Alabama Gubernatorial Primary Season Sure to Be a Must-See
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The cast: A Republican incumbent who alienated his base with a proposal to raise taxes. A chief justice who lost his job over his Ten Commandments stand. A former governor under indictment. A lieutenant governor who helped her ex-husband run for governor.
The show: Alabama's gubernatorial primaries of 2006.
In a state where George C. Wallace and James E. "Big Jim" Folsom made races for governor a must-watch event on the political stage, the current campaigns may be every bit as memorable.
On the Republican side, ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Ten Commandments crusader, is challenging Gov. Bob Riley, who is trying to rally his business backers after a failed $1.2 billion tax plan his first year in office.
"It will be a classic clash between the church factor of the Republican Party and the business factor of the Republican Party," said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University.
On the Democratic side, the featured players are indicted former Gov. Don Siegelman and Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who is trying to become Alabama's second female governor and the first elected in her own right.
"She has the potential to siphon off some women who traditionally vote Republican," said Charles Bullock, an expert in Southern politics at the University of Georgia.
Riley, 61, is trying to reverse a recent trend by Alabama voters, who have defeated incumbent governors in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
He barely edged Siegelman in 2002 and took office when state government was facing its biggest budget deficit since the Depression. Then he angered many in his GOP base by proposing the biggest tax increase in state history, which voters rejected 2-to-1.
But Riley has slowly rebuilt his standing as the economy rebounded, and he appeared authoritative and organized in response to Hurricane Katrina.
"He recovered and showed himself a leader, particularly during Katrina," said Byrdie Larkin, a political scientist at Alabama State University.
Moore, 58, will take a solid base into the Republican primary on June 6.
"He's a rock star of the Christian right," said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.
Moore's challenge, Lanoue said, is to show that he is not a one-issue candidate — not just the chief justice expelled in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court order to move his Ten Commandments monument. He is trying to do that by attacking Riley's failed tax increase, proposing new penalties for businesses that employ illegal aliens, and advocating term limits for legislators.
"The big check writers and the country club Republicans are not going to vote for him, but the Wal-Mart Republicans will," said Len Gavin, a Moore supporter and former state GOP executive director,
On the Democratic side, Siegelman, 59, is campaigning while battling a federal indictment accusing him of racketeering and conspiracy, including soliciting $1 million in cash and gifts in return for official actions. He is concerned he will not get a trial date allowing him to clear his name before the June 6 primaries.
"I'm not worried about the charges, but I am concerned about the timing," he said.
Larkin said it will be difficult for Siegelman to build a winning coalition unless he is cleared before the vote.
"The interest groups are not going to throw their support to a candidate who has hurdles to overcome," she said.
Baxley, 68, is seeking to be the first woman elected governor of Alabama since Lurleen Wallace won in 1966 as a stand-in for her husband, George Wallace. She has name recognition partly because her ex-husband, Bill Baxley, was attorney general and lieutenant governor and made unsuccessful runs for governor in 1978 and 1986. They divorced after the 1986 race and she began her own political career, winning two terms as state treasurer, then getting elected lieutenant governor in 2002, each time covering the state with red bumper stickers proclaiming "I Love Lucy."
Her offices, however, have been primarily procedural, rather than policy-making.
"If you ask Alabama voters what Lucy Baxley stands for, you'd have a hard time getting a substantive answer," Lanoue said. "She's going to have to create a definition for herself before her opponents do it for her."