Conservatives should pay heed in Heart of Dixie.
Not enough conservatives nationally are paying attention to Alabama’s political races this year, including a tremendously important Republican primary runoff for governor this coming Tuesday, July 13. There’s also an important race for attorney general in the fall featuring a solid conservative trying to fight against what would be a counterintuitive, Democratic central-Gulf Coast sweep of AG offices, causing all sorts of mischief that could hamstring the conservative governors in those states.
Let’s take the governor’s race first. Governor Bob Riley is finishing up his second of two impressively successful terms, having made great strides in industrial recruitment, tax relief, conservative education reforms, multiple-disaster response, and government ethics. But with Riley retiring, his enemies at the hugely powerful, hugely counterproductive Alabama Education Association are going to phenomenal extremes to make sure the governor’s mansion ends up in hands far more pliable for the AEA agenda. So radical is the AEA that a decade ago it actually fought tooth and nail against teacher background checks. Yes, against background checks. Apparently it was more important to protect the jobs of teachers than it was to make sure Alabama’s children weren’t being preyed upon by sex offenders or other criminals. Most people see the AEA as a direct arm of the state Democratic party — or vice versa, with the AEA pulling all the strings: Paul Hubbert, AEA’s major domo since 1969, is a former Democratic nominee for governor and still is co-chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Anyway, the AEA has by reliable estimates spent well over $1 million, and by some claims as much as $3 million, to defeat conservative reformer Bradley Byrne. Byrne is a former state school board member and state senator who then was appointed to take over the state’s system of two-year colleges after the schools were plagued by a multi-conviction scandal — and who by all press accounts effectively cleaned house. Against Byrne in the Republican primary runoff is a relative cipher named Robert Bentley, a previously low-profile state House member who used a stealth campaign to barely edge conservative businessman Tim James, son of former Gov. Fob James, to sneak into the runoff with Byrne. Bentley, who partnered with the AEA while in the Legislature to help kill Gov. Riley’s efforts to legalize charter schools, gladly has accepted AEA’s campaign help, financial and otherwise. The AEA is openly urging registered Democrats to cross over and vote in the GOP runoff, for Bentley.
When I served as chief editorial writer for the Mobile Register, at the time one of the most conservative papers in the country and one of the only conservative papers to regularly win mainstream journalism awards, Byrne was one of the few office-holders we could count on to give us the news straight and unvarnished, whether we wanted to hear it or not. He never wavered in the state Senate when subject to unrelenting pressure from the liberals who controlled the chamber, several times leading successful filibusters against corrupt or big-government agenda items. I remember one time, also, when he was the only member of a key committee to vote against a sneaky tax hike: I can’t remember the details, other than that it was one of those legislative sleight-of-hands by the left that only somebody really paying attention would have caught and raised a stink about. Byrne, to his credit, was paying attention, and raised the appropriate stink. (Byrne signed the famous tax pledge from Americans for Tax Reform a full year to the day before Tuesday’s primary runoff. ) He also showed fiscal restraint as an administrator, saving $70 million from the budget of the state’s two-year colleges.
All of which is fine, you might ask, but why should you care? For one thing, redistricting. Three of Alabama’s current congressional districts have repeatedly produced razor-thin margins. Just a few tweaks in the district lines could easily make all three of them virtual guarantees for Democrats to win, merely by shifting more Republican voters into the neighboring districts currently held by Republicans Jo Bonner, Spencer Bachus, and Robert Aderholt. A governor in hoc to the AEA is, through Hubbert, directly in hoc to the state Democratic Party. Bye, bye, any real chance of fair redistricting for those three U.S. House seats. As the fight over Obamacare showed, every single one of those seats can make a huge difference.
Secondly, the national conservative movement would benefit from having a Duke-educated, sophisticated, articulate spokesman, without a good-ol’boy twang, in the state known as the Heart of Dixie. Somebody who naturally sounds attractively southern without sounding the slightest bit hayseed is harder for national establishment media to stereotype and slander.
On the other hand, conservatives cannot afford to lose the governorship in what should be strong conservative territory. The solid South would suddenly have a soft underbelly. And the Left would exploit it without mercy.
NOW, MORE QUICKLY, as for the race for attorney general. Alabama had two superb AGs in a row, now-Senator Jeff Sessions and Bill Pryor, now a judge on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. To replace Pryor, Gov. Riley made one of his few regrettable moves, appointing an ambitious lawyer named Troy King. King turned out to be a mess, repeatedly under investigation (no indictments yet) for various potential crimes or ethical scrapes, and often playing footsie with the plaintiffs’ bar. Riley himself has clashed with King, and quite clearly favored a rare GOP intra-party challenge to an incumbent state office-holder. The challenger was Riley friend and respected lawyer Luther Strange, a narrow loser for lieutenant governor four years ago. U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby both openly supported Strange as well, and Strange upended King in a 60-40 landslide.
Strange visited Washington last week, and made a stop at a small gathering of conservative journalists hosted by the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes. (The stalwart conservative Barnes has several close familial and friendship ties with Alabama, and is a good friend of Strange’s.) As Strange rightly explained, Alabama has been a key spearpoint for the civil justice reform movement. Once the worst of the worst “tort hells,” Alabama in the past 12 years elected a conservative state Supreme Court and put limits on punitive damage awards, seriously undercutting the liberal big-money trial-lawyer machine that once held sway. But with the oil spill in the Gulf, the Obama administration in Washington, and major fights brewing about federal encroachment on state prerogatives and individual rights, the plaintiffs’ bar is desperate to recapture the seat of legal-issue power in Alabama.
The latest nationwide trend is for plaintiffs’ lawyers to convince AGs to contract out “contingent fee” cases to them, giving them the power of the attorney generals’ offices to pursue cases in which the lawyers bring home millions while taxpayers see gains only indirectly, through money that flows into the state treasury only to be further raided by big-spending legislators. Luther Strange, on the other hand, pledges to handle all litigation relating to the oil spill in-house, saving for taxpayers the millions that otherwise would flow to the outside lawyers. Naturally, the trial lawyers have put a huge target squarely on Strange’s very tall back. (Strange, at 6’9”, is a former scholarship basketball player for Tulane University in New Orleans.) But as the national trial bar regularly donates more than 90% of its campaign cash to Democrats like Obama, vice president Biden, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy of Vermont, any gains they make in Alabama by beating Strange would surely mean a financial boost nationally for the left-most of the Senate’s left.
Democrats already control the AG’s office in neighboring Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and in Louisiana as well. As the Obama regulatory regime grows ever wider and more intrusive, those state AGs who not only refuse to fight it but who actually side with Obama can do great damage to court challenges against federal overreach.
“I just think that with this whole Obama agenda, somebody needs to be watching,” Strange said.
And when you are 6’9”, you can not just watch but actually see one heck of a lot.
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