MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama is hard on its governors. Of the previous three, one was convicted and removed from office, and two were defeated for re-election. Now the current one, Democrat Don Siegelman, is locked in a tight race.
Siegelman was elected governor handily in 1998, but recent polls show him in a dead heat with Republican Rep. Bob Riley.
"It's atypical in the South. Once a governor gets elected in the South, he can get a second term out of it,'' said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
By most measures, Siegelman ought to be in good shape. In the past four years, he spurred the largest school construction program in state history, replacing most of Alabama's portable classrooms. He pushed through the state's biggest rural road program ever, replacing hundreds of outdated bridges. And thousands of new auto industry jobs have come to Alabama as Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes announced new plants or expansions with Siegelman's encouragement.
But Siegelman has been damaged by an investigation of his finances and by allegations that friends have won sweetheart deals from the state.
Riley is focusing his campaign almost solely on Siegelman's ethics. With the slogan "honest change,'' he tells voters that the Siegelman administration is "sinking into a quicksand of corruption and fraud.''
Ethics is a recurring issue in Alabama's gubernatorial politics.
In 1993, Republican Gov. Guy Hunt was convicted of diverting $200,000 in inaugural funds to his personal use and was removed from office.
His successor, Democrat Jim Folsom, fell to GOP challenger Fob James in 1994 after James hammered him on ethics issues, including the mishandling of state funds by three political allies who were later convicted.
Four years later, James fell to Siegelman after James created a furor by focusing on religious issues, including keeping the Ten Commandments posted in a judge's courtroom.
Siegelman ran a one-issue race: creating a state lottery to raise money for education. But Alabama voters rejected the idea in 1999 by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent after critics accused Siegelman of structuring the lottery's management to benefit his friends.
Now Siegelman hopes to win a second term by pressing for another referendum on a lottery. He says voters' attitudes changed last year when a drop in tax revenue forced a 6 percent cut in school spending.
Riley calls the lottery "a rerun of a bad idea.''
Siegelman has been dogged by a series of disclosures suggesting friends and contributors have tried to cash in on their connections to the administration. One was convicted of Medicaid fraud, another of a conflict-of-interest charge.
Siegelman sold his Montgomery home for twice the appraised value and then appointed the buyer to the Alabama Securities Commission, prompting an ethics complaint. His personal financial records have been subpoenaed in a joint state-federal investigation led by Republican prosecutors.
Riley, a cattle rancher and trucking company owner, has run a Ronald Reagan-style campaign, using folksy ads, a never-met-a-stranger-I-didn't-like personality and repeated pictures of him riding horses at his farm.
But the three-term congressman also has the fourth-worst record of any current member for missing votes since 1995, and he has been late paying some of his property taxes. Liens were placed against him in Alabama and Florida. Riley blamed his busy schedule and family illnesses.
The outcome of the race might depend on just how cynical Alabamans are about politics.
"You have some voters who are going to put the ethics issue No. 1. They are leaning to Riley,'' said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University.
"You've got another group that believes Alabama politics has always been corrupt, and they are going to go with a guy who will deal with education problems.''
Over the weekend, Siegelman picked up the personal endorsement of actor Charlton Heston, angering Republicans who spent $25,000 to get Heston and his entourage to Alabama.
Heston, the National Rifle Association president who usually backs Republicans, spent Friday touring the state with Riley and raising money for the state GOP. Party leaders were shocked the next day when Siegelman released an endorsement letter from Heston and a photograph of the two shaking hands. His spokesman said the nod was prompted by Siegelman's support of Second Amendment gun rights and hunting issues.
State Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors and said it represented "a gross manipulation of Mr. Heston,'' who announced last month that he has symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.
Heston spokesman Bill Powers said it was made clear from the beginning that Heston was visiting Alabama to voice his support for the Republican Party, but he was not endorsing Riley. Riley's campaign spokesman denied that.
The NRA, which also backed Siegelman, said its policy is to support incumbents if the group feels they have a strong record on gun ownership rights.