Skip Tucker: The Sting

Skip Tucker: The Sting

By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist

“June 24, 1986 – Attorney Gen. Charles Allen Graddick, 42, of Mobile today was elected the 49th governor of Alabama.”

That’s how Alabama history books should read. Instead, history marks the date as the beginning of the end of the  Alabama Democratic Party.

It killed its political self because conservative party member Graddick beat liberal party member Bill Baxley of Dothan in a runoff, by .01 percent, becoming its shoo-in nominee for governor.

Orchestrating the death like Dr. Kevorkian was the late Paul Hubbert,  AEA director and perhaps the most able, ruthless powermonger in state history.

Hubbert came to power by creating A-vote in the mid-1970’s. It became AEA’s political arm, an extremely powerful arm. He established an automatic dues withdrawal from AEA member paychecks. In the political field, impacted by money more than anything, AEA suddenly became the main plow.

Hubbert came across as intense and caring and education-oriented, a statesman. Insiders say he was none of those things like the D-Day landing wasn’t a trip to Orange Beach.

A political genius, he ran the State Democratic Party because he ran its executive committee, its five-member policy making panel. He wasn’t on it, he just ran it.

Of particular concern to the committee was a Graddick campaign promise to “get rid of the hogs at the trough.” Not a single hog approved.

Lt. Gov. Baxley challenged Graddick’s win, the ADEC held a public hearing to declare Baxley the winner.

Here’s something never reported in full: Baxley didn’t want to challenge. He foresaw that it would destroy the party. None listened.

Here’s how it started:

Graddick and Hubbert had a mutual friend who was an assistant attorney general. Immediately following the election, Hubbert asked him to set up a meeting with Graddick. They met the following Thursday morning in the friend’s kitchen. He left them sitting at his breakfast bar, over coffee, facing each other.

With small preamble, Hubbert handed Graddick a list he’d pulled a list from his left coat pocket, said,

“If you agree to these, you won’t have any trouble from me.”

The list was short but in effect gave Hubbert complete control of the Alabama Education Department. Graddick eyed it warily and replied,

“You know, Paul, I’ve gotten this far without making these kinds of promises to anyone and I’m not going to start now. You can stick this list up your ass.”

Graddick: “He stood up, reached over and pointed at my chest, nearly but not quite touching me and said, ‘Then you won’t be governor,’ and turned to walk out.

“I said, ‘Dr. Hubbert, I know you think you are very powerful, but you aren’t that powerful. Well, he was.’”

About a week later, the State Democratic Executive Committee held a sham hearing, wrested the nomination from Graddick and handed it to Baxley.

It ruled that Graddick had won by asking Republicans to cross over to vote for him. Crossover voting indeed was against party rules, though a common practice. In a solid blue state, it was the only way Republicans could cast a meaningful vote.

When party leaders had phoned Baxley to tell him he must file a challenge, he told them it was a really bad idea.

Here’s Jim Sumner, Baxley’s chief of staff:

“I was in the supermarket shopping for family dinner when my pager beeped me to call Bill. I went straight to a pay phone. Bill said to come over at once. When I got to their apartment, Lucy (Mrs. Baxley) opened the door and told me Bill was in the back on a three-way call with Paul Hubbert, Joe Reed (leader of the black caucus) and Don Gilbert, director of the state trial lawyer association.

“She said,”’They want him to challenge the election. He doesn’t want to.’

“When I walked through the door, I heard words I’ll never forget. I heard Bill say, ‘Yes, we can take the nomination but it would mean the death of the Alabama Democratic Party as we know it. It’s a really bad idea.

“Then he said, ‘Do what you want to because you will anyway. I’m taking the family to the beach.’”

Next day, the ADEC announced the challenge and sixty kinds of hell tore loose.

Engineered mostly by Hubbert’s dark, able mind, the ploy had been put in place soon as party leaders realized that Graddick had a chance to win.

It was clear that if the DEC held the hearing, Graddick would never emerge from it with the nomination.

The Graddick campaign was already heaping scorn on the committee and tagged it “The Gang of Five.” The tag stuck. John Baker, chairman of the committee, said at one point that the name tag was worse than being called a communist.

Baker turned to Hubbert for advice, and Hubbert was ready. He’d said about Graddick on election night, “Well, he won it, now let’s see if he can hold on to it.”

The centerpiece for the hearing was a poll by Natalie Davis, a polisci professor at Birmingham Southern college. It was the most disingenuous, transparent trick played during the debacle.

Not only was Davis a rabid Democrat, she did work for Paul Hubbert and the AEA. Her poll determined that Graddick had received some 90 percent of illegal Republican crossover votes. Nevermind the fact that Winston County, rabidly Republican, went for Baxley.

Sumner: “Of course it was rigged.”

Here’s Hubbert from my personal interview with him in his office:

“Baxley pissed it away. I told them not to hold the hearing. I told them it would be a public relations political nightmare. I told them just to announce that Graddick broke the rules and tht Baxley was the nominee. They didn’t listen.”

“But John Baker (committee chair) insisted and there was this big circus. If they’d listened to me it would’ve blown over and Baxley would’ve been governor.”

Baker, on whether it was a foregone conclusion: “He (Graddick) was guilty, no question. The courts said so. There are his TV ads calling for Republicans to vote for him.”

So why was the hearing held?

Baxley: “We had to have something to hang it on that people could understand. Democrats can’t allow Republican votes to choose the party nominee.”

When the ADEC announced the hearing, Graddick called Hubbert. Just as Baxley had done, Graddick said taking the nomination from him would kill the state Democrat party, that it couldn’t survive defenestration of a half-million voters.

Hubbert: “I thought we could recover. I thought we could get them back.”

Wrong. Media of every kind everywhere came down on Baxley and the ADEC like a million pound shithammer.

Graddick challenged the decision in the courts. It moved up the judicial ladder to federal appellate court, one step below the US Supreme Court. Federal Judge Robert Vance, who had been chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said the Graddick nomination was out-of-bounds. The ADEC, he said, had two choices: it could order a re-election or it could award the nomination to Baxley. It chose the latter.

Vance, an Alabama native, later was assassinated by a letter bomb. Baxley had named one of his children for him.

In response to the rulings, Graddick announced as a write-in Independent gubernatorial candidate for the Nov. 4 Alabama general election, and then there were three. Republican nominee Guy Hunt, who’d received 12 percent of the vote in a previous run for governor, a besmirched Baxley and Graddick, terrible in his wrath.

A legitimate Indie candidate with a large following, tricked out of the nomination, Graddick remained a major media draw and couldn’t be ignored, though Baxley tried. He tried to engage Hunt with issue-driven rhetoric. But Graddick got his teeth into the Democratic Party and shook it like a rag doll. Guy Hunt sat back and smiled.

Hubbert and the ADEC had rung a bell that couldn’t be unrung.

(Next week: Sex, Drugs, Moles and Rock and Roll.)

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

Skip Tucker: The Summer of Our Discontent