Wednesday, April 28, 2010

'This Is Alabama; We Speak English'

Mara Gay

Mara Gay Contributor

(April 27) -- Tim James is betting his election that Alabama voters prefer what he calls "common sense" to "political correctness." The Republican gubernatorial candidate is running a provocative ad arguing that Alabama's driver's license exam should be given only in English.

"This is Alabama; we speak English," James says. "If you want to live here, learn it." The campaign spot has had more than 60,000 views on YouTube.

The son of former Alabama Gov. Fob James promises to do away with the 12 foreign languages the test currently offers if he is elected in November. In the ad, James suggests his goal is to save taxpayers money. "Maybe it's the businessman in me," he says.

In the blogosphere, though, many say the controversial ad is about far more than saving taxpayers money and contains coded political messages James hopes will strike a chord with Republican voters in the state.

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder said it contains swipes against the federal government and President Barack Obama. Ambinder also noted that Alabama could lose federal funding if it offers the exams only in English.

"If the governor changes the rules, the state could lose billions of dollars in federal transportation funding," he wrote. "Conveniently, this allows James to hint at the prospect of a debate against Barack Obama's federal government, too."

Some say it is no mistake that the ad comes in the middle of an emotional debate over immigration reform.

The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama said the ad would hurt the state's reputation. "Making the driver's license test available in English only is a bad move and inconsistent with the strong recruitment Alabama has done in the last 15 years to bring international business to our state," the coalition said in a statement Monday.

Ambinder said the "ethnic coding in the ad is unmistakable," and at The American Prospect, Tim Fernholtz said James was exploiting fear against Latino immigrants for political gain.

"Maintaining federal funding, keeping the roads safe, or even simple nondiscrimination don't seem to matter to James," Fernholtz wrote. "He'd rather exploit racial tension and hostility toward the national government to get ahead."

But James says the exams are a public safety issue. On his campaign website, he cited a 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that connected a 72 percent increase in work/traffic-related fatalities to drivers' inability to read road signs in English.

"It makes common sense to ensure everyone with an Alabama driver's license knows and understands traffic laws and traffic signs," he said. "Political correctness may endear you to the Rachel Maddow crowd, but here in Alabama, the safety of our people comes first."

Drivers license exams are currently offered in Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese.

At the conservative blog Hot Air, the blogger "The Other McCain" had sympathy for James' position.

"C'mon, Farsi? Thai? in Alabama?" he wrote.
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