Tim James was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool. Before the federal bailouts, before most Americans had heard of Barack Obama, before Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck became household names, James helped lead the 2003 effort to stop a tax increase proposed by Alabama’s Republican Gov. Bob Riley.
The battle over Amendment One, as Riley’s $1.3 billion tax measure was known, was a defining moment for the state’s conservatives. James, who had challenged Riley in the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary, sided with the anti-tax activists who organized an opposition campaign that became known as the “Alabama Tea Party.”
Alabama voters rejected the proposal by more than a 2-to-1 margin in a September 2003 referendum and, if politics were logical, James would be the front-runner in this year’s GOP gubernatorial contest. Instead, one recent poll showed that the early leader is Bradley Byrne who, as a state senator in 2003, voted for Riley’s tax-hike plan.
It’s a long way until the June 1 primary, however, and James believes Alabama’s voters are ready for his low-tax, free-market message. “Economics is affecting everything,” the 48-year-old real estate developer said in an interview last week in Birmingham. “The economy has awakened a nation that’s been asleep for 30 years.”
James majored in finance at Auburn University and talks economics with impressive fluency, citing Gary Shilling and Bob Prechter as the analysts whose forecasts he finds most credible. Both Shilling and Prechter expect the current recession to get worse before it gets better, and James sees the populist mood represented by the Tea Party movement as driven largely by economic concerns and by the belief that politically connected insiders have gamed the system.
“The anxiety is directed at whoever’s in office,” James said. “It’s a good time to be an outsider.”
The son of popular two-term governor Fob James might seem an unlikely choice as an “outsider” candidate, but with much of the state’s Republican establishment already lined up behind Byrnes, James is clearly the slingshot-wielding shepherd boy in this David-and-Goliath story. In public appearances, he contrasts his business background with the political careers of his opponents in the seven-candidate GOP gubernatorial field.
“I’m a little bit different, I come from a different background, I took a different path,” James said when introducing himself at a candidate forum Monday in Montgomery. “I don’t have a long political résumé. I’ve spent 25 years here in Alabama, building companies, making payroll, taking risks, creating jobs — not jobs on the backs of taxpayers, but jobs in the private sector.”
In a state where the official unemployment rate is 11 percent — a number that doesn’t include so-called “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking for work — how to create jobs is clearly the top issue in this year’s mid-term elections. Running for governor, James understands where voters’ economic discontent is aimed.
“Their animosity is directed at Washington.… You’ve got to bring it down home.”
Bringing it down home — making the gubernatorial election a referendum on the current direction of the country — is a key to success for the James campaign. A recent Gallup poll found that Alabama is the most conservative state in America, and Obama got only 39 percent of the vote there in 2008. As one of James’ supporters said during last weekend’s state GOP meeting in Montgomery, James has to make voters feel that a vote for him is a vote against the Obama agenda.
Getting to that point, however, requires James to do battle in a crowded primary field that in addition to Byrne also includes Alabama’s Secretary of State Kay Ivey, state Rep. Robert Bentley, former state economic development director Bill Johnson and former state Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore.
Moore is famous as the “Ten Commandments Judge,” who was removed from the bench in 2003 for his defiance of a federal court order. As one state Republican operative said, Moore has a “high floor and a low ceiling” — he can count on a certain level of support in the GOP primary, but is unlikely to win the nomination in a state that requires a runoff if no candidate gets a majority.
Fundraising reports show Moore ended 2009 with a modest $145,000 in his campaign chest, while James had more cash on hand ($2.6 million) than either Byrne ($1.8 million) or the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Artur Davis ($1.4 million).
While James seeks to capture the nationwide energy of the Tea Party movement for his gubernatorial campaign, it remains true that all politics is local. Alabama has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals, and is currently embroiled in a battle over casino gambling that led Gov. Riley to denounce state attorney general Troy King for “parroting the talking points of the gambling bosses.”
Talk radio and political blogs in Alabama are rife with accusations that state politicians are controlled by contributions from gambling interests. Such accusations have been hard to prove because Alabama law permits money to be transferred between political action committees, effectively obscuring the source of donations. James has not involved himself in the casino fight — “it’s not our message,” one of his campaign staffers says — but has promised to reform the state’s campaign-finance system to provide transparency.
In a year when Alabama voters associate political insiders with corruption, as James says, it’s a good time to be an outsider.