Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Patterson Test

  Before 2017, I would have struggled to pick out Jim Patterson in the Alabama House of Representatives.

  Patterson was a Meridianville Republican elected to the chamber in 2010. In his first term, he did what most freshman representatives do: handle local legislation and vote the party line. He sponsored tax exemption bills, too, and in his second term added education and retirement legislation to his docket.

  But Patterson didn’t stand out until he took on a big project.

  For years, Alabama did not require insurers to cover autism therapies. These help children on the spectrum develop communication skills. Without coverage, families pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars out of pocket for the services. I talked to parents who sold their homes or emptied their retirement accounts so their kids could get the services.

  In 2017, Patterson sponsored legislation mandating coverage of the therapies. This brought him into conflict with the Business Council of Alabama and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. Legislators, and Republican legislators in particular, don’t want to get sideways with BCA or BCBS if they can avoid it.

  But buoyed by a parent-led grassroots effort and timely help from senators, the bill passed in May 2017. It had coverage limits that Patterson hadn’t originally intended. But the legislation became law.

  “It ought to show the public their lobbying counts a lot,” Patterson said after passage. “What I’m hearing from my district is this is a popular thing. You can have an effect.”

  Five months later, Patterson died from a heart attack.

  His last major act as a public official was making life easier for Alabama families.

  Patterson has been on my mind as we hit the home stretch of a legislative session obsessed with right-wing hallucinations and detached from actual problems.

  Republican legislators rammed through legislation to ban public funding of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and to punish educators for teaching what they view as “divisive concepts.”

  They made it harder to cast absentee ballots — often cast by the sick and the elderly — and justified it with badly misleading data on voter fraud, which is not a problem in the state.

  They want to sic the cops on undocumented immigrants for no reason except their presence.

  They tried very hard to destroy the independence of the Alabama Department of Archives and History for acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ people.

  And now we have a pair of hard-right House members who want to throw librarians in jail if they don’t conform to a 1957 view of what’s “obscene” (again, the existence of LGBTQ+ people).

  That’s not counting things like stripping Medicaid expansion language out of the (probably doomed) gambling bill. Or continuing the vicious war on transgender Alabamians.

  Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers shrug at gun violence; poverty; infant mortality; underfunded schools, and the terror within the state’s correctional facilities.

  If anything passed out of the session this year addressing those actual problems causing genuine pain in our state, I haven’t seen it.

  In light of all that, let me propose a daily exercise for our lawmakers. Call it The Patterson Test.

  When a legislator leaves that decaying Highway Building on South Union Street, he or she should ask: “If I never set foot in this building again, what would my last act as a public official be?”

  Most lawmakers see themselves as the heroes of their own biographies. We know the ending of Jim Patterson’s.

  The rest of our elected officials should imagine holding their complete, Ron Chernow-scale book in their lap. They should go to the back of the tome — let’s say page 736 — and get to the last 24 hours of their lives. The last day that biographers unfold with baroque detail.

  So, Alabama lawmakers: What would that section say about you?

  Would you spend your final hours helping your constituents?

  Or would you help powerful interests shake them down?

  Would you make it easier for Alabamians to express their political views?

  Or would you throw them in jail for trying?

  Would you work to give the dedicated people at a Sumter County school the tools they need to teach?

  Or would you use their tax dollars to help a wealthy family in a $27,000-a-year private academy?

  In short: when your time comes to an end, who are you working for?

  Politicians are not reflective people. But some of the egos in the Statehouse can’t stand the thought of their story ending as they knuckle under to a moral panic or take orders from a man in a silk suit.

  And maybe — maybe — that would lead to better decision-making.

  We want our public officials to work for the public. That’s not how our state government is designed. It serves the powerful and spites the meek.

  It’s a system that thwarts efforts to improve the state and creates a long line of forgettable legislators, who blend into a goop that cushions the elites and smothers the people of Alabama.

  So it’s remarkable when a legislator like Jim Patterson rises above that mush to do something right. It’s worth noting and celebrating.

  And I hope all those self-styled heroes on South Union Street remember Patterson. I hope they ask how they’ll be remembered when their time ends. We need legislators who understand that their stories are tied to ours.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector. 

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