Part One of Two.
On Wednesday, the 2020s begin. Now is a good time to look back on the top ten Alabama political stories of the decade that ends tomorrow at midnight and the headlines that dominated the second decade of the twenty first century.
The Rise of the Alabama Republican Party. In 2010, the Alabama Democratic Party held majorities in both Houses of the Alabama Legislature, and Democrats held the offices of Lieutenant Governor, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, and Public Service Commission President and a majority on the PSC. Democrats won three of the seven Alabama congressional seats in 2008, though Parker Griffith switched to the GOP late in 2009. The 2010 election reshaped Alabama politically. The Tea Party, which rose as a reaction to Democratic control of Congress and the presidency, helped Alabama Republicans win: supermajorities in both Houses of the State Legislature for the first time in 135 years, every statewide elected office on the ballot that year, six of the seven congressional seats, and every statewide appellate court seat on the ballot. Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb (D) retired to spend more time with her family and PSC Pres. Lucy Baxley (D) was defeated in 2012. Doug Jones’s (D) narrow victory over Roy Moore (R) in the 2017 Special Election was the only Democratic statewide victory in the entire decade in Alabama. The 2014 and 2018 elections only saw Republicans gain more seats for their supermajorities in the Legislature. There was not even a close general election statewide race in 2018. When 2010 began Democrats controlled most county commissions, probate judge seats, sheriffs, and dominated county courthouses across rural Alabama. As 2019 comes to a close, the Alabama Republican Party controls over 65 percent of the partisan political offices in the state.
The Rise and Fall of Mike Hubbard. State Representative Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, was the Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party who orchestrated that shocking 2010 election which gave the Alabama GOP unlimited power. Hubbard promised the people of the state that if they gave the Alabama GOP control of the Legislature for the first time in over four generations that they would bring ethics reform to Montgomery. True to his word, Hubbard became the first Republican Speaker of the House since the 1870s, and immediately instituted a special session where the new GOP super majorities passed a much stronger state ethics law, banned PAC to PAC transfers, outlawed legislators holding jobs for the state “double dipping”, and legislation aimed at weakening the power of the Alabama Education Association (AEA) and its Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert who had dominated Alabama politics for decades. At his apex Hubbard, not the affable Governor Robert Bentley (R), was the most powerful man in the state. Not only was he the most powerful Speaker of the House in memory, he was arguably the most effective and his power to control the fate of legislation was not lost on lobbyists. Political philosopher Baron Montesquieu told us in the eighteenth century that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and in Hubbard’s case that maxim proved to be only too true. Hubbard wanted the lifestyle enjoyed by only the privileged few and soon was doing “economic development” and “consulting” work as a sideline to his lucrative work at the Auburn network and his part time job as Speaker of the House.
Hubbard was not the first Speaker of the House to engage in this ethically dubious behavior; but he was the first to do it under the Republicans’ 2010 ethics law, where proving a quid pro quo was not necessary to convict. Hubbard had made enemies within the Alabama Republican Steering Committee going back to the 2010 election over his demand that ALGOP’s printing go through a printing company that he co-owned, Craftmasters.
Alabama Political Reporter’s Editor in Chief Bill Britt began a series of investigative reports into the allegations of shady dealings by Hubbard. This did not go unnoticed by law enforcement and soon the Alabama Attorney General’s office was holding secret investigative grand jury hearings into Hubbard’s conduct. In September 2014 the grand jury indicted Hubbard on over twenty felony ethics violations. Backed by his many powerful friends, Hubbard spent $millions defending himself; but in June 2016 a jury in Lee County found Hubbard guilty on twelve of those counts. Hubbard was removed from the Legislature and sentenced to prison. To this day the elected all Republican Alabama Supreme Court refuses to sign the order sending Hubbard to state prison and he has not served one day of his sentence.
The Luv Guv. State Representative Robert Bentley, R-Tuscaloosa, with considerable AEA help, defeated former State Senator Bradley Byrne, former Chief Justice Roy Moore, and businessman, and son of a two time governor, Tim James to win the Republican nomination for Governor in 2010. Bentley, like every Republican nominee in 2010, won the general election. Few GOP legislators supported the mercurial Bentley in the primaries and Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, largely ran state government the way they wanted and Bentley, who quickly abandoned his AEA benefactors, deferred to them during much of that first term. Bentley was wildly popular with the state electorate and he cruised to an easy re-election over Democrat turned Republican Congressman turned independent turned Democrat Parker Griffith with a shocking 63.6 percent of the vote in an election that never appeared close.
Before the inauguration there were rumors of problems between Bentley and his family. There were a lot of staff changes. Early in 2015 Bentley stunned the Legislature by asking for over a $billion a year in across the board tax increases. That proposal was dead on arrival in the Legislature. Bentley called three special sessions to force the Legislature to agree to his increasingly smaller and smaller tax increase proposals to benefit Alabama’s chronically underfunded State General Fund (SGF). They refused and finally ended the impasse with modest tax increases on tobacco products, nursing home beds, and pharmacies.
