By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
The 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race was a series of firsts: it marked the departure of Gov. George Wallace from politics, which brought on four topnotch candidates;
Who set a state record ($8 million/$1million) for political expenditure, which allowed it to be denoted by the New York Times as the nastiest political campaign in history.
Which disgusted the electorate, which destroyed the Alabama Democratic Party, apparently for all time, which elected the first Republican governor in 100 years and a woman decided the election.
More milt flowed through that race than through a trout stream. Social norms were more modest then. News media considered a candidate’s sex life a personal matter and turned an eye from amour, a good thing, unless the candidate diddled in public funds. That, too, played a role.
Drugs and liquor were integral to campaigns and also affected the race, to greater and lesser extents. Smoke and pills whirled through one campaign, women and liquor another. During one contract consultancy, suffering flu-like symptom, I went to the “campaign doctor.” I was treated and as I was leaving was asked “What kind of medication do you want.” Puzzled, I said, none. He said, “You’re the first one not to ask for something special.”
Another premier candidate, according to top level staffers, would look for targets of opportunity at his rallies and, a la Bill Clinton later on, would get word to her that they should meet after the gathering. It worked almost every time.
Here’s the thing: Politics is power. Power attracts. A high profile campaign hums with power, money and energy. Put them together and what you get isn’t bippity-boppity-boo (except maybe the bop), it’s a sex magnet that attracts attractive people, some of whom will do anything to please. It’s survival of the fittest keyed to Darwin’s wildest wanderings.
As the 1986 primary neared, left standing were George McMillian, a Birmingham lawyer and former lieutenant governor; Attorney Gen. Charlie Graddick of Mobile; former Gov. Fob James of Lanette, a wealthy industrialist; and Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley of Dothan. Baxley had a lock on the liberal vote and a spot in the runoff was assured.
Primary night, June 4, 1986. Graddick forces gathered under the dome at Montgomery’s Holiday Inn. Baxley was at the Hilton in Birmingham, James was in Mobile and McMillian at the center in Birmingham.
Early on, Graddick began to pull away from James while Baxley swallowed the small fry. By 10.30, the Associated Press called it. Graddick and Baxley, for the marbles.
At stake is political patronage, a gainful thing; pure prestige for constituency; the probability of eight years of power and many other perks. Many others. The race, intense as it had been, hit high gear. At this point the candidate’s political consultant becomes the pilot. It’s the consultant who polls and extrapolates results into issue-approach.
The last week or so, tracking polls are done daily to reflect what message is working best and which candidate is gaining an edge. It’s this one thing that largely determines whether a candidate must risk going negative ruthlessly to stymie an opponent and grab the all-important factor of momentum.
Graddick was funded by business interests and medical. He chose McClister/Kitchens of DC to do polling and TV spots. Baxley was funded by trial lawyers and the AEA. He chose Sheinkopf of DC for his guru. The two funding sources mix almost exactly the way oil and water doesn’t. The two men began to clobber each other.
If the primary is largely a sweet-natured personality contest, the runoff is a swamp brawl. Few could brawl better than Bill Baxley and Charlie Graddick.
Evil machinery kicked in.
- Baxley’s state tax records mysteriously appeared one morning on the reception desk at Graddick’s Montgomery headquarters. A Graddick operative was suspected.
- Graddick, at a political rally with Baxley, said he had been called so many names that he was beginning to “feel like a piano player in a house of ill repute.” And he invited Baxley “to come out by the pool to settle things.”
- Trial lawyer David Cromwell Johnson of Birmingham publicly announced that the Baxley campaign “had a mole” at a high level in the Graddick organization. Never proven, it sowed some mistrust, as intended. If there was one, I know who it was.
- George McMillian, courted by both sides, chose to merge with the Graddick campaign. Their issues of tort reform and teacher testing twinned, opposite to Baxley’s platform. Inherent are offers to assume a portion of campaign debt. While it is true that most defeated candidates cannot carry a lot of water to another campaign, McMillian voters were different, to a degree. They listened to him. It as much as anything might’ve swung the election.
What injured the Baxley campaign more than anything was his affair with AP reporter Marie Prat. A gorgeous and wonderfully foul-mouthed brunette, she fell under the Baxley spell. Late-night interviews began to take place in Baxley’s Montgomery apartment. The interviews took their course.
All knew about it, none said anything until Baxley made a fatal error. He had Prat ferried to his apartment, late at night, by his State Trooper bodyguard. In other words, he used state resources for illicit personal business. Just days before the election, the Birmingham News ran the story. And a picture.
Stay tuned for part 2 later this week.