No state has been more "pro business" than Alabama over the past 15 years or so. With the help of Karl Rove and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporate interests bought first our judicial branch and then our executive branch. In the process, they turned Alabama into a breeding ground for corruption, exemplified by the Don Siegelman case, perhaps the most glaring political prosecution in American history.
Alabamians, however, are showing signs that they've had their fill of crony capitalists. Twice in the past six weeks, voters have handed corporate candidates a sound thumping at the ballot box.
The most recent came yesterday when Dr. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist from Tuscaloosa, scored a 56-44 percent victory over corporate darling Bradley Byrne in the Republican Party runoff for governor. That came on the heels of the June 1 Democratic primary, where Ron Sparks trounced Congressman Artur Davis by 24 points.
Sparks and Bentley, once political unknowns, will square off in the November general election. It will be a liberal populist vs. a conservative populist--with the corporate class on the outside looking in.
What's going on in Alabama? It's probably too early to say for sure what caused these electoral stunners. And it certainly is not clear if these trends will spread to other states. But here is our best guess about the strategies that seemed to backfire on Alabama's corporate class:
* Going After Gambling--Perhaps the biggest single boneheaded move by a conservative came from Governor Bob Riley's heavy-handed attack on Alabama gaming interests. In the worst economy since the Great Depression, Riley used massive amounts of state resources to shut down gaming facilities across the state, costing thousands of Alabamians their jobs. A series of questionable rulings from the GOP-controlled Alabama Supreme Court helped Riley achieve his handiwork. Byrne was seen as Riley's hand-picked successor, and the governor didn't do his man any favors by announcing a few days before the election that he was--surprise, surprise--going to vote for Byrne. Having announced that he was going to continue Riley's anti-gambling crusade, Byrne was set up for a giant fall. And Alabama voters gave him one.
* Hypocrisy On Corruption--Byrne tried to portray himself as a corruption fighter, claiming he had helped clean up the Alabama two-year college system. But Byrne's mentor undercut him on the corruption front. Regular Alabamians correctly discerned that Governor Riley was not genuinely opposed to gambling, but simply was trying to protect the market share of Mississippi gaming interests who reportedly invested $13 million to help get him elected in 2002. Bill Johnson, a GOP candidate for governor and former Riley cabinet member, confirmed that Riley had received financial support from Mississippi Choctaws, apparently laundered through GOP felon Jack Abramoff. The following question apparently occurred to many voters: "How can Bradley Byrne be a corruption fighter when his No. 1 supporter is a clearly corrupt governor?"
* Befriending Big Oil--In November 2007, Alabama's Supreme Court overturned most of a $3.5-billion fraud verdict against oil giant ExxonMobil. Those funds would have been an enormous boost to Alabama's struggling state finances, but Governor Riley did nothing to appeal the decision--which came on an 8-1 ruling, with the court's lone Democrat casting the dissenting vote. Alabamians remembered that episode when oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster began to show up on our shores a few weeks ago. The timing of the BP spill could not have been worse for Bradley Byrne. And it could not have been better for those who want to see government in Alabama that represents all of the people, not just corporate interests.
* Battling "Union Bosses"--Byrne frequently said that he was determined to fight "union bosses." That was a reference to Paul Hubbert, the powerful executive director of the Alabama Education Association (AEA). Yesterday's results indicate that Alabamians do not see Hubbert and AEA as forces to be feared. With the Bush recession continuing to drag down the economy, many Alabamians probably have had the experience of being laid off, with no union protection in sight. Could yesterday's results signal a rebirth of the union movement in the South? It probably would be going too far to say that. But it certainly appears that Bradley Byrne picked a bad time to pick on organized labor.
* Bedding Down With Bob Riley--More than anything, we suspect yesterday's vote was a referendum on Bob Riley's eight-year reign of error. And Alabamians clearly sent the message that they want Riley and his buddies gone. Bentley seemed to gain traction with his statement that he was "going to clean up Montgomery." Voters apparently realized that much of the mess in Montgomery was caused by Riley and his supporters. Most Alabamians probably have no idea about the depths of Riley's corrupt enterprise--mainly because our state's mainstream press and the U.S. Department of Justice have provided him cover. But voters clearly want Riley and his surrogates to hit the exits. And after the governor's crusade against gambling, many voters probably now suspect that their governor has been bought by out-of-state gaming interests all along. Are Alabamians ready for a little scrutiny to be trained on Bob Riley and his minions? Yesterday's results indicate the answer is yes. And if that actually happens, many Alabamians probably will be sickened by what turns up.
Robert Bentley referred to himself last night as a "healer." Alabama needs to be healed, and the first step is to get rid of the Bob Riley influence. Voters did just that yesterday.
Are there broader lessons to be learned from Alabama's elections--perhaps for President Barack Obama and national Democrats? It might be this: If you side with corporate interests over consumers, if you protect the corrupt elite against the wishes of regular folks, you do so at your own peril.