The New York Times during the 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race called it the dirtiest, nastiest in history, and not just Alabama history. A wide swath, but that was back in the day when the Times often was accurate.
Your Humble Narrator was in the middle of that one, start to finish, first with the McMillian campaign then Graddick’s. The Times was right to award that dubious distinction.
It started with a big bang: After 40 years’ rule of state politics, the ruthless, ailing George Wallace retired at 67. Semi-paralyzed from an assassin’s bullets, bound to a wheelchair, his own polls showed he couldn’t win.
In those days, as now, Alabama was a one-party state, only it was owned by the Democrats. Winning the Democratic nomination for office was tantamount to victory. There hadn’t been a Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction (1865-77). The Democrats themselves ended all that.
Wallace was gone but left behind a centralized government that analysts believe helped him steal three governors races. He left a vacuum that career state politicians had eyed for years – and it takes years to position for a legitimate shot at governor.
And it’s a fact that any and every political party contains liberals and conservatives.
Appealing to the conservative side in 1986 were state Attorney Gen. Charlie Graddick of Mobile, brash and able. He was pure terror when he got his teeth into an opponent. And former Gov. Fob James of Lanett, a football star for Auburn with dogged determination and, critics say, a reckless disregard for truth.
Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley of Birmingham was dark, smooth, brave and smart. He was the party darling who held a lock on liberals.
Former Lt. Gov. George McMillian of Greenville, considered perhaps the most able candidate, was frontrunner because in 1982 he almost unseated Wallace. There’s plenty of evidence that Wallace stole the election.
An intellectual once described as a pragmatic idealist, he was tall, spare and balding – an organizational genius who in ‘82 engineered the last great grassroots Alabama gubernatorial campaign.
He was a trusting soul and genuinely a nice man. In politics, especially Alabama politics, that’s two strikes against at the get-go. He was snookered and tooken by his friend Fob James, (they served together as governor and lieutenant governor).
But McMillian had some steel within his amiable nature.
One of my favorite stories is his head-on with the old blackguard Paul Hubbert. Hubbert controlled the AEA and way too much of state politics. When McMillian announced for governor, Hubbert sauntered into his office one day, plopped down on his desk and smarmily said, “Tell me what you can do for me and I’ll tell you what I can do for you.”
McMillian said, “What you can do for me is to get your ass off my desk.” Thank you, George McMillian.
Hubbert would stick his dark, dirty hand into the 1986 race. He’d wreck it. He’d kill his party, murder most foul with malice aforethought. Nor would he have the slightest qualm, before or after. I have his very words on tape, a private interview in his office, concerning the very fact.
Back to Fob James: James told Graddick and McMillian absolutely that he wouldn’t run. It was an old Wallace trick. In politics, timing and time are crucial. James smiled up his sleeve while McMillian fruitlessly chased people and funds secretly committed to James. Hardball.
When James announced a short while before qualifying deadline, $2 million ($4.6 million in today’s dollars) McMillian counted on went to James. The day James declared, the McMillian effort went Dead in the Water.
McMillian’s issues were conservative and good. He initiated the idea of tort reform and advocated teacher testing. Graddick’s education plank included teacher testing. As McMillian dwindled, Graddick claimed the tort reform issue which resonated with conservatives, including big business.
Organizations from business, insurance, doctors and other professionals support conservative candidates, then as now. Liberal candidates get main support from the trial lawyers and the teachers union.
Slowly, the stage was set. Machinations set in.
Politics is a wargame of strategy and tactics. My take on PoliSci 101: Blithely, the basic elements reduce to message and impact. The candidate with the best message delivered most often to the most actual voters will win. Nearly every time.
Money delivers the message. The candidate that spends the most money wins 92 percent of the time. Incumbents win 95 percent of the time. There was a higher rate of turnover in the Supreme Soviet than the US Congress.
The 1982-86 elections heralded change. Up until then, grassroots ruled but in 1982 Wallace spent a million dollars, mostly on TV ads. It was the first time a million was spent.
In 1986, candidates spent more than $8 million, combined. Not only because it was for all the cards but because the damn race refused to die.
There’s almost always a run-off for higher-office elections. The runoff was over in a month, the aftermath election went on an entire summer.
Here’s what happened.
As noted, polls deep and wide reflect the trenchant issues of the day. Each candidate chooses a personal approach to those issues based on his/her feelings and popular opinion.
Candidates then begin to show and tell how their approaches are better than others, and different. This leads, logically, to going further and further right or left with assurances and promises. Based on this information, TV spots are produced and huge sums of money spent. Message.
(FYI, the canny candidate buys ads back from election day for two reasons, the first being that prime slots are harder to come by as E-Day approaches and the second is to ensure that the campaign closes out strongly.)
Every facet of a well orchestrated effort is timed to coalesce and climax at Election Day. Impact.
A candidate’s most important commodity is time. Schedulers do important work to plot the wisest agenda, advance people go to the locales to set up media interviews and meetings with bell cows (bell cows lead the herd).
The most important thing a candidate does is fundraise. It’s hard to believe sometimes, but the amount of political funding is limited and each dollar a candidate raises is one less dollar available to opponents.
Candidates like Graddick spend 18 hours a day traveling the state, ramping up constituency, and 18 hours hours a day fundraising. That isn’t misstated nor overspoken. The two things are hand and glove.
The primary is a personality contest at start. Each candidate presents as sweetnatured statesmen/women, for two reasons. One is that most are genuine people who genuinely like people, who want to lead, who mostly are nice. The other is that in order to do an effective negative campaign, the candidate must first set a foundation of goodness and goodwill.
An old campaigner in Jasper said, “You give ‘em a handful of howdy and a mouthful of mighty fine.”
Because as the date nears for the primary, some candidates begin to fall behind. They see dreams, hard work and a ton of money headed for the toilet. They bring the toilet into play.
Remember that though the general election is Nov. 4, in a one-party state the primary in June and the run-off in July settles the question. Normally. But 1986 was anything but normal.
As McMillian ebbed, the three remaining candidates retired to their respective corners, cuddled their issues, honed their knives and waited for the bell to signal the final round. It came soon enough and then the damn thing wouldn’t stop ringing.
(Next week: The Sting.)
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.