Politics & Government

Roy Moore’s defiance is a new chapter in long history

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore at his office in Montgomery, Ala., Feb. 9, 2015. The uproar surrounding Moore has made Alabama political dysfunction national news, but it is only the latest flareup in a state whose politics has been something of a dumpster fire for years.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore at his office in Montgomery, Ala., Feb. 9, 2015. The uproar surrounding Moore has made Alabama political dysfunction national news, but it is only the latest flareup in a state whose politics has been something of a dumpster fire for years. The New York Times file

It was 1982, and four circuit judges from rural Etowah County, Alabama, had filed a state bar complaint against a lawyer named Roy Moore, accusing him of running “slanderous” political ads that had portrayed the local legal system as corrupt.

The response from the 35-year-old Moore, who had just lost his own effort to win a judgeship, was infused with the kind of crusading righteousness — his critics would call it sanctimony — that would later fuel his rise to national fame.

“If the judges of Etowah County are personally offended, that is their problem, not mine,” he declared in a letter addressing the judges’ complaint. Moore added a line from Proverbs: “The guilty flee when no man pursueth.”

Today, rather than flee, or at least quit his race for the Senate, as many are demanding, Moore is declaring his innocence and charging ahead despite allegations of improper sexual behavior.

The current furor, in which numerous women have come forward alleging that he approached, dated, or in some cases sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, has played out like a concentrated version of Moore’s combative history, in which he rose to national prominence as an unyielding spokesman for conservative and religious values.

Moore, a Republican, has responded with the same defiance that he exhibited when he was twice removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, first for dismissing a federal court order to remove a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments he had installed in the state judicial building, and later for flouting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision affirming same-sex marriage. For good measure, he has declared that homosexuality should be illegal, and that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress.

A Reputation Develops

Moore first made a name for himself as a prosecutor and an anti-establishment political outsider in Gadsden in the years after 1977, when he returned to Etowah County after an education at West Point, a tour of duty in Vietnam and law school in Tuscaloosa. He already had the contentiousness, if not the overt religiosity.

During those years, he was developing another reputation, passed along in whispers. Now they have grown to a roar, threatening to derail what might have been a cakewalk political contest in deeply conservative Alabama.

“It was a known fact: Roy Moore liked young girls,” said Faye Gary, a retired Gadsden police officer. “It was treated like a joke. That’s just the way it was.”

One of the women, Leigh Corfman, said she was 14 years old when Moore engaged in a sexual encounter with her. “I stand by my story,” said Corfman, whose account first appeared in The Washington Post. Moore has denied any impropriety with Corfman or any other woman.

Quick to Rock the Boat

After coming home, Moore landed a job as an assistant district attorney. M.D. Garmon, a former reporter for The Gadsden Times, remembered him as eager to shake things up. “He didn’t want to be in the clique of judges and the attorneys apparently,” Garmon said. “He was sort of standoffish to them, which in turn affected their treatment of him.”

Moore was rarely seen in the places where lawyers would routinely gather to swap gossip, said James Sledge, a former federal judge who was a lawyer at the time. Few remember him out and about socially. He is, however, remembered as a common presence at the YMCA and the Gadsden Mall.

As with everything concerning Moore, accounts vary. Alice Bircheat, the longtime bookkeeper at the YMCA, said that she recalled “not one complaint” about Moore. Terry White, 70, a former Gadsden police officer who worked security at the mall, said, “Nobody, as far as I know, ever complained.”

Myron K. Allenstein, a local lawyer who rented office space to Moore and later tried cases with him, insisted that Moore was a man of unimpeachable character. “He’s real down to earth but feels real strongly about what he believes,” he said. Allenstein noted that he was a Democrat who planned to vote for Moore in the Dec. 12 election.

But numerous people remembered otherwise. They recalled Moore working out at the YMCA gym, often shirtless. Delores Abney, 63, said she recalled Moore talking to women that “appeared to be high school on up” in an exercise class she was enrolled in. “It just did not look appropriate.”

Janet Reeves, 57, a former employee of a photo kiosk and an Orange Julius at the mall, talked of Moore asking a friend of hers, who she recalled was 17 or 18, for her phone number. “I just thought he was the creepy old guy,” she said.

Glenn Day, 64, who managed two stores at the mall in those years, recalled that Moore had such a reputation for approaching young women that the mall guard asked him to let security know whenever he saw Moore there. “I can’t believe there’s such an outcry now,” Day said, “about something everybody knew.”

Moore declined to comment. In a campaign message Friday evening, he said that the allegations were part of a plot by liberals and certain Republicans, which “shows how much the establishment flat-out hates our conservative Christian values.”

In his 2005 memoir, “So Help Me God,” Moore described his battles with the local establishment, and acknowledged that it made him enemies. He criticized laws that let criminals out for “good time” served, the bail bond system, and planned budget cuts to the sheriff’s department. He sued the county when it declined him raises he was due. He was rocking the boat, he wrote, “and none of the other passengers seemed happy.”

People who grew up with him suggest his polarizing reputation goes back further than his days as a county prosecutor.

“He was very bright,” said Janet Hinton, who was two years behind Moore in high school. She remembered him coming from a poor family that struggled to get by. He was also, she said, “known as a real bragger who acted like the smartest person in the classroom.”

