District 4 & the Machine

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Since 1997 twenty year olds have run successfully for the Tuscaloosa City Council District Four seat, mostly unopposed. They have all been thought to have been associated with the University of Alabama’s Machine in some way.

According to the Business Insider exposé written by Peter Jacobs in 2013:

The Machine’s influence is not just limited to the UA campus. The New York Times reported last month that a losing candidate for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education filed a lawsuit after a SGA president and Machine candidate was elected on a wave of Greek voting.

UA sorority members were offered free drinks and limo rides if they voted in the City Board of Education elections, according to an email sent out to at least one sorority. Members were encouraged to vote for former SGA president Cason Kirby and fellow UA alumnus Lee Garrison, both of whom ended up winning their respective district.

Local news reported that some Greeks listed their fraternity house as their residence to vote in Kirby’s district, even though they no longer lived there.

 In 2013 WVUA also reported: “More than 10 unrelated people are registered to vote in a single house, and if some residents are not residing there, they could be guilty of perjury.”

In 1997 Lee Garrison was the first student elected as a District Four Council member. A December 28, 1997 Tuscaloosa News article “Election Contested” described the election challenge that Garrison’s opponent filed:

What is a resident? That has become the central issue that could decide whether Councilman Lee Garrison retains the Tuscaloosa City Council District 4 seat he won by 84 votes in the August election. Opponent Don Brown contested the election claiming Garrison benefited from the illegal votes, largely cast by students who don’t need residency requirements.

A University of Alabama senior and former Inter-fraternity Council President, Garrison and his forces registered hundreds of college students to vote. One of the issues became whether students or permanent residents could control the district election. 

While Brown’s forces did not challenge enough votes to make up the difference in Garrison’s margin of victory, his attorneys have been successful in putting voters, mostly students, on the witness stand. They were questioned about where they consider their primary residence and some were required to reveal who they voted for.  

Virtually nonexistent residency requirements leave the outcome completely in doubt. Should circuit Judge Bernard Harwood overturn Garrisons victory, a lengthy appeal is expected.

Garrison’s victory was not overturned. He went on to serve four terms on the Council until he successfully ran for the local school board Chair in 2013.

He was followed in the District Four Council seat by Matt Calderone, who had been the President of the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association (SGA) in 2012. Calderone had no challenger in the election.

There has been a record of SGA Presidents being  members of fraternities affiliated with The Machine. Calderone belonged to Sigma Nu. Due to the highly secretive nature of The Machine, what Greek organizations are members of The Machine cannot be verified.

The students who were registered to vote in a single house in University Circle in 2013 were all reportedly Sigma Nu members.

Calderone in 2019 announced that he would step down from his position as Council member for District Four. In the specially called election for the position there were initially three candidates. Lee Busby was a retired Marine infantry officer. John Earl was a retired photographer. And thirty-seven year-old Craig Williams owned the downtown restaurants Central Mesa and the Avenue Pub.

At a meeting of the Original City Association Williams said that he had never been in a fraternity at the University of Alabama and was not part of The Machine. He also said that he knew Calderone well and had been encouraged by him to run. It seemed as if there would be no “Machine candidate” for the first time in over twenty years.

Then Williams dropped out of the race, citing his commitment to his family, business and employees. On the same day that Williams withdrew his candidacy Frank Fleming entered the race. Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News reported:

Fleming’s announcement came within hours of Craig Williams, owner of The Avenue Pub and Central Mesa, saying Monday that he was exiting the race over “unforeseen circumstances.”

Fleming said this was a deciding factor in his joining the race.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while pretty seriously,” Fleming said. “I was actually really close with Matt Calderone and saw the hard work he did and I want to just build on that.”

Fleming, 28, joins Lee Busby, 62, and John Earl, 72, in vying for the District 4 seat that represents the University of Alabama campus, the neighboring historic districts and parts of downtown Tuscaloosa.

Sidney Frank Fleming was sometimes known as Sidney at the University of Alabama. He was a fellow member of Sigma Nu along with Calderone. He had registered to vote in 2013 but didn’t cast a ballot. Many of his frat brothers of course who did vote were part of a court case.

The case which was ultimately heard by the Alabama Supreme Court dealt with what would constitute a “domicile.” The legal requirements to be considered a resident involved such things as where people register their cars, where they file taxes, where their grades are sent, etc.  Student residency doesn’t just mean living in a place for 30 days, but is supposed to involve the long-term intent of residents. Enforcement of such requirements is another thing entirely.

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Merely having been in a fraternity at the University that was associated with The Machine certainly doesn’t mean that Sidney is this year’s version of a “Machine candidate” running for the District Four seat.

During Garrison’s time serving on the Council, District Four was redrawn to exclude neighborhoods that had traditionally been occupied by permanent residents.

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The redrawing of the district map made the student vote even more significant.

Many students at the University don’t care about voting. The bloc of voters orchestrated by The Machine has been the deciding factor in elections.

Will the 2019 City Council election be a repeat of the School Board election in 2013?

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 more than likely 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.

That’s not likely. But will another twenty year old be elected to the District Four seat with a little help from his friends, some of whom may be students who belong to fraternities associated with The Machine?

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “District 4 & the Machine

  1. The new candidate who owns Heat Pizza presumably partnered with Calderone on the summer Friday night events at Government Plaza. A rule was put into place that prevents attendees from bringing in their own beverages. Only beverages purchased at approved nearby downtown vendors are allowed at the event. Heat, which is located on Government Plaza, benefits from beverage sales at this city event.

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