Personal Space

A one on one conversation with Joyce Vance

Since stepping down in January after eight years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Joyce Vance has not slowed down a bit. If anything, her career has only taken on more prominence, as she continues to tackle issues that have long concerned her such as heroin addiction; becoming a distinguished visiting lecturer in law at the University of Alabama School of Law; and supporting her husband, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Bob Vance in his campaign for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Most visibly, she has become a frequent on-air legal analyst for MSNBC.

Vance recently agreed to join us for a cup of coffee at Octane in Uptown to share her views on the current state of politics and the law.

B-Metro: How difficult was it to get used to your new role as a commentator on MSNBC, putting your legal and political observations out to a nationwide audience almost daily?   

Vance: It was really an accident that it happened. When all the U.S. attorneys were fired this last March, I had a friend from inside the administration who wasn’t a U.S. attorney but had been asked to go on TV. He called me for advice and ended up saying, ‘You should really do this, not me.’ So I ended up saying a couple of quick things on the air, and I think they were so taken with someone from Alabama who spoke in full sentences, one thing led to another. I’ve worn more makeup in the last year than I have in the 56 preceding years.

B-Metro: At least they were looking for someone from Alabama to speak in full sentences. Sometimes it seems like…

Vance: There’s almost this mystique around Alabama in the country: ‘Alabama is last. Alabama is worst.’ So too often people seek examples that conform to that belief. And the truth is, we are not last. We are smart, we are strong, we are progressive—not in the political sense, but progressive in terms of creating a business climate. We have one of the best pre-K programs in the country that’s catching on. We’re doing some smart things with prison reform and criminal justice reform in this state. We’re a state working to transform itself. We have a long way to go, but we are so much better than the portrayal we get in the media.

B-Metro: Because so much of MSNBC’s content is political, you’re asked to weigh in on a lot of controversial topics. And obviously the country is very divided politically right now—are you optimistic we’ll get past that?

Vance: I’m optimistic, but I’m optimistic because a lot of people are working hard in whatever their area is to sustain the institutions of democracy. I count on the career ranks of dedicated employees at places like the Justice Department and EPA and Labor and Interior—people who are going to keep their heads down and do their jobs, and do them in a non-political way. Even if they’re under attack, those people are going to do the right thing. And that’s why I am so optimistic that we’ll survive.

B-Metro: How do we address the divisions between those who vehemently support the current administration and those who vehemently don’t?

Vance: Let me just say, we have to all support the president. Whether we like what he’s doing or not, you cannot root against the pilot of the airplane you’re flying on. I don’t like what this president is doing or how he’s conducting himself, but it’s the distinction between respecting the office and respecting the person, and I have deep respect for the office. That’s our leader. I don’t want him to crash and burn. If he does, we all do.

B-Metro: You have had your share of public attacks from those who disagree with your views. How do you deal with that?

Vance: Rush Limbaugh called me out the other day on his radio show and had very negative things to say about me. I don’t care. If I want somebody to make fun of me, I can just sit down at the family dinner table. I’ve got four kids and a husband, right? I don’t have to rely on Rush Limbaugh to make fun of me. But everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, so I understand people are going to say things like that if you expose yourself in the public. You just have to man up and be okay with that.

B-Metro: You received the Lou Wooster Public Health Hero Award from the UAB School of Public Health for your work fighting opioid and heroin abuse in Alabama. When did that become an important issue for you?

Vance: One of my kids had gone to high school here with a woman who died of a heroin overdose. She had been at school out of the country, and I happened to be having a conversation with (a local) sheriff the week after she died. I said, ‘It’s horrible—she was abroad studying and must have gotten addicted to heroin over there.’ This was a precious child, and a heroin overdose death was not in her future. The sheriff looked at me and said, ‘Joyce, she didn’t get addicted abroad. She got addicted here. I know who sold her the heroin that killed her.’ I was stunned. Ultimately we realized we had to bring the community together and build a partnership with the medical community, education and business, and (now) people all over Jefferson County are involved, because this is killing our kids. This is why we have government—to try to solve problems and touch people’s lives in meaningful ways. 

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