Friday, June 2, 2006

A Brief Political History

Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. ~Author Unknown

I have lived in three states, Ohio, Virginia, and Alabama. I have learned that politics is pretty much the same all over, but the sideshow is very different from place to place. Alabama has a very lively sort of political carnival.

My introduction to Alabama politics came in 1986, when Bill Baxley and Charlie Graddick ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. Since no Republican had been elected governor since Reconstruction, the outcome of the Democratic primary usually determined the winner of the November election.

Alabama has a run-off system for primaries, and in 1986, Baxley and Graddick made the run-off election. In this state, if you vote in one party's primary, you aren't allowed to cross over and vote in the other party's run-off. That's the law. Charlie Graddick, a former State Attorney General, evidently missed class the day that law was taught because he actively promoted the idea of Republicans, who were more likely to favor him, to vote in the Democratic run-off.

Republicans were available to vote because they had picked their man in the initial primary. When no one expects your party to win, you don't get a lot of guys queuing up to get beaten. Guy Hunt, their nominee, had won relatively easily. Now Graddick was asking them to break the law.

Graddick won, as I recall, but had the nomination stripped by the state Democratic party, who gave the nod to Baxley. Graddick sued and lost, so Baxley had a fairly clear road to the governor's mansion. Except, that he wasn't any brighter than Graddick. It seemed that Mr. Baxley, a married man, was photographed leaving a motel with a female known not to be his wife. This sort of behavior, while certainly not uncommon in Alabama (or anywhere else), is not considered something to be flaunted about publicly. Unless you're William Jefferson Clinton, which Baxley certainly wasn't.

Of course, Baxley denied any wrongdoing, it was all just business, blah, blah, blah. His wife, Lucy, stood by him. Stood by him, that is, until Guy Hunt beat him to become the first Republican governor in Alabama in over 100 years. At that point, she showed him the door. More about Lucy later.

Hunt, a folksy sort of man, acquitted himself adequately if not brilliantly as governor. Everything was lovely until it was learned that he was using the State airplane to get ferried to revivals and other church-type events where he would preach. That resulted in an investigation which, as is usually the case, brought up some other apparent improprieties concerning the spending of excess campaign funds. Hunt did not finish his second term.

He was succeeded by Democratic Lt. Governor Jim Folsom Jr., whose daddy was Big Jim Folsom. Yes, that Big Jim Folsom. Big Jim, the story goes, ran for re-election by saying that his people had stole as much as they were going to steal, but if the voters voted in new people they'd start stealing all over again, so they'd save money if they re-elected him (which the voters did). Little Jim, as he was known, showed that he wasn't a very quick study because as election time rolled around, it turned out his family was getting ferried around in –you guessed it-- the State airplane for non-governmental reasons.

So, Republican Fob James (who had been a Democratic governor some years earlier) became top man. He promptly demonstrated all the reasons that had led to him not being re-elected the last time. His main contributions to embarrassing the state were: a) suggesting that the state government should be run like Waffle House; and b) penning a long article on why the U.S. Bill of Rights should not apply to states. Fob fiddled while the State lost federal funds through inaction.

That brilliant performance brought us Democrat Don Siegleman, whose administration was marked by continual murmurings about financial favors being demanded for governmental favors. The law-and-order State Attorney General, Bill Pryor, a Republican, managed to not find anything out for Siegleman's entire term. He did this by actively not investigating any of the allegations. Pryor also decided that working with Federal prosecutors would interrupt his busy schedule of worrying about illegal bingo parlors. At any rate, it wasn't until recently that Siegleman himself got indicted. More on that in just a moment.

Siegleman was defeated by Republican Bob Riley. Riley is in the Hunt mold, not as a preacher, but as a folksy guy who has done an okay job. A big plus is that he seems to have kept everyone away from the State airplane.

So we reach the current political season. This features Riley being challenged in his primary by former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy “Ten Commandments” Moore. Moore became nationally famous as the judge who ignored a U.S. court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Judiciary Building in Montgomery. He announced that he wasn't going to obey that law, and no one could make him. Surprise, Roy! They can! And they can kick you off the Court, too. So now he says he can be a fair governor as long as we let him uphold the laws he likes and ignore the ones God tells him are bad.

By the way, I'm not going to get into that whole Ten Commandments debate other than to say there were a dozen legal ways Moore could have had his precious monument. All he had to do was create a display that recognized other religions and even secular lawgivers like Hammurabi. Many states, local communities, and even federal buildings have such legal displays.

On the Democratic side, good ol' Don, who is being tried for his alleged financial follies, is running against –and unless you live here you won't be expecting this—Lucy Baxley. Yup, ol' Bill's wife is running for governor. Lucy has not wandered into this cold. She served pretty well as State Treasurer and followed that up by being elected Lt. Governor. While there she managed to get people to forget her predecessor's idiocy (a story in and of itself) and brought some dignity back to the office.

Odds are good that Lucy and Bob will go into the fall election, which could produce the most civil campaigns we've seen here in years. Both are reasonably competent, and both have clear public records to run on. We might actually have a campaign based on issues, not invective.

But, I'm not going to bet the farm on that.

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