 percent Christian, and protected by brand new Republican super-majorities, making compromise wholly unnecessary so long as party discipline prevails.
Why: Well, yeah. Why?
This sort of boils down to your level of cynicism about life, I guess. Do you want to go see some folks hash out the details of laws that many of them barely understand? It can be fun, I must admit. It’s free of charge and if you enjoy things like watching your two uncles argue about tractor parts or American Idol, you might well gain some enjoyment from watching someone from Marengo County argue with someone from Mobile about how best to gut public education or whether the tax breaks given to giant corporations should be massive or merely huge.
And in an actual plus for the “we should encourage people to want to observe their democracy” camp, there’s free wireless. So you can buy things on E-Bay during the many interminable pauses and intentional delays in the action.
And if you’ve given up on the whole premise of going to see civil servants build structures that enhance the common good, well, there’s always the raw entertainment factor. Steeped in the depressing probability of seeing something similar in the near future, here are 3 exciting moments you missed at the Statehouse:
1. The Lt. Governor urinates into a jug on the floor of the Senate. I honestly have no idea if this video is what it purports to be. But it’s an accepted fact that in 1999, Steve Windom responded to an attempt to strip the Lt. Gov’s power by refusing to leave his seat in the Senate. Trying to block the proposal, he just sat there afraid they’d do it as soon as he left the room. And so he humiliated the state and himself … and still lost the fight.
2. Speaking of fights, there’s always a chance you could see one. Sure, it’s less likely now that the GOP controls everything, but maybe that’ll just increase the rage among the relatively powerless Dems. And when that happens, and when tempers start to flare, well, anything can happen when you’re dealing with very proud, very dumb people. That was the scene when, in 2007, Sen. Charles Bishop decided to punch the Senate Rules Committee Chair in the face. Lowell Barron, receiver of the punch, allegedly called Bishop a “son of a bitch.” The lame scuffle was caught on camera and was replayed around the world, meaning that these two elderly jerks made losers of us all.
3. Montgomery’s own Alvin Holmes, who has unfairly been tarred by liberals and conservatives alike as a sort of clown, is actually an amazing and admirable man. He is extremely smart and a ferocious defender of justice. That said, he is also something of a loose cannon, meaning that if you go and watch him do his thing, you might see something like this. We love Rep. Holmes, both for what he does and for how he does it.
When: Here, your options are somewhat limited. You see, although the legislature does meet every year, they only do so for 30 working days. That translates to about 90 to 120 calendar days a year, but if you’re looking for actual floor debate, you’ve got a tiny window of time, somewhere between January and May or so. The tricky part is that the actual meeting time moves around, sometimes starting in January, sometimes in March, depending on what year of the four year cycle it is. So, the best bet is to pay attention.
If you want to meet with your representative, the best thing to do is call their office and make an appointment. You’re probably looking at a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday if you want to see them at the Statehouse, although if they’re your rep, they’ll likely want to see you anytime (in theory) and are probably willing to meet you somewhere back home in the district to talk things over with you. At least, that’s how it ought to work.
The reality is that many of them want to spend as little time in Montgomery as possible, and would prefer to talk to you back home and not have you come and see their tiny offices and watch them “in action” on the floor of the chamber. Visitors will note that while many of the reps are busy on the floor of the chamber, many are also using their laptops to cruise Facebook and shop for suits.
And if you’re playing along at home, go here to both look up bills that might be of interest to you and also to listen in to live audio streaming of the action. It can be a little confusing at first if you don’t understand the procedures used, and more so if you’re not such a fanatic that you’ve come to recognize the voices of the folks speaking. But it’s a great window into what’s going on and we can’t commend enough the powers-that-be for providing this invaluable tool to the public.
Bottom Line: It’s great that citizens can see government in action. The Legislature likes to say that the Statehouse is “the peoples’ house,” meaning that it is the most accessible and responsive of the three branches of government. And to some extent, that is true.
But it’s also an increasingly insular world, where new security measures make it harder than ever to meet your representative, where most of the action happens behind closed doors and not on the public stage of the chamber floor.