Come Nov. 6, 2018, Alabama will elect a new governor. Whether it’s the state constitution’s term limits or the House of Representatives’ impeachment proceedings that seals his fate first, “reach-around Robert Bentley” will be top dog no longer. That fact isn’t lost on Montgomery, either, where every politico on Goat Hill is lining up, waiting for the music to stop so they can fight their way into the governor’s chair.
Already, a handful of candidates have announced their electoral intentions, and others are preparing to do the same. Now, then, is the time for Alabamians to step back, take a deep breath, and look at our options — the businessmen, the populists, the policymakers, and the demagogues — and pick our cream of the crop. Sadly, though, when it comes to politics in the Heart of Dixie, there’s no shortage of bad candidates. It’s the good candidates you want, and right now in Alabama it’s pretty slim pickings.
By 1947, the world was a very different place than it had been just a decade earlier. Governors across the United States — particularly in the South — were finally coming into significant political power over economics and social life in a way that hadn’t been seen before the Great Depression. In that year and in that context, Florida’s then-governor made an astute observation about the importance of a chief executive’s judgment in an increasingly powerful role.
“The judgment evidenced by [the governor’s] opportunities,” Gov. Millard Fillmore Caldwell said, “will determine whether the state will enjoy four years of politics or four years of capable government.”
Few would dispute that for the last few years, politics — not capable government — is what the Yellowhammer State’s been getting. Just head over to the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s official Alabama history timeline (it’s on their website). The only events listed since 2014? The indictment and conviction of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard on a dozen felony ethics charges: criminal, not capable government.
Now Gov. Bentley is headed down the same road, with an impeachment committee moving closer and closer to ending his gubernatorial tenure earlier than expected over the misuse of state resources following the governor’s admittedly inappropriate relationship with a former staffer.
The time for politics — and politicians like Bentley — is over, and the time for capable government should be the focus of those from Mobile to Montgomery.
“The days are gone when the governor could be a figurehead, a Good-Time Charley, or some similarly inept politician,” University of Florida professor Richard Scher wrote in his book “Politics in the New South.” “The demands on the job are too great, and the needs of the states and region too pressing, to permit backsliding to patterns of the past.”
Dr. Scher is right. It’s long past time for Alabama to get a governor it truly deserves, but it’s something we’re going to have to work for. We should all strive to look closely at those running for governor — and all public offices. Question their ideas, scrutinize their claims, think independently and, most importantly, know where candidates stand on issues before we go to the ballot box every election.
Below are descriptions are some of the potential candidates for Alabama governor in 2018, arranged into categories of gubernatorial leadership outlined by Scher, an expert on Southern politics.
According to Scher, these are “Chamber of Commerce” folks — deeply entrenched in the business community and attuned to their needs. While they come in different styles — the Pragmatist, the Ghost, or the Good-Time Charley — these governors are more set on stability than radical political change in either direction. In the upcoming election, potential candidates such as Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh and former Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville — who’s loaned himself $100,000 to run for the office — fit the “businessman” bill.
Populists focus on politics and people, and Alabama has its fair share. John McMillan, commissioner of agriculture, comes to mind. His accent is as Southern as they come, and so is his style. He’s a good shot — he won the governor’s turkey shoot — and while that’s certain to be in a campaign commercial, I hope it’s not what sways voters on election day.
There’s also former House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford. Ford’s been the highest-profile Democrat in a state where that’s not necessarily a good thing, but he’s risen to the challenge again and again. If any Democrat has a shot at the governor’s chair, it may be Ford.
Then there are the demagogues — the George Wallace types that play on fear and hate for power; we have those, too. Public Service Commission President and Alabama Power unofficial spokesperson Twinkle Cavanaugh is one— elected on the back of anti-Obama sentiment. And then there’s the once removed, now suspended Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore. What more is there to say?
Finally, there are the policymakers, those who truly aim to problem-solve and focus on the prose of governance, not the poetry — and pettiness — of campaigns. Fortunately, Alabama has some of these too. Think Alabama Sen. Arthur Orr or Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. I often disagree with them both on issues, from payday lending to voter IDs, but there’s no doubt: Orr and Merrill both know what they’re talking about when it comes to public policy specifics, at least most of the time.
There are also mayors that fall into this camp — Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa and Tommy Battle of Huntsville. Any of these candidates, if they were to be elected, would be sure to put policy before pomp and circumstance.
In any case, no matter what type of governor Alabama chooses come 2018, one thing is for sure: the stakes couldn’t be higher. Alabama is at a turning point. The state’s expenditures are burgeoning at a time when state revenues and federal funding are anemic. Alabamians are tired of corrupt government, poor services and embarrassing national headlines. It’s a pivot point for our state.
“Because the stakes involved are so high, competition for the office [of governor] is likely to become ever greater,” Scher wrote in his book. “This, too, will help make the office more vigorous, and serve as an incentive for more capable, visible, dynamic leadership from those occupying it.”
In his book Scher is very optimistic, holding out hope the pressures of our time will force a cycle of real political leadership. I’m a bit more pessimistic, but only time will tell.