Twenty years later, he was inspiring some of the same strong feelings, alienating much of the Gadsden legal community and provoking local judges to take the rare step of filing bar complaints against him. (The complaints were eventually closed without action being taken.) An unsuccessful run for county judge in 1982, though giving voters a taste of the hard-line populism that would later draw a national fan base, only seemed to leave him more isolated.

Bill Willard, a longtime lawyer here, ventured a theory. He pointed out that Moore had never seemed to have any kind of social life, certainly not among his professional peers. And the current allegations, he said, could be seen in that context.

“He was really immature socially,” Willard said of Moore’s reputed attraction to teenagers, “and so it might kind of make sense.”

A Career Contender

Having resigned his prosecutor job to run for judge and spent his savings to finance his failed bid, Moore left for Texas, to train as a kickboxer.

It was a break from a trajectory that started with a working-class childhood in Gallant, a small rural community in the foothills east of Gadsden, where his father was a construction worker and his mother a homemaker. His path to adulthood was marked with blue-chip resume highlights, but also struggle and unpleasantness.

ALA_SENATE_MOORE_2_1614407
Roy Moore on the superlatives page of the 1965 Etowah County High School yearbook, Nov. 16, 2017. The current furor surrounding Moore, in which numerous women have come forward alleging that he approached, dated, or in some cases sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, has played out like a magnified version of Moore’s combative history. Campbell Robertson The New York Times file

In high school, Moore was elected student body president but is remembered by classmates as more hardworking than sociable. He fulfilled his dream of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — people in Gadsden remember him showing up at an assembly at his old high school and walking around proudly in his cadet uniform. But he found the academy to be an intimidating place, peopled, he later wrote, by students who were more “well read, traveled or experienced” than he was and who considered him “an easy target.”

It was at West Point, he wrote, that he found the boxing ring to be an equalizer, “where someone from Alabama with a ‘country’ accent could get as much respect as anybody else.” He graduated in the bottom quarter of his class.

In Vietnam, where Moore commanded a military police battalion, he cracked down so aggressively on what he described as his troops’ drug use and lack of respect for authority that they derisively referred to him as Captain America. He was so convinced, he wrote, that one soldier was going to kill him that he put sandbags under the bed, ostensibly to keep grenades from being rolled under it.

Law school, at the University of Alabama, was a “welcome relief,” he said. But in a recent newspaper column, Guy V. Martin Jr., one of Moore’s professors, described him as immersed in “illogic,” and said he had constantly argued with classmates. “Moore never won one argument, and the debates got ugly and personal,” Martin wrote.

One afternoon in 1984, U.W. Clemon, a federal district court judge, was having lunch in his Gadsden office when Moore stopped by. He had returned after more than a year of boxing in Texas and working on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback.

Clemon, the first black federal judge in Alabama history, remembered Moore from several years earlier, when, as a prosecutor, Moore had urged opposition to his confirmation to the bench, charging that Clemon was soft on crime.

“He said he was sorry that he had done it, it was wrong and he had heard good things about me,” Clemon remembered of that afternoon. Moore was not finished, though. He was opening a law office, he said, and he knew the judge had old law clients in Gadsden. He needed referrals.

So began Moore’s second run at a legal career here, this time as a private practice attorney, working out of a room he rented from Allenstein in an 1897 Victorian manse, converted into an office building, near the courthouse. Allenstein remembered him as “a great orator” who was particularly gifted at closing arguments.

“He’d always say, ‘Myron, you take care of the law, just get me to the jury,” Allenstein said. “Because he was a great talker.”

Kathleen Warren, a lawyer who shared the office space, has different memories.

“He seemed to not think much of women as a whole,” she said. “A true sexist.”

She had heard the gossip about him and young women, but the talk faded around the time of his marriage. At a Christmas gathering in 1984, as he describes in his book, he met a 23-year-old woman named Kayla Kisor, 14 years his junior, whom he immediately recognized from a dance recital he had attended “many years before.” They married the next year.

As he settled in to raise a family and practice law, Moore remained combative, but few remember him as explicitly religious, though they concede he may have been at home.

“I think this, the whole religious thing, just came as an evolution of his political career,” said Garmon, the former Gadsden Times reporter, a Democrat who said he liked Moore but abhorred his politics.

In 1992, Moore finally became a circuit court judge. He was appointed by the governor at the time, Guy Hunt, to whom he had a connection through a family friend, after the sitting judge died of a heart attack. To decorate his courtroom, Moore put up a homemade redwood plaque of the Ten Commandments — a precursor to the granite behemoth he would later install in the state judicial building. Few seemed bothered, at first.

But the next year, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union took notice and threatened to sue. And “by the time the election came around,” Garmon said, referring to Moore’s re-election bid, “everyone in the county knew about Roy and the Ten Commandments.”

Large rallies of support took place on the courthouse steps, and lawyers recall how Moore carefully gathered all his press clippings, laminated in giant scrapbooks. A fellow judge, William H. Rhea, remembered seeing envelopes around Moore’s office: “People were sending him money from all around the country. You know, like $5 and $10.”

Gadsden watched him become a hero of the religious right with mixed feelings.

“I don’t want to use the word disgust,” said Kathleen Sisson, 67, a retired educator who had known for years about Corfman’s account of Moore. “But it bothered me greatly to know what I knew.”

Moore would go on to win legal fights and lose them, win elections and be removed from office only to win again, and eventually win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

“I don’t frankly understand how it all came out, and I was there for every day of it,” Rhea said of Moore’s ascent to national prominence. “It was just something that took off. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

  Comments