MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Baptist whose faith was central to his public persona, sullied his strongest political commodity after apologizing for sexual remarks he made to a top female aide: A perception as honest.
The 73-year-old Republican had a reputation for being morally upright in a state that has seen its share of corruption scandals, including pending charges against the current speaker of the House.
"Now he's in the thick of it himself. It pretty much decimates the reputation that he was elected on, as the doctor that could cure Alabama's ill's, financial and moral," said Bill Stewart, the former chairman of the department of political science at the University of Alabama in Bentley's hometown of Tuscaloosa.
Bentley's former law enforcement secretary, Spencer Collier, said Wednesday during a news conference that he confronted the governor in 2014 about a recording that captured Bentley's side of a conversation in which he told a woman that he loved touching her breasts. It is unclear in the recording if the woman is the aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
"You don't tell a woman all you think about are your breasts and behind. That's sexual to me," Collier said in an interview. Collier said Bentley as recently as a month ago told him that he was "deeply in love" with Mason but couldn't ask her to leave her husband.
Bentley issued his public apology about the remarks to Mason in a press conference about two hours after Collier's news conference.
He said he did not have a "physical affair" with Mason. But when asked why the recorded conversation included references to touching, Bentley replied: "What I'm saying is there was no sexual activity."
The governor was also asked why voters should trust him and how he moves forward.
"The people of Alabama have twice elected me. I have been totally honest with the people of Alabama, and I'm being honest today. ... As I stand before you and stand before the people of this state, and say I made a mistake," he said.
"The most wonderful thing that I have in my life is I truly believe that the God who loves me, loves me even through the mistakes and he uses those and he uses even difficult times in our lives like I've been going through. He's going to use those to make me better," he said.
When he first ran for governor in 2010, Bentley was a dermatologist and little-known legislator from Tuscaloosa who was considered a longshot candidate. He was catapulted to victory after the state teachers' union launched an advertising assault on the GOP primary front-runner. His campaign promises also resonated with voters, including a vow to not take a gubernatorial salary until state's unemployment rate dramatically improved.
Stewart said that while Bentley was short on experience and savvy, his public perception as an honest politician was one of his strongest qualities. Observers say that is now in jeopardy after six years in office.
"Overall, it is bound to diminish his ability to be persuasive given that he is a lame duck governor to start with, and then when you add this scandal to it, it's hard to believe that he would be taken seriously," Natalie Davis, a political scientist and pollster at Birmingham-Southern College.
Mason has been one of Bentley's closest advisers for years. She previously worked for the governor's campaign, serving as his communications director. However, she is not on the state's payroll and is paid by the governor's campaign fund because her work focuses on political strategy.
Campaign records show Bentley's campaign in 2015, a year after the election, paid Mason's firm $76,830 for consulting and polling and transportation reimbursement.
Democrats in the House of Representatives on Thursday asked the attorney general's office to investigate Collier's accusations, including that Bentley interfered with law enforcement investigations.
"The governor's personal affairs are personal business, the duties of the Office of the Governor are the people's business," their statement said.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement that his office takes all accusations of wrongdoing seriously but does not comment on pending or possible investigations.