Even solid political skills did not stop Merrill and Hubbard from downfalls

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Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

With John Merrill’s controversy in 2021, members of the media, especially in Birmingham and Montgomery, are pleased the Alabama secretary of state is embroiled in a scandal. They have their reactions, but it is a sad chapter. On April 6, Merrill was set to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Then, a tape of a three-year affair he denied was revealed in all its seduction. He decided against running for office in 2022 to spend more time with his family. Merrill hopes to complete his term in January 2023; unless he is linked to use of government property for personal gain.

He would make a good candidate for senator (if he raised enough money). He is charismatic and conservative, has done a fine job at his work, and is a great “retail” candidate. Cesaire McPherson, in the 17-minute tape embarrassing Merrill, said he used racial words – such as Colored – for African Americans. I have known Merrill for several years, and I rather doubt he is a racist. I suspect McPherson was “adding on” bad or racial talk to humiliate him further.

Another natural politician whose career was ended abruptly is Mike Hubbard. He entered his first political contest in 1998. On his radio show I said his campaign against Auburn Mayor Jan Dempsey would be very close. Hubbard said polls showed he was clearly ahead. He won, with the GOP label and his hard work carrying him thru. At age 36, he went to the Alabama House from Lee County.

In 2010, he became Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, the first Republican to do so in 136 years. Little did Hubbard know after strengthening the legislature’s ethics laws, that he himself would be convicted of ethics charges. He has been in state prison since September 2020. Jail marks a dramatic departure for Hubbard; he had been on a fast trajectory in politics for much of his adult life.

Shortly before he was ordered to jail, I bumped into Hubbard for the first time in many years. When he went back to his office, I remembered something I thought about during his 1998 campaign. I said to myself “Here is a young man in a hurry, taking on a variety of tough tasks and doing them well.”

Not in any way to minimize his felony convictions, but I can’t stop thinking that being Speaker, leader of the state GOP (twice) and owning several businesses was not a good idea – all at once. I hope other politicians do not overdo their inboxes and responsibilities, leading to recklessness and disgrace. Mike Hubbard was truly a young man in a hurry – too much of one!

One person of my acquaintance who was very determined to succeed was my assistant editor while I was an Army newspaper editor in Germany. Once he dropped my name from the newspaper and inserted his own, as editor. I was spending three weeks in the mud and muck at Hohenfels in October 1993.

If your boss is away for a short period, replacing his name with yours is presumptuous. My point here: to show my subordinate had hubris even when he was not in charge. That’s the only time I was ever “killed off’ a paper’s masthead!

My ex-assistant, Michael Ertel, ended his enlistment and within a few years, he was Seminole County, Florida supervisor of elections. After appointment by Gov. Jeb Bush, he was reelected six times; four without opposition. In December 2018, Ertel was named by incoming governor Ron DeSantis as Florida’s next secretary of state. When I heard of his nomination, I believed Mike was on his way to a great career in Sunshine State politics.

Less than a month after he began at his new job, photos were printed in the Tallahassee Democrat that led him to resign. They showed Ertel, in 2005, dressed in blackface as “Hurricane Katrina victim.” This mistake was compounded: first he insulted African Americans, then he made light of victims of one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history. Ertel’s career fell apart based on poor judgement; he now owns an elections consulting firm in Geneva, Florida.

Merrill, Hubbard and Ertel fell to ego, lack of common sense and maybe even simple bad luck. All three have paid a price in career problems, humiliation and dishonor. Hubbard is trading years in a radio booth for up to four in a prison cell. All are in their 50s, and hopefully learned their lessons. They are resourceful and talented enough to be successful outside of politics.

A politician quoted a century after he died is George Washington Plunkitt. He led Tammany Hall’s machine which “owned” New York. One of Plunkitt’s famous lines is: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” But be careful about which roads to take. Gov. Kay Ivey criticized Merrill for “poor choices and bad decisions.” That applies to all three men.

 Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years.   gm.markley@charter.net

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