Comprising twenty-eight percent of the University of Alabama’s student body, the Greeks (members of fraternities and sororities) are known for leaving Bryant-Denny Stadium as early as half-time at a Crimson Tide football game. They have traditionally filled up whole blocs of the student seating section, deserting their seats to leave the student section with the appearance of an ugly clear-cut swath amidst a thriving rainforest.
The Greeks now own the dubious honor of controlling Tuscaloosa’s District Four. In 1997 an undergraduate student who was President of the University’s Inter-fraternity Council Lee Garrison was able to secure a seat on the Tuscaloosa City Council with the help of The Machine Vote at the University. Coming from a well known Tuscaloosa family Garrison garnered support from families living in its Historic District neighborhoods, as well as the support by University students in the Greek system.
In his first year on the Council Garrison attempted to use The Machine’s vote to prevent the School Board from becoming an elected body by adding a “straw poll” on alcohol use to the referendum on electing the board. His last minute effort to register students was the subject of a 1998 story in the Tuscaloosa News in which the AEA representaive Walt Maddox, who successfully ran for a seat on the Council in 2001 and for Tuscaloosa’s Mayor in 2009, was quoted.
“It’s no coincidence, Maddox said, “that the nonbinding referendum votes include alcohol sales. That would be the single most motivating factor to bring college students to the polls. It is also no coincidence that Mr. Garrison. who serves on the City Council, is registering voters to vote not only on the alcohol issue but also on the elected board referendum. I would imagine that Mr. Garrison is instructing the students to vote against an elected school board.”
Garrison was re-elected to the Council for three more terms, in both 2001 and 2009 without opposition. In 2005 he told the Tuscaloosa News, “I want to continue to build on the relationship that we’ve established in the University of Alabama fringe area between non-student residents and rental property owners.” He became a fixture at meetings of the Original City Association (OCA), an organization representing Tuscaloosa’s .
This year Garrison had decided to leave the City Council and run for Chair of the School Board. As a parting gift to District 4 he helped realign its boundaries to make it an even more student populated district. A narrow sliver of its neighborhoods comprised of “non-student residents” was sliced off. Matt Calderone, who had been elected to the Student Government Association by The Machine in 2012, inherited Garrison’s District 4 Council seat. He was unopposed.
Political operative and long-time Garrison ally and Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity alumnus Mike Echols, Chair of Friends of Lee Garrison in 2013, formed the Educate Tuscaloosa Political Action Committee ( ET PAC ) as a part of a strategy to take over Tuscaloosa’s School Board. All five challengers to the School Board incumbents were given the lion’s share of the over $70,000 raised by the ET PAC. Three candidates for the School Board were given over 85% of their funding by the PAC. Despite the largesse poured into the coffers of the challenging candidates by the ET PAC and large amounts of money from other sources only Cason Kirby in District 4 was successful in unseating an incumbent.
Cason Kirby, who received over $14,000 from the ET PAC alone, was victorious in his race against School Board incumbent Kelly Horwitz, but not because of the size of his campaign chest. His win can be attributed solely to the support of The Machine. The District 4 polling place was swamped by students, many of whom were wearing tee-shirts commemorating the Greek Fest, the Old Row or displaying other Greek themes. They came from Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia, California and other states to vote for candidates who were running in a local school board race in Alabama. The students were required to return to their Houses wearing the “I voted” stickers that they were given after voting. One person sympathetic to Horwitz said that she wished she could have stood outside the polling place with a roll of stickers and handed them out to students to save them the trouble of casting ballots.
According to a poll worker some students were so unfamiliar with the voting process that, once they were checked off the list of registered voters, they forgot to pick up their ballots. Others left their drivers license, which many had used as an ID, on the tables where they marked their ballot. Some showed up not knowing if they were registered in Tuscaloosa or in another city. There were an unusually large number of “provisional ballots” cast due to uncertainties about voter eligibility.
Most of the students who voted for Kirby likely also cast their ballots for Lee Garrison. At the District 4 polling place many of the students wearing Kirby and Garrison tee-shirts were unable to vote or had to use “provisional ballots.” Only a handful of voters who were not obviously students were unable to cast an official ballot. The reported final vote at District 4 was out of a total of 725 votes cast Kirby received 399. In 2009 only 358 total votes were cast. (The citywide turnout for Tuscaloosa’s municipal elections was greater than usual with 8,627 voters as opposed to 3,127 in the last election.)
Supporters of Kirby and Horwitz held signs and balloons along Paul W. Bryant Drive as stretch limos and chartered buses pulled up to disgorge student voters at the Calvary Baptist Church Annex voting location for District 4. Kirby and Horwitz backers handed out campaign literature. Unique incentives for student support for Garrison and Kirby were reported, including free booze.
Garrison probably received a few votes from a number of OCA loyalists who, unlike the students, more than likely voted for Horwitz instead of Kirby. The fact that Garrison was part of a plan to take over the School Board by gerrymandering his district, by flooding the election with PAC money and by using The Machine did not outweigh their personal relationship with him. Nor were they influenced by the photograph taken of Garrison in 2003 at a Halloween party wearing a mask with a penis nose that was widely distributed before the election, claims made by his former wife of alcoholism, drug abuse and fits of rage or his ties to a indicted crime figure.
Garrison sent a message to Tuscaloosa on Election Day: “Dear Tuscaloosa, As many of you may know, Stan Pate has launched a vicious and untrue personal attack on me and my family. My response is simply this, I pray for Stan. I pray for God to help him in only the way that God can heal. My family is very upset over what he has done, but we forgive him for his actions and I pray that Tuscaloosa will do the same. We all are sinners and we all make mistakes in life. God Bless, Lee Garrison”
It is rumored that, should Mayor Maddox put in a bid for the Alabama Governorship, Lee Garrison will run for Mayor of Tuscaloosa. If he wins The Machine will truly own Tuscaloosa.