Despite scandal-ensnared Gov. Robert Bentley’s effort to seek the moral high ground by denouncing Trump’s bid for the nation’s highest office, President-elect Donald Trump’s Nov. 8 upset victory may be just the salvation the governor needs, as he faces a criminal investigation and possible impeachment.
When Trump visited Mobile over the summer — at a time when his victory was a mere twinkle in the disillusioned voter’s eye — I was there as a reporter, covering what I thought was probably just an inconsequential, not very presidential rally. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Trump’s security detail eventually pushed me farther away from the podium than the five or so feet where I’d begun watching the man I thought would never be president speak. I realize now what I didn’t then: I was in the middle of a movement. Only now does that seem real.
And only now am I realizing that another key figure at that rally — U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, white “Make America Great Again” hat and all — will soon become one of that movement’s central leaders in ways that may shake up politics in our state in fundamental ways.
Exactly how that Alabama shakeup will go down isn’t transparent quite yet, but it all revolves around one imminent announcement: Sessions’ ascendance to Trump’s cabinet.
“Sessions is a guy who is going to be able to have his pick of what he wants to do,” said Joe Kasper, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-California), who is also a Trump cabinet contender. “Look, it’s a short bench. If you’re looking at early endorsers who also understand the complexities of national defense, there aren’t many, and that’s OK.”
So there you have it. Jeff Sessions is all but out as one of Alabama’s U.S. senators, headed for a much more desirable position, be it secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security or attorney general.
Then, though, the real questions arise, and Bentley’s salvation becomes clear: Virtually powerless in the Yellowhammer State before Trump’s election, Bentley will now likely get to hand pick a replacement to serve the rest of Sessions’ term, which lasts until 2020. That power — and the ultimate bargaining chip it gives the governor — could greatly improve not only Bentley’s ability to govern, but his ability to hold onto the office itself.
Alabama’s Republican leaders know the enormous implications, then, that Trump’s cabinet selections have for the Heart of Dixie. So far, however, they’re not letting their cards show.
“I know clearly where Jeff Sessions stands on many, many issues, and that’s one of the reasons why he is so revered in Alabama,” Terry Lathan, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said in a statement about the senator’s potential appointment to a Trump cabinet. “It will be a sad day for Alabama if he moves on, but if America needs him and needs his talent and heart and patriotism, we would very much support that.”
Below is a list of Alabama politicos who would, indeed, “very much support that” when it comes to Sessions vacating his office early, as they’d love to keep his office furniture warm until the next election.
Sen. Del Marsh — Marsh is the top Republican in the Alabama Senate and, according to those in Montgomery, he’s already making phone calls to insiders expressing his interest in the seat. Marsh has his hand in everything in Alabama politics, and if he is appointed to federal office, there’s sure to be a huge power vacuum in his wake once he leaves office. If Marsh is appointed to replace Sessions, and I think he’d be the most likely contender, the keys to Montgomery’s halls of power will be up for grabs.
Sen. Arthur Orr — Orr is a dynamic, policy-oriented state senator who’s currently in control of the state’s education budget. Orr is a well-polished, well-versed politician, and Bentley wouldn’t be embarrassed by such a pick.
Sen. Trip Pittman — Pittman, from Baldwin County, is a sometimes-bombastic state senator who controls the state’s general fund budget. He’s caught a lot of flack in Montgomery for his sometimes rough-and-tumble politics, so his appointment is less likely, but still possible.
Secretary of State John Merrill — Merrill has long been a favorite of the GOP, and many have suggested he would be a good choice to replace Sessions. Merrill served in the Alabama House before his election as secretary of state. If he’s appointed, it won’t be the first time he’s overcome unlikely odds. As a candidate for SGA office at the University of Alabama, he was one of the first to ever beat the so-called “machine.”
Steve Flowers — Flowers is a political commentator who served in the Alabama House for years, and it’s not impossible that he’d be appointed. Appointing Flowers would put someone in the office the governor’s known for years, and who knows intricately the workings of politics.
Sen. Cam Ward — Ward currently chairs the Alabama Senate’s judiciary committee, so he may be a good choice to replace Sessions, who has served on the committee at the national level for years. Ward’s had some personal problems, though: he’s known for his temper and admitted to driving while drunk after he was arrested in his hometown.
Rebekah Mason — God forbid, but we’ve all heard the rumor. Yes, it’d be perfectly legal for Gov. Bentley to appoint his former aide and alleged mistress to the U.S. Senate … but highly unlikely.
Jo Bonner — Mobile’s most likely chance to get someone homegrown into Sessions’ office is Bonner, the former U.S. congressman from the Port City. Appointing Bonner would allow Bentley to put someone in Sessions’ place who knows Congress well.
Luther Strange — This is by far the most interesting — and possibly career-saving — scenario for filling Sessions’ seat. Gov. Bentley, currently under criminal investigation by the attorney general of Alabama, could appoint that very official to the highest federal office representing our state. What a deal that could be for Attorney General Luther Strange. And what a plea deal that could avoid for Gov. Robert Bentley.