A crook, a racist and a crazy man run against each other for Congress. It’s not the beginning of a joke, just an election campaign.
Ask any political gadfly a year ago which election this year would be the most boring and most would have told you the sixth congressional district. Just think, who could forget just two years ago when incumbent Spencer Bachus squared off against … against … uhm … I would say now that I’ve forgotten, except I don’t think I ever knew in the first place.
Two years later, we’re set for the wildest, most unpredictable Republican primary that anyone can remember. Bachus now faces four challengers. With all respect to Blount County Commission David Stanbridge and Alabaster pharmacist Al Mickle, this is a two-month race and most of the public’s attention will be going to the candidates with established name recognition: Bachus, Scott Beason and Stan Pate.
I was a child when Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards faced Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for Louisiana’s top job, but I still remember the bumper stickers (and I grew up in Alabama): “Vote for the crook — it’s important!” Edwards’ campaign did not print the bumper stickers, but they worked. (Edwards won the election, and in 1998 he was indicted again and that time convicted.)
In the few weeks left before the March 15 GOP primary, some industrious trouble-maker in Alabama needs to find a printing press. But which bumper sticker to print?
Vote for the crook …
It’s hard to find anyone enthusiastic about Bachus, and that might include Bachus himself. Rather than come out against his opponents swinging, Bachus’s campaign has issued bland statements about standing on his record. He has the appeal of a Christmas fruitcake that’s still sitting in your pantry four weeks after Christmas.
Bachus faces so much opposition just because, not because he’s boring, but because he might be a cheat. In a take-no-prisoners screed, Throw Them All Out, author Peter Schweizer accused Bachus among others of using non-public information he had access to as a congressman to influence his personal investments. Those investments proved lucrative, reaping Bachus a return when many in the country were losing their shirts. Bachus has decried the book as an inaccurate smear piece, but his defense isn’t resonating as well as the charges. The CBS news magazine show, 60 Minutes, duplicated much of Schweizer’s reporting.
Such insider trading is not illegal for members of Congress. In fact, bills to ban such investments have failed to pass. You don’t have to break the law when you make the law.
Bachus has either the advantage, or disadvantage of lacking all facial expression. If he loses the March primary, he could have a future in the World Series of Poker, at least until he’s disqualified for sneaking peeks at other players’ cards.
Vote for the racist …
Beason is the only candidate to have been called a racist by a federal judge. Unfortunately, in Alabama politics this is not always a disadvantage.
Last year the prosecution of gambling magnate Milton McGregor and nine others nearly imploded because of Beason. While cooperating with the government, Beason had recorded conversations with targets of the federal investigation, including McGregor. He also recorded conversations in which he plotted political strategy with Republicans he was close to. In one of those conversations, a colleague said that Greenetrack was not an Indian casino.
“They’re aborigines, but they’re not Indians,” Beason said on the recording.
On the witness stand and in virtually every interview since then, Beason has said he doesn’t remember saying that and has no idea why he ever would have said such a thing.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson had his own thoughts. In a tangentially related order after last summer’s mistrial, Thompson found that Beason and his House ally and sometimes Montgomery Days Inn roommate Benjamin Lewis were racists who manipulated the Justice Department out of “naked political ambition.”
“Beason’s and Lewis’s statements demonstrate a deep-seated racial animus and a desire to suppress black voters by manipulating what issues appeared on the 2010 ballot,” Thompson wrote. “Lawmakers who harbor such sentiments lack the integrity expected from elected officials.”
However, in the parlor game of Republican politics, such negatives can be turned into positives by labeling Thompson as a “liberal activist judge.”
Problem solved and on to the next negative.
If Bachus or any other candidate needs help campaigning door to door in the in the next few weeks, I know where they can find about 500 volunteers. Last year, hundreds of Jefferson County employees lost their jobs after Beason single handed killed a limited home rule bill in the Alabama Senate. That bill would have allowed the Jefferson County Commission to restore a portion of the occupational tax it lost in a court battle the year before.
County commissioners were convinced that restoring a portion of the tax was the only way to keep the county solvent and they were ready to take the heat themselves, but Beason never let them. As a result, hundreds of county employees were sent home. The county still has a $40 million operating deficit, which it will close by firing more employees and shuttering whole departments if the Legislature does not act quickly this coming session to restore some revenue.
Beason’s only hope of not facing a rematch of that 2011 fight is that an ally in the Alabama House might keep the bill from ever reaching the Senate. That ally: Rep. John Rogers.
If elected, count on Beason to be the candidate most likely to support a default on the federal debt.
