For Alabama’s political leaders, it’s crunch time. For newly seated Gov. Kay Ivey, it’s a time of governmental transition and transformation: an opportunity to seize, while she can, the leadership vacuum on Goat Hill left in the wake of Robert Bentley’s fall from power, and so far she seems to be doing a pretty good job. Real leadership, though, is a choice she’s had to actively make, and it has come at a price.
Before Bentley’s resignation — before he knew the drip, drip, drip of scandal, cover-ups and eventual investigations would drown him — the ex-governor tried to make all his worries disappear. Even though the Republican governor had refused to endorse Donald Trump in his run for president, then-Gov. Bentley hit the jackpot when the New York businessman upset the political establishment and successfully took the White House. That jackpot came in the form of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ ascendancy to the office of United States Attorney General, leaving an empty U.S. Senate seat for Bentley to fill.
Bentley’s pick to replace Sessions in the nation’s most exclusive club? The Alabama attorney general we now know was charged with investigating and prosecuting the scandal-ensnared executive: Luther Strange.
After the Blagojevich-style appointment, Bentley did what hadn’t even been considered a possibility: he ignored state law to allow Strange to avoid an election. Alabama law says if a vacancy in the U.S. Senate occurs more than four months out from the regular election cycle, the governor can appoint only a temporary replacement and call a special election to fill the seat “forthwith,” as in “without delay,” according to Merriam-Webster. Bentley chose instead to set the election for November 2018, during the regular cycle.
That’s well over a year of delay any way you look at it, and it’s a clear violation of the law. Fortunately, though, it seems to be a violation Bentley’s successor is unwilling to let stand.
Gov. Ivey has made some very positive changes since becoming governor — particularly in signing legislation affirming the role of the jury in death penalty cases, and ridding the state payrolls of Bentley spoils appointments. The new election date just set for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Bentley appointee Strange — a year earlier than the disgraced ex-governor had called for — is certainly one of them.
The new schedule sets the primary on Aug. 15, with a runoff on Sept. 26, and a general election to be held on Dec. 12.
“There’s a limited time available to make a reasonable decision on that,” Ivey had previously said of the Senate election date. “If we moved the date, it would cost about $15 million that will come straight out of the general fund. So while I have some concerns about the whole situation, I have to also be very mindful of the impact that it would have.”
After those early signals from Ivey, Alabama House Rep. Chris England, a lawyer and Democrat who has long advocated an immediate election, called for the new governor to do the right thing and call the election “forthwith.”
“Interesting quote to the say the least from the person that can fix this problem with a stroke of her pen,” England wrote on social media. “So, to recap, you don’t have to follow the law if you feel like it is too expensive. Following the law is now somehow optional if there is some sort of price.”
England had a similar response when then-Gov. Bentley also cited cost as a reason to delay the election. State law governing special elections for senate vacancies does not mention cost.
It wasn’t just Democrats and state law calling for an immediate election, either. Republican Secretary of State John Merrill says he believes state law requires an election sooner than November 2018. The state’s Legislative Reference Service, which helps lawmakers draft legislation, also issued a memo concluding the state law requires an election sooner than the date scheduled by Bentley.
“It is a practical and reasonable interpretation of the statute to conclude that the Legislature intended for the governor to call a special election immediately or without delay if the vacancy occurred more than four months from the next general election,” the LRS memo says.
Perry Hooper Jr., who was considered by Bentley to replace Sessions and ran Trump’s Alabama campaign, said he also believed Ivey should call the election without delay.
“I hope Kay will take a hard look at that and do what, in my opinion, would be responsible and that’s designate this election at an earlier part of the year,” he said.
Rep. England’s comments on the issue ended with a clear call to action for Gov. Ivey:
“I urge our new governor to stop with the excuses and go ahead and give the people what we deserve and also what the law requires, set the special election this year, and let’s move toward closing the chapter on one of the worst incidents of corruption in Alabama history,” Rep. England wrote.
Apparently Governor Ivey heard those calls — from both sides of the aisle — and made the right decision. On Tuesday, Ivey ordered the election be held without delay: a good decision by our new governor.
“I promised to steady our ship of state,” Ivery said in a statement about the new election date. “This means following the law, which clearly states the people should vote for a replacement U.S. Senator as soon as possible. The new U.S. Senate special election dates this year are a victory for the rule of law.”
The decision to move up the election up — which, again, carries a significant cost to the state — came a week after Ivey entered office.
“This is not a hastily made decision. I consulted legal counsel, the finance director, Speaker [Mac] McCutcheon, Senate President Del Marsh and both budget chairmen since the cost to the General Fund could be great. However, following the law trumps the expense of a special election,” Ivey added.
Now that Gov. Ivey has done her part, it’s time for us to do ours. Ivey has finally given Alabamians the opportunity to get rid of one of the last vestiges of the Bentley debacle: Luther Strange. It’s time for an election: an example of gubernatorial leadership, forthwith.