Alabama Senate race extraordinary in every way

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]

BY ERIC MINK

Normally, a special election in Alabama, like those that occasionally pop up in all states, would be an ordinary event of little interest to people outside the state’s borders.

The election of Dec. 12, however, has become anything but ordinary.

It initially attracted wider attention because Alabama voters will elect a U.S. senator, filling a vacancy at a time when the Senate is very narrowly controlled by Republicans, and even a single vote can pass or kill a bill. Ratcheting up the stakes is the radical agenda Republicans are pursuing with their majority in the House and the bizarre Republican in the White House. 

Interest escalated when 70-year-old Roy Moore won the Republican nomination in a runoff primary Sept. 26, beating the candidate backed by national leaders. Moore, a former county assistant district attorney and former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, got himself thrown off the court twice for failing to obey higher court orders and decisions, including one by the U.S. Supreme Court, actions that should make him a … let me try to find the right word … criminal. 

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But it wasn’t until a month ago that the special election went nuclear. That was when The Washington Post published a rigorously researched report about Moore by an investigative team that spent months in Alabama.

The result added a deeply disturbing line to Moore’s resumé: accused child molester.

The story described experiences that four women separately said they had with Moore during the late 1970s and early 1980s when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

In the most distressing of these accounts, a woman from Gadsden, Ala., said she was 14 years old in 1979 when Moore took her to his home, fondled her and forced her to touch his genitals through his underwear. Then and now, that would be a felony under Alabama state law, although the statute of limitations has expired for an offense that allegedly occurred in 1979.

The women’s stories also included corroborating comments by people who knew the women when they were teens. 

In the month since the original story broke, additional women have come forward with accusations of Moore making unwanted advances to them as teenagers, some of which involved sexual contact.

Several of the women said they were working at part-time jobs at the Gadsden Mall when Moore approached them. Moore was said to spend considerable amounts of time at the mall during this period, especially on weekend nights.

One woman said that Moore — then an assistant district attorney for Etowah County based in Gadsden, the county seat — had given a presentation to her high school civics class and afterward approached her and asked for a date.

Moore has denied knowing any of the women and denied their accusations. In a statement initially provided to the Post, Moore said, “These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat [sic] Party and the Washington Post on this campaign.”

He broadened his denial in a campaign appearance last week at Magnolia Springs Baptist Church in Theodore, Ala., where he suggested the accusations were part a conspiracy against him by “liberals … lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender … socialists [and] … the Washington establishment.”

The accusations have had a profound impact on the Senate race. Before the news broke, Moore held a comfortable lead in advance polls. After the stories began appearing, Moore’s lead all but vanished. The latest polls show Moore essentially tied with his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama.

Whether all this will affect what Alabama voters do on Dec. 12 is an open question.

“The average voter in Alabama doesn’t pay much attention to outsiders, to out-of-state support,” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a Moore supporter, told The New York Times last week.

Perhaps, but you’d think the voters then would be even more concerned by what some of their fellow Alabamans have described:  

Leigh Corfman, 53, said Moore approached her and her mother, Nancy Wells, 71, in 1979 in the hall outside an Etowah County courtroom that would be holding a custody hearing in connection with Wells’ divorce. Assistant D.A. Moore came by and offered to watch Leigh, 14 at the time, while her mom was in the hearing. That’s when he got the family’s phone number from the girl, using it later to make arrangements to pick her up a block or so from her home. On their second visit to his house, she said, clothing was removed and genital touching took place. Two childhood friends, including Betsy Davis, said Leigh had told them of the meetings.

Beverly Young Nelson, 55, said that in the late 1970s, Moore offered her a ride home when she was 16 and working as a waitress in a Gadsden, Ala., restaurant. Instead, she said, Moore drove to a secluded spot, sexually assaulted her and injured her while trying to prevent her from leaving the car.

Wendy Miller, 54, was 14 and playing a Santa’s elf at Gadsden Mall during the Christmas season when she said Moore first approached her and complimented her appearance. Two years later, she was at the mall with her mother when Moore approached her again. Miller’s mother, Martha Brackett, has echoed her daughter’s account.

Gena Richardson, 58, said she was 18 and working at the Sears store in the mall in 1977 when Moore approached and asked for her phone number. She did not give it to him. A few days later, she said she was pulled out of her high school trigonometry class to take a phone call in the school office. It was Moore, she said, asking again for a date, which she refused.

After another approach at Sears by Moore, Richardson agreed to a date that ended in his car with “an unwanted, ‘forceful’ kiss that left her scared,” she told the Post.

Becky Gray and Kayla McLaughlin, classmates and co-workers of Richardson’s, have corroborated her descriptions.

Other Alabama women who have recounted having sexually tinged contact with Moore when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers include Debbie Wesson Gibson and Gloria Thacker Deason.

And while Alabamans may well be suspicious of the Washington Post, they might take a close look at the very tough reporting and editorial coverage Moore’s actions have earned from homegrown news operations.

AL.com − an online collaboration of Alabama’s Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Press-Register in Mobile and The Mississippi Press in Pascagoula, Miss. AL.com — has done aggressive reporting on Moore’s activities in and around the Gadsden Mall in the 1970s and 1980s. For a Nov. 13 news story, AL.com reporters spoke to several Alabamans who were teenagers living in the area at the time – including Blake Usry, Jason Nelms, Greg Legat and Sheryl Porter − who recalled the older Moore hanging around the mall and flirting with teenage girls. In a couple of instances, they recalled conversations with mall security officers who said their supervisors had instructed them to watch out for Moore.

The AL.com editorial board also has published at least three blistering editorials about Moore, including one on Nov. 13 that included this passage:

“As a news organization, we have independently investigated as many of these claims as possible and have found no reason to doubt the accounts outlined in The  Washington Post. If anything, the stories we’ve heard in Etowah County have only further corroborated them.”

Alabamans who turn out to vote will get their say Tuesday.