Finally, there’s HB56, Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation illegal immigration law. Despite the fact that a majority of both houses of the Legislature voted for the bill, including many Democrats, and despite the fact that Gov. Robert Bentley put his name on the bill when he signed it into law, and despite the fact that Beason was only the Senate sponsor — Beason and HB56 have become tied to each other and cannot be untangled.
Governors Bob Riley, Don Siegelman and Jim Folsom might not have had major disagreements on politics and policy, but all three men had promoted Alabama as a state open to the world as a place for business and investment, and many international businesses accepted the invitation — ThyssenKrupp, Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai, chief among them.
But what those leaders achieved in transforming Alabama’s reputation, HB56 counteracted almost overnight. Again, Alabama now has the distinction of a racist reputation.
What’s more, the bill proved that all Beason’s talk about being against Big Government was just talk. HB56 intruded into the lives of legal citizens, turning Alabama in a “papers please” state.
To their credit, the Alabama Republican leadership recognizes the law went too far, and they have announced their intention to repeal certain provisions. (Perhaps they should have read it before they passed it.) At the same time, Attorney Gen. Luther Strange has instructed Republicans on which parts of the law need to be changed or struck altogether, and he has told local officials which parts of the law they need to ignore for the time being.
Regardless, the damage to Alabama’s reputation is done, and Beason deserves the blame.
On the other hand, in a race with two other front-runners, Beason has experience in a Mexican standoff.
Vote for the lunatic …
Just when everyone thought this race was as interesting as it could get, in steps Stan Pate, the Tuscaloosa developer and candidate most likely to pull a gun on somebody. The crazy quotient escalated a whole order of magnitude, but Pate is crazy like a fox.
He is the wild man of Alabama politics, but Pate is usually the money man behind (or against) a candidate, not the candidate himself. His reputation and history is so colorful, it’s difficult to know where to start. Let’s start with the menacing charge.
In 2009, a restaurant located in one of Pate’s properties closed. Pate had a lien against the business, so when he heard the restaurant’s management might be moving equipment from the building, he took action. Rather than following the typical legal process for conviction, Pate took a 12-gauge shotgun to the property and told the former tenants to scram. They did. Then they pressed charges.
Pate was convicted of menacing, but he has been a menace to some of Alabama’s most powerful politicians for years.
For at least two politicians, Pate has been the proverbial scorpion that stings the fox half-way across the river. He supported former Gov. Bob Riley and Gov. Robert Bentley before turning on each of them. And when he’s turned on candidates, he’s pursued them relentlessly and ruthlessly.
When Riley used his office to run an Eliot Ness-like campaign against casino gambling, Pate bought full-page ads in newspapers, daring the governor to raid the cruise ships in Mobile. When the Crimson Tide played in the Rose Bowl, Pate paid for an airplane to drag a banner overhead, like the ones you see at the beach — except rather than advertising a shrimp basket dinner, this banner demanded the governor be impeached.
When Bentley ran for governor, Pate initially supported him and Bentley’s campaign set up shop in one of Pate’s Tuscaloosa properties. But as with Riley, Pate had a falling out with Bentley, too. He evicted Bentley’s campaign headquarters and he released emails and recorded phone conversations that nearly wrecked Bentley’s GOP runoff campaign against Bradley Byrne.
Those emails and recordings confirmed what many had already suspected — that AEA chief Paul Hubbert was secretly supporting Bentley. Pate had acted as a go-between, but he kept evidence of the covert political partnership in case he needed it. Later he leaked that evidence to the media.
Pate has the benefit of his own money and he’s not shy about spending, even if the cause seems to everyone else like a hopeless crusade. He’s a volatile as he is passionate. He’s dramatic, and no matter how ham-handed he might seem, he’s not boring.
And with Pate in the race, Beason won’t be the only candidate ever to put a wiretap on somebody.
Vote for the … who?
Stanbridge and Mickle probably have too much ground to cover before the March 15 primary, but it’s worth remembering that multi-candidate races have a way of benefiting also-ran candidates. Bentley wouldn’t be governor right now if Byrne and Tim James hadn’t mortally wounded each other. And with so many candidates in the race, a runoff is likely.
And whoever the winner is of this primary, he will face a Democratic challenger in the fall — either William Barnes, who ran two years ago against Richard Shelby, or Penny Bailey, a retired Air Force colonel who, if given a chance, could pull conservatives across party lines. It’s not out of the question there could be a Fortinbras scenario — where an off stage character walks into the last scene of Hamlet, taking power after everyone else has killed each other.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.