The world of politics brought a surprise last week. No, not Rush Limbaugh apologizing; anyone who knows radio knows that as soon as advertisers started dropping him (for calling a college girl a “slut” when she spoke out for insurance companies’ coverage of female contraception), the renowned blowhard would recant. It’s what bullies do.
The surprise of the week was learning that Spencer Bachus graduated from my alma mater, Shades Valley High School. You would think after ten terms in Washington, word of this might have slipped out before, but all he admits to on his website is attending both Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
(Interestingly, his predecessor in the Sixth Congressional District seat, Ben Erdreich, was also an SVHS Mountie. One might suppose that my old school was a breeding ground for excellence, but the same year Spencer graduated, future famous murderer Jack Trawick was a junior. As noted philosopher Chuck Berry once observed, it just goes to show that you never can tell.)
According to the Tower, Shades Valley’s hardcover yearbook, the only two things Spencer listed on his senior CV were American Studies Club and B-team football. Class prophet Ken Moore failed to predict that Spencer would use his attributes to become a Congressman, but there are indications that solar flares were disrupting the workings of Magic 8-Balls all over North America that year.
That Spencer Bachus beat the odds to enter the U.S. Congress could have been one of the intriguing mysteries of American politics, were it not for timely redistricting that helped blow open the golden door. After the 1990 Census, the Alabama legislature did not respond expeditiously to a Department of Justice mandate to make one congressional district majority-black, so a federal court adopted a plan initially proposed by the Republican minority in the legislature, redrawing the map to shunt a lot of black Birmingham voters into the 7th District. The population shortfall in the 6th was made up by penciling in parts of Tuscaloosa and Shelby Counties.
Suddenly the 6th was chock-full of affluent white people anxious to vote their pocketbooks. Spencer had dutifully put in 10 years on the GOP treadmill, on the state school board, as a state senator and representative, as Governor Guy Hunt’s campaign manager and as the Republican state chairman. Even with this kind of party cred, Congress was no gimme. In a five-man primary race, Spencer pulled only 39 percent of the vote and wound up having to best upstart activist Marty Connors in the GOP runoff.
However, 1992 was a presidential election year, and in the hyper-Caucasian 6th District, Spencer was able ultimately to ride Bush The First’s long frock coat tails to victory.
One thing Spencer may have gleaned from his American studies at Shades Valley is that in politics, you go along to get along. Once in Washington, he hunkered down, maintaining a low profile and consistently voting the party line, and there he’s stayed for 20 years, coasting on the ineffable inertia of incumbency.
His biggest foe may have turned out to be complacency. Serving on the House Committee on Financial Services, Spencer got comfortable carrying water for the banking interests, in 2010 going so far as to tell The Birmingham News, “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”
In 2007 and 2008, it looked a little too much as though he might also be serving Spencer Bachus. As the American economy slid toward ruin, propelled by unregulated bank speculation, the congressman was one of a select few privy to special briefings from old acquaintances Henry Paulson — once of Goldman Sachs, then Secretary of the Treasury — and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Perhaps forgetting how much it might appear a conflict of interest, the Congressman shortly thereafter engaged in some spirited stock trading that netted him big bucks, as well as an unflattering portrait on 60 Minutes.
The old Spencer would have been careful not to be caught out. Too, the old Spencer would have avoided ticking off the Tea Party, with criticisms of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell after the 2008 elections, or House Speaker John Boehner, with overtures to Democrats during the 2008 bank bailout negotiations. Luckily for the new Spencer, the old one socked away plenty of campaign funding, more than a million bucks, a good bit of it provided by political action committees for the very financial interests with whom he has been simpatico for 20 years.
There’s more luck to acknowledge. In the Ooper Tuesday primary next week, Spencer’s major opposition is provided by state Sen. Scott Beason, a court-certified bigot and snitch. Clearly the Koch Brothers have not lined up alongside the Gardendale Republican, who’s raised but $54,308 so far (as reported here at Weld). The absence of big PAC money from Beason’s coffers suggests that the GOP establishment has no beef with Bachus, and that’s bad news for the wire wearer.
Last weekend, at the Trussville Civic Center, Beason lost the Jefferson County Straw Poll, a GOP function that cost $25 a vote. In a press release, Beason partisans groused that Spencer had papered the house, but the fact is, the challenger didn’t or couldn’t come up with $600 to win the PR battle (Bachus won 143-120).
Worse, Beason didn’t or couldn’t turn out enough disgruntlement in Tea Partyville on a Saturday morning with a barbecue lunch. What does that portend for voting on a weekday where no snacks are involved?
There is reckoning nigh. Should the incumbent triumph on Tuesday, there’s still a Democratic insurgency to quell in November, and should he be returned to Washington, the Office of Congressional Ethics is still investigating his hinky investments. 2012 might not be the end of the world for Spencer Bachus, but it’s easy to see from here.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.