Skip Tucker: The Killing Ground.

Skip Tucker: The Killing Ground.

By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist

In 1913, soldiers both Blue and Gray gathered at Gettysburg to re-enact the deadly days of the Civil War’s decisive battle. About 50,000 arrived to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a clash that cost 50,000 casualties.

July 1-3, 1863, the North and South each lost more than 3,000 soldiers. The North could replace them but it cost the South a third of its army and the war. On a muggy Friday afternoon, July 3, Gen. Robert Edward Lee, over Gen. James Longstreet’s objections, ordered the heralded Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge.

It’s an aptly named killing ground nearly a mile long. It was a desperate gamble to win the war. Lee lost 2,653 soldiers.  Pickett miraculously survived, the Confederacy did not.

An eerily similar abstract parallels that impolitic disaster. Soon, June 4 will mark the 43rd Anniversary of the  State Democratic Party’s mad decent into self destruction when its executive committee in June, 1986 followed terrible advice from its dark sage, Paul Hubbert, took the party’s shoo-in nomination for governor from Attorney Gen. Charlie Graddick and gave it to Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley. Graddick had won the nomination by less than 9,000 votes.

Like Longstreet, Baxley warned against the foolhardy move, assuring Hubbert “it will kill the party in Alabama.” When his banshee cry fell on deaf ears, Baxley loyally joined Hubbert’s desperate gamble to retain power. All the players knew they were risking 143 years of Democrat domination in Alabama.

Hubbert, director of the AEA, concocted a fix so sly, brutal and Machiavellian that I envied it.

The Committee ran the party dance and called the tunes. It  invoked a little known, never used rule saying Republicans crossover votes were illegal. The plan’s nugget was a deep ruse – a transparently disingenuous poll to hang “proof” that Graddick used his office and other means to gather illegal votes.

The so-called poll, by devout Democrat and AEA operative Natalie Davis, poli-sci professor at Birmingham Southern college, “proved” Graddick received more than 80 percent of the illegal votes, without which Baxley would’ve won by 2,000 votes. There was never even a clear picture of how many crossover votes were cast. Even high-level Baxley staff members said the poll was fake as the bottom of a magician’s trunk.  Professional pollsters laughed in her face.

So, ultimately, did the state electorate. After rounds of court challenges, a write-in candidacy by Graddick and $8 million spent mostly on attack ads, the runoff that was supposed to last three weeks drolled on for three months until finally the Nov. 4 general election arrived.

The smally known, little respected also-ran Republican nominee Guy Hunt, who never gathered more than 12 percent of the general vote, was elected by a landslide. In fact, voters were so tired of seeing the Democrat candidates bash each other in the strongest terms, they would’ve voted for a yellow dog rather than Baxley.

Lee killed the Confederacy. Hubbert killed the State Democratic Party that had ruled Alabama politics since Reconstruction following The Civil War. Lee was heartbroken. Hubbert merely mourned loss of power.

His self-absorbed ego also sacrificed two of the best and brightest young men in the history of state politics. Either Graddick or Baxley would’ve been a good governor.

The primary featured Baxley for the liberal faction of the party while Graddick battled for the conservative vote against former Gov. Fob James, and James’ Lt. Gov., George McMillan. James and Graddick shared a genuine mutual dislike. McMillan, a gentle man who refused to engage in attack ads, fell away. Graddick and Baxley graduated to the bareknuckled, attack ad run-off that already put a bad taste in the mouths of voters.

Graddick’s vengeance-filled write-in campaign lasted right up to the Nov. 4 general election. The bad taste in the voter mouth turned bitter. Republican nominee Guy Hunt won. Alabama went from blue to red almost overnight. It remains solid Republican.

The four men who were candidates in the Demo party’s last hurrah, reflect on it from  a distant mirror. Each feels in retrospect that the election turned out best for him in a personal manner. None hold a grudge for the others any longer. All say they are friends now who took place in the most historic and far-reaching episode in Alabama political history.

“I hold no animosity for the other candidates in that race,” said Judge Graddick, 74. “My family and I are better off for it. If I have a talent, it has been to attract the very best people to work with me.  My regret is the lost opportunity for what we could’ve done to move this state forward. During the last weeks of the campaign, we blew past everyone and were gaining momentum every day. Our tracking polls showed it.

“Baxley and I on separate occasions warned Paul Hubbert and the executive committee that they were going to kill the state party. Baxley called me from the beach to tell me what was going on. He said I’d won fair and square and that he didn’t want to challenge. But I assure that if it weren’t for Baxley’s challenge, the committee would’ve found another way to take the nomination. I didn’t leave the party. It left me.”

Graddick, of Mobile, last year retired as presiding judge of Mobile’s 13th Judicial Circuit. He and wife Corinne live in Mobile. They have three children.

Baxley, 74, is an active lawyer in Birmingham. He and Marie Prat Baxley have raised four children and live in Homewood. He, too, is at peace with 1986:

“We’re all friends and I have no regrets. Charlie and I are friends again, and that’s a relief. In fact, I’m glad things turned out as they did. I have a wonderful wife, wonderful children and I’ve made a little money. It’s a good life I might not have had if I’d been governor. It turned out for the best for me. And I thank the people of Alabama for a wonderful political career.

“As to looking back, as to the merits of the challenge, we couldn’t get the public to understand that you cannot allow one party to select nominees for both parties. You can’t let yourself get in that position. All in all, what happened was a good thing.”

Fob James, 84, lives in Miami where his wife, Bobbie, is in assisted living. They have two children.  James served two terms as governor, elected the first time as a Democrat, the second time as a Republican.

“That was a helluva lot of fun,” he said with his signature chuckle. “The Republican party was developing anyway, and Democratic party rules played a large role. But the so-called Solid South was already crumbling and so many good candidates split the vote.

“I feel like we’re all very good friends. If I needed help I wouldn’t hesitate to give any if them a ring. I wish them all well. I’d say it was a great experience I wouldn’t want to have missed.”

Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com. Email Skip HERE