On Wednesday morning, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill went on a local conservative radio show to deny a story posted by a right-wing blog claiming he had an affair with a legal assistant, who also accused him of using racist language. The story was a false smear designed to end his bid for U.S. Senate, he said.
“People are attempting to use this to either advance the candidacy of other people, or they are doing it primarily to harm me and my family,” he said on the radio. “It’s very frustrating and very sad.”
Hours later, when an AL.com reporter confronted him with a recording of an explicit phone call between Merrill and the woman, the politician changed his story. Merrill acknowledged the affair — and said he would drop his plans to run for Senate.
“It’s clear that I had an inappropriate relationship with her, and it is not something that I am proud of or something that is something that — I’m very disappointed in myself,” Merrill, who is married with two children, told AL.com. “I’m also disappointed that I allowed my family to be embarrassed by this action. And it’s something that I certainly will always regret because of the pain that it has caused my family.”
The revelations threw a wrench into the race to succeed Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who is retiring. Merrill was one of several likely GOP contenders for the seat, including Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who has promoted election fraud claims and was endorsed by former president Donald Trump on Wednesday.
Merrill, a native of Wedowee, Ala., comes from a family deeply engaged in public life. His father was a probate judge and other family members have served as lieutenant governor, state representatives, and Alabama Supreme Court justices.
Merrill was first elected to public office in 2010, when he joined the Alabama House of Representatives. He was elected secretary of state in 2014 and handily won a second term in 2018.
While campaigning for secretary of state, rumors that Merrill had a consensual encounter with a married woman in 2010 circulated online, in newspaper comment sections, emails and blogs. The allegation stemmed from depositions in an unnamed woman’s divorce case, in which she testified that she and Merrill had engaged in oral sex, AL.com reported. Merrill told reporters that the woman had kissed him, unbuttoned his shirt, removed his belt, and fondled him, but denied oral sex occurred.
The allegation did little to stymie Merrill’s political aspirations, which continued with his 2019 campaign for U.S. Senate, where he was one of five GOP candidates hoping to unseat incumbent Democrat Doug Jones. In the midst of that campaign, Merrill made headlines for his comments about LGBT rights.
“We’re too interested in homosexual activities,” he said to a crowd of supporters at a town hall in Fort Payne, Ala., in July 2019. “We’re too interested in seeing how this family’s finding a way to mess on this family or to see how people are trying to date on TV, or having wife-swapping on TV.”
At the town hall, Merrill said he was prepared for the “attacks” he would face in a run for U.S. Senate as people scrutinized his record and his personal life. That same month, his affair with the woman at the center of the latest scandal reportedly began.
The affair was first alleged on Tuesday night in a right-wing blog, which interviewed the 44-year-old woman, who also accused Merrill of regularly using racist language. Merrill emphatically denied the relationship and the use of racist language in statements to other local media outlets, accusing the woman of “stalking” him with “intentions that were bordering on obsession.”
But that changed after the woman on Wednesday provided AL.com a recording of an October 2020 phone call, in which Merrill told the woman that he was ending the affair.
“So, the last time that we had sex, that’s the last time ever?” the woman asked.
“It’s supposed to be the last time ever,” Merrill replied. “It should be the last time ever.”
Confronted with the recording on Wednesday, Merrill admitted to the affair and announced he would not be seeking election to public office next year, AL.com reported.
“After much prayer, reflection, and conversations with my wife, Cindy, I have decided that I will not be a candidate for any office in 2022,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
His admission led to swift backlash and calls for him to resign, including from some conservative figures like Matt Murphy, the radio host who interviewed Merrill early on Wednesday when he was still denying the affair.
“Sad to say @JohnHMerrill lied to me this morning on @realtalk995 re: his affair,” Murphy said in a tweet several hours later. “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.”
Wade Perry, the executive director for the Democratic Party of Alabama, said the extramarital relationship was a “personal” issue, unless Merrill had ever used public funds to facilitate the affair.
“The Democratic Party is much more concerned about the allegation that he regularly referred to African American judges and citizens in Alabama as ‘The Coloreds,’” Perry said in a statement Wednesday. “If true, he must apologize AND resign immediately.”
Merrill denied the allegations that he used racist language to refer to Black people living in Alabama.
Despite calls for his resignation, Merrill said he intends to finish out his term as secretary of state.
“While I remain fully committed to continuing my service as your Secretary of State through the end of my term, I do not know what the next chapter will present for me and my family,” he said in a statement. He added: “I am surrounded by a great team and we look forward to finishing the goals we set out to achieve before our term ends in January of 2023.”