Rebekah Caldwell Mason. There was a new power in the Bentley administration and her name was Rebekah Caldwell Mason. There were soon rumors that Mason, thirty years his junior, and Bentley were having an affair. First lady Diane Bentley asked for a divorce after fifty years of marriage. The governor rapidly agreed to her terms. After the divorce, Bentley took Mrs. Mason to the White House as his date, only feeding the rumors about Bentley and Mrs. Mason, who was married to a member of Bentley’s cabinet. Allegations of misuse of state resources soon emerged. A creepy audiotape of a phone conversation between the governor and Mrs. Mason went public that certainly sounded like the two had an inappropriate relationship and the story went national in 2016. State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) and Bentley’s 2014 GOP primary opponent Stacy George filed ethics charges. State Representative Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, introduced articles of impeachment in the 2016 Legislative Session. Hubbard referred them to the House Judiciary Committee for 2017. Attorney General Luther Strange (R) brought Bentley and Mason before a secret grand jury and asked the House Judiciary Committee to defer to the AG’s office. Bentley shocked everyone in 2017 by appointing Strange to a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. The House Judiciary Committee restarted their impeachment investigation. Bentley’s appointed AG Steve Marshall appointed a special prosecutor to take over the Bentley investigation. The Alabama Ethics Commission found in favor of Zeigler and George’s complaint. The House Judiciary Committee began formal impeachment hearings, the first in Alabama in over a hundred years. Bentley pled guilty to three misdemeanor ethics and campaign finance violations and resigned on April 2017.
The Roy Moore saga. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) finished fourth in a field of five GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2010. His political career appeared to be over. Cobb resigned from her post as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, surrendering the seat to Republican control. Bentley appointed his Chief of Staff former Tuscaloosa County Judge Charles “Chuck” Malone to the post. Mobile County Presiding Judge and former Attorney General Charles Graddick challenged Malone. While the two spent large sums of money attacking each other, Moore quietly rose in the polls and on election day 2012 Moore won the primary without runoff shocking the political class. The Alabama Democratic Party sacked their nominee over bizarre social media comments and open hatred of homosexuals and replaced him with Jefferson County Judge Robert Vance. Moore won the general election and resumed his place as Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. Moore strongly and vocally spoke out against gay marriage. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states had to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, Moore failed to order Alabama probate judges to comply with the unpopular ruling and issue the licenses. Moore’s longtime nemesis, the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC). The JIC found that the complaint had merit and suspended Moore from his post pending trial. The Court of the Judiciary ruled against Moore and suspended him for the rest of his term. A special hearing of an appointed Supreme Court (the sitting Justices had conflicts) upheld the COJ ruling. Moore retired from the bench and ran for Senate in 2017. Moore bested Congressman Mo Brooks and Strange in the GOP primary to win the Republican nomination, even though Washington insiders poured $50 million into Strange’s campaign.
Moore appeared to be cruising to an easy victory in the special election; until the Washington Post released a report claiming that Moore dated teen girls while a deputy district attorney in Etowah County in the 1970s, including inappropriate touching of then 15 year old Leigh Corfman in 1976. Moore denied the charges; but Senate leadership including Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, refused to support Moore’s candidacy. Moore narrowly lost the special election to former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones (D). Moore is the only Republican nominee to lose any statewide race in Alabama during the decade. Moore has sued his accusers as well as Democratic strategists who ran a “Russian style” social misinformation campaign against him in the 2017 special general election. Moore is a candidate for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2020.
Kay Ivey’s unlikely rise to power. In 2010 Kay Ivey (R) was state Treasurer and term limited from running for another term in that post. Ivey was a 2010 candidate for Governor; but was badly trailing Byrne and James in the polls and appeared unlikely to make the runoff in the crowded gubernatorial field. She then switched her candidacy and ran for Lieutenant Governor. Ivey defeated State Senator Henry “Hank” Erwin Jr. in the GOP primary and faced affable former Governor Jim Folsom Jr. (D) in the general election. All the Montgomery pundits thought that Folsom would be easily re-elected as Lt. Gov.; but 2010 was a Republican wave election. Every Republican on that statewide ballot won. Ivey was re-elected easily in 2014 and it appeared that her political career would end as Lt. Gov.; then Bentley resigned in 2017. The popular Ivey was elevated to the office of Governor. Ivey focused her administration on economic development. Soon manufacturing plant openings and expansions were being announced and the rising Trump/Ivey economy saw unemployment plummet across the state. Ivey easily beat Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter “Walt” Maddox (D) in the 2018 election, joining Lurleen Wallace (D) as the only two women elected governor in state history.
To be continued…