By Dan Bernstein
You may have done a double-take Tuesday night when flipping away from the nationally televised NBA games, thinking you saw Charles Barkley on or around a stage in Alabama as Doug Jones celebrated a victory.
The Democratic underdog had just defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special election for an open U.S. Senate seat, shocking the country and the reddest of deep-red states by coming in ahead by just over 20,000 total votes. And there was Barkley, indeed, mixing it up alongside backers reveling in Birmingham.
He had spent the eve of the election exhorting a crowd at a rally to vote for Jones and against Moore — an openly and proudly bigoted candidate also accused by multiple women of molesting them as girls when he was in his 30s — by urging his home state to embrace decency and the right side of history.
“At some point we have to stop looking like idiots to the nation,” he said, while also taking a swipe at the racist politics of activist Steve Bannon, who was campaigning on behalf of Moore. “Only in Alabama could you send a white nationalist separatist who don’t believe in race mixing to come to Alabama three times and get cheered at a Roy Moore rally,” Barkley said. “That is crazy.”
Barkley helped turn out an inspired black vote that proved decisive, despite his history of staying on the political sidelines, outside of some social and commercial stances and provocative proclamations in his role as a sports commentator. His self-identification as a Republican was the source of a famous anecdote too: “I was asked for years about being a Republican,” Barkley once said, “probably because most black people are Democrats. My mother heard it once and said ‘Charles, Republicans are for the rich people,’ and I said ‘Mom, I’m rich.’”
He repudiated that affiliation about a decade ago, however, saying his loyalties changed when “the Republicans lost their damn minds.” And he was more than willing to lend his voice and influence when he thought it could matter in the right way.
Barkley pulled no punches in comments to CNN after the surprising results became known, basking in a victory much more important than the NBA title he famously never achieved. “Roy Moore was an embarrassment,” he said. “I am just so proud of my state. Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people, but we got some amazing people here and they rose up today.”
And he didn’t spare the winning party from criticism either, saying “they’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It’s time for Democrats to get off their asses… this is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.”
But anyone hoping that these unique circumstances would be the impetus for a newly awakened Barkley to continue on the political stage, or seek office for himself amid such a highly charged climate, would be reminded quickly of who we’re dealing with. Asked by BuzzFeed News if he’d consider a run for Alabama governor, Barkley replied “No. They can’t afford me.”
And when pressed on what his plans were in the immediate wake of his contributions to Jones’ largely unexpected victory, he said his goal was “to get as drunk as I possibly can.”