Affair derails Alabama secretary of state’s political hopes

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The venue had been booked. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a rising GOP star with an eye long set on higher office, was about to announce his run for U.S. Senate. But then scandal brought his political aspirations crashing down.

Merrill’s upward trajectory was shattered this week by a woman’s disclosure of their affair, prompting him to announce that he will not run for Senate or any other office in 2022.

Merrill declined to go into detail but told media outlet al.com Wednesday that he had an inappropriate relationship with a woman outside his marriage. The outlet reported that he had initially denied the affair before being confronted with a recording of a phone conversation between him and Cesaire McPherson.

Merrill, 57, told The Associated Press that he will not be a candidate “because of choices I have made and the decisions I have made that were not in the best interest of me or my family.”

He declined to discuss the relationship.

“It’s personal. It’s impacted my family in negative ways. It’s brought a lot of pain and suffering to other people that I care a lot about,” Merrill said in a phone interview.

McPherson, a legal assistant, told The Associated Press on Thursday that she had a relationship with Merrill from November 2017 to November 2020.

“Unfortunately, he was married,” McPherson said. “I had to deal with his unhappy butt for three years.”

McPherson said she had been approached by someone asking if she would be willing to tell her story. She said she did have a conversation with them but didn’t expect an article to come out at that time.

“We had an affair. It was nice, but now it’s over,” she said.

The bombshell first reported in rightwing blog National File — and amplified by the revelation of risqué texts and salacious details of encounters and sexual preferences — came a week before Merrill was set to announce his Senate candidacy.

Merrill had planned to launch his run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby on Thursday. It was unclear how he would have fared in the crowded GOP primary where the announced candidates are U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, who comes to the race armed with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, and Lynda Blanchard, who was Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia.

Merrill had projected an image of a family man and his official state biography says he is a Baptist church deacon, Sunday school teacher and choir member.

“I think in his mind he always saw himself as something bigger than the secretary of state,” Alabama-based political consultant David Mowery said of Merrill.

Merrill had been a state legislator representing Tuscaloosa before being elected as secretary of state in 2014 and reelected in 2018. For years, he had been viewed as an ambitious politician with a packed schedule of appearances and a habit of freely handing out his cellphone number to anyone who asked.

As election issues came to the forefront of the national stage, Mowery said Merrill was “very clear to pump up his bonafides, not just as a public official, but as a conservative.”

Merrill is the latest in a string of Alabama politicians to see their ambitions thwarted by sex-related scandals.

As he ran for Senate in 2017, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore faced accusations, which he denied, of pursuing romantic and sexual relationships with teens as young as 14 when he was a prosecutor in his 30s. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley resigned that same year amid an impeachment push over his relationship with an aide.

“It’s not necessarily the sex. It’s the abuse of power and it’s the acting contrary to your public image,” Mowery said.

Merrill faces a few calls to resign from both sides of the political aisle.

Democratic Rep. Juandalyn Givan told reporters Thursday that she believes there should be a “hard look” at whether Merrill misused any state resources to carry out the affair and added, “I think it would just be in John’s best interest, if he truly loves the state of Alabama, that he would step down.”

“I’m not here to judge him in that regard. But in this instance, he is a public official. Had that been me, I would have been asked to step down yesterday,” Givan said.

Conservative talk radio host Matt Murphy posted a tweet Wednesday accusing Merrill of lying to him when he first denied the affair during an on-air appearance.

“I hope he gets help he needs to heal his personal life. That said, John has to resign as Secretary of State ASAP. While his prior performance is exemplary … the public trust is gone,” Murphy tweeted.

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