It’s almost too late to write an opinion piece about the upcoming elections for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat formerly held by now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and now held, by appointment, by former Alabama A.G. Luther Strange.
There are plenty of candidates running in both party primaries, and it looks like folks are assembling campaign teams, making appearances, putting out yard signs, polling and fundraising, hiring strategists and opposition research types, setting up web pages and fashioning what consultants like to call their “message.”
I used to follow this stuff a bit more closely, as a reporter with The Birmingham News. As some media outlets have already done with some of the misleading claims that Strange has aired, my colleagues and I spent lots of time trying to analyze the falsehoods, out-of-context assertions, and other misleading information that candidates were putting out in their ads. We looked at their finance reports and peeled back the overlapping layers of information to try to determine who was really giving them what.
But, then as now, there was stuff we did not know about or didn’t have enough information to fully report — laundered money, unreported cash contributions, secret deals between candidates and interest groups, promises made at secret fundraisers, smear sheets circulated from hard-to-trace sources. Even the folks involved in some of this stuff would laugh when they saw what we missed in our stories, and one political operative used to kid us about writing articles about “good government.”
The cynic in me expects to see more of this “stuff” between now and the Republican and Democratic primaries on August 15, before the runoff elections on September 26, and before the two party nominees face each other in the special general election on December 12. Now I know that not everyone will do this stuff to the same degree. But I can’t help but think that some candidates, because of their resources, may play dirty more than others, and they will likely get help from shadowy political committees funded by unknown donors that run expensive, and often misleading, attack ad campaigns on conventional and social media.
Talk to political types about all this, and they’ll say, It’s always been this way. If you get one candidate to run as Jefferson Smith (see the James Stewart movie), the other candidate will run as Frank Underwood (see Netflix).
Still, in this day and time, when our parties can’t meet in the middle or even agree on basic facts, the president is… (pick your unflattering adjective), gun-toters go after elected officials, talk shows give undeserved attention to conspiracy theories, and many of us view government as bad and don’t want to have anything to do with it, would it not be great if we had candidates whose campaigns earned our respect, even if we disagreed with their policy positions?
In case you are wondering, my rose-colored glasses are off. No one named Pollyanna is whispering in my ear, and I’m well aware of the old baseball quote, “Nice guys finish last.” But I want to suppose, and I’d like you to suppose with me.
Suppose one or more of the Senate candidates had a strategy that involved revealing to you everything about their campaign and a willingness to stand for core principles, regardless of their consequences at the ballot box? Suppose they said, I don’t want government to be all things to all people, but I want government to be responsive, effective, and transparent — in sum, to work? And to achieve that, suppose they said they would be willing to compromise on important issues, to meet folks from the other party in the middle, and not blindly follow their party’s guidance-of-the-day?
And suppose they pledged to disclose, not just at certain times, but daily, every source of money they received? Suppose they pledged to publicize their fundraisers, release videos of what they said at those events and pledge to take no funds or in-kind contributions (like the use of campaign airplanes) from shadowy groups funded by mystery donors, and publicly reject these groups’ ads and point out their inaccuracies?
And suppose they said there were some issues on which they knew a lot, others on which they had much to learn, and that they would disclose the names and qualifications of those who might advise them and fill in their knowledge gaps? And suppose they told you that if they were elected, their staffs would not consist of hacks, former lobbyists, or blind loyalists but folks with competence, experience, knowledge and a willingness to disagree with the boss when they thought it necessary? And let’s say they told not only told you the areas in which they hoped to specialize and the committees on which they hoped to serve, but that they also would take no campaign money from interest groups or individuals affected by those committees?
And what if they released their tax returns, put forth a plan to cut all ties to their businesses and have that conflict of interest plan vetted by qualified authorities with no ties to their campaign?
Now wait a minute, you might say. What about all those ads in which candidates will be attacking each other? Their strategists will try to get away with as much as they can, particularly if a certain line of attack polls well. So would it not be great if these candidates viewed facts, about themselves and their opponents, as material to be used fairly and not just as ammunition for an out-of-context campaign ad?
Now, realistically, I don’t think it is possible for anyone to run a consistent, kumbayah campaign, especially if they are facing an opponent who wants to squash them like a kumquat. And as someone told me this week, you better have a lot of gas money to get on the high road, and you’re going to need a lot to stay there. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t recall what state Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) once told me when Leeds native and former NBA star Charles Barkley was musing about running for governor. Alabama politics is not like pro basketball, Rogers said. When you get fouled in an Alabama campaign, you don’t get to go to the free throw line.
So, while I’m hoping I’ll see something or someone who is will be ethical and honorable in the coming campaign, my nose is on high alert for stinky stuff that I have seen in many a past political contest. That’s why I’m stocking up on my supply of scented aerosol spray, and hoping I’ll have a lot of it left over after December 12.