By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
Our old friend Mark Twain encouraged use of not just the correct word but the precise word. Such precision exists to describe the 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race.
A watershed moment is: “A turning point, the exact moment that changes the direction of an activity or situation. A watershed moment is a dividing point, from which things will never be the same.”
That moment occurred when the State Democratic Party Executive Committee announced it would uphold Bill Baxley’s challenge of Charlie Graddick’s run-off victory for the party nomination for governor – a shoo-in win.
It displayed a special kind of senselessness. It was selfish and arrogant and detached from reality. But the five committee members knew Attorney Gen. Graddick, as governor and new leader of the party, would drive them away from the trough. He’d said it. They made a conscious decision to risk a century of Democrat dominance rather than lose their positions.
A plan was developed soon as it was clear that Graddick not only had a chance, he had the momentum. Paul Hubbert, director of AEA, engineered the plan. He wasn’t a committee member but led it and most everything with awful, terrible genius.
Lt. Gov. Baxley, heir-apparent to George Wallace, was the party darling. Things would’ve rolled along as always. But he was an outspoken liberal, Graddick the conservative. Either man would’ve made an exceptional governor, especially compared to what had been and what was to come. Each had reached the top of the slippery pole of state politics. Each felt himself bulletproof with a bright political future. Each was victimized. Neither held a statewide office again.
In each man’s desk today hides a small list of things – political sins of omission or commission – that kept him from the governor’s mansion.
Graddick’s five-item list is tactical and, to a degree, a matter of phrasing: A gauzy thank you, post-election, to any Republicans who voted for him; an official letter from his AG office that indicated crossover votes could count; his corrosive post-election meeting with Hubbert, who wanted to deal.
Baxley’s seven items are more personal: Strongminded as a bull, sometimes he paid little heed to good advice. He handled things his way. At or near the top of his list is the way he handled his affair with AP reporter Marie Prat. Marie Antoinette Prat (I kid you not). An astonishingly attractive woman, she fell under the mannered Baxley spell.
Almost everyone of account knew of the affair but in those days, personal lives weren’t news fodder. But Baxley made a fatal error. He’d had his State Trooper bodyguard ferry Prat to a late-night rendezvous at his apartment. He’d illegally used state resources for personal benefit.
The Birmingham News, which endorsed Graddick, kept watch on Baxley’s apartment for just that sort of thing. Shortly before the election, the News ran a story about the affair, and a picture. Prat was fired and went home to New Orleans where she was given a job by a Baxley crony.
(Once, a New York Times editor learned one of his female political reporters was having an affair with the candidate whose campaign she was covering. He denied it. She admitted it to the editor, who replaced her. Many of her co-workers complained. He said, “I don’t care if you cohabitate with an elephant. If you do, though, you can’t cover the circus.”)
A fervent opponent to Baxley said, “He broke the laws of God and man. That’s damn parlous.”
Their story has a happy ending. William Joseph Baxley II married Marie Antoinette Prat in 1990. The couple lives in Birmingham. They had four children.
June 4, 1986 was runoff night. Graddick forces gathered in Montgomery, Baxley’s in Birmingham. It was a dogfight all night – Baxley leading, then Graddick, then the other way. Finally, Graddick held a lead of 8,756 votes from more than a million cast.
“Let’s claim it,” said Pettus Randall, Graddick campaign manager. Graddick claimed victory, Baxley refused to concede. Paul Hubbert, AEA director, allegedly conceded the battle but not the war. “Well, he won it,” he said. “Let’s see whether he can hold on to it.”
About three weeks later, the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee called for knives, sharpened them, thrust at Graddick and missed. Instead, the members shoved the blades right into the heart of the state Democratic Party. It called a hearing to determine whether Graddick had won by receiving crossover Republican votes.
Monickered the “The Gang of Five” by Graddick, the committee’s decision was foregone. It took the nomination from Graddick and gave it Baxley, though Baxley and Graddick both warned party leaders it was political suicide to disenfranchise a half-million authentic voters.
Committee members turned a deaf ear and rolled the dice. Snake eyes came up.
The Graddick brain trust went into high gear. The committee’s decision was challenged legally, up the ladder, first in state courts, then federal. Conservative courts ruled for Graddick, liberal courts for Baxley until it reached Federal Court of Appeals, which should’ve kicked to the US Supreme Court.
Federal Judge Robert Vance, former chief of the Alabama Demo Party and friend to Baxley, shut it down, ruling that the ADEC could hold a re-election or hand the nomination to Baxley. It chose Baxley, and brought on a shitrain. Vance’s ruling threw out all half-million Graddick authentic votes along with the bathwater. All voters howled, egged on by Graddick and media.
Graddick decided if the Democrats wanted to destroy their party, he might as well help them. He declared as a write-in Indie candidate, establishing an unassailable second front against the the Baxley campaign.
Baxley: “We didn’t get the message to the public that you can’t let the one party choose both nominees. We didn’t throw out all the votes. We threw out the illegal votes.” The way the number of illegal votes was determined, on which the challenge hinged, was a poll conducted by college political science professor Natalie Davis.
She testified that she polled 5,000 people, 90 of whom said they voted in the Republican primary and “were planning to vote in the Democratic runoff.” She said 84 percent of them chose Graddick. Without the crossovers, she said, Baxley would’ve won by 2,000 votes. She said it with a straight face. Other professional pollsters were incredulous.
Jim Sumner, Baxley chief of staff in 1986 who went on to become director of the Alabama Ethics Commission: “Of course it was rigged.”
Davis had done work for the party and for power-peddler Paul Hubbert. When she announced that Graddick had won due to illegal Republican votes, a look of astonishment failed to cross Graddick’s face. He knew what was going to happen, just like everyone else knew it.
After years of effort, millions of dollars and more dirty pool than in a Brooklyn billiard parlor, Davis, via Hubbert, chose the nominee.
All the long, hot summer Graddick chewed on Baxley and the Alabama Democratic party, which poured in more millions. People grew wretchedly, retchingly tired of it.
A Baxley ally told me at one point. “I think I’ll just throw myself out a damn window.”
Guy Hunt, the Republican also-ran who never garnered more than 12 percent of the vote, smiled and nodded and said few words. You don’t interrupt opponents in the process of killing each other.
And then, seemingly on a sudden, it was election day and, unlike the Democratic primary and runoff, it was over before it scarce had begun. The AP declared Hunt governor-elect an hour after polls closed.
The Republican gubernatorial nominee won for the first time in more than a hundred years. Guy Hunt got 56 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory in state history.
Since that time, one Democrat was elected governor. He got out of jail not so very long ago.
William B. Blount was a member of the Gang of Five committee. He became chairman of the Democratic Party in 1991. In 2009, he pled guilty to federal bribery and conspiracy charges in exchange for testimony against former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford.
Blount was pardoned in January, 2017 by the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board.
(Next week: The 1986 Candidates Look Back At The Race.)