Alabamiana: “The Politics of Embarrassment,” 1998

It was twenty years ago today, on June 7, 1998, that The New York Times ran an editorial by Alabama native Howell Raines titled “The Politics of Embarrassment in Alabama.” Originally from Birmingham, Raines had a storied career at the Times, having joined the staff in the late 1970s, after his novel Whiskey Man and his collection of civil-rights oral histories My Soul is Rested were published. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1992 and became the Editorial Page Editor in 1993. The occasion for this opinion piece was a June 30 runoff election between two Republican contenders for Alabama governor: incumbent Fob James and challenger Wynton Blount III, the winner of whom would face Democrat Don Siegelman in the general election in the fall.

Though Raines’ editorial contained biting criticisms of his home state’s wild politics, he began with this understatement: “Alone among the states of its region, Alabama has not fully turned the New South corner.” The idea of the New South is a recurring, evolving, and ephemeral notion that the region could finally shed its unseemly qualities and move forward in more progressive ways. Famed editor Henry Grady had proclaimed a “New South” in a speech in 1886, and various periods of reform have re-incited the notion that a New South was coming. (The Encyclopedia of Alabama calls the period from 1875 – 1929 the “New South Era.”) Yet, in the period after the Civil Rights movement, it seemed a strong likelihood, especially in states that elected “New South governors” in 1970: Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, Florida’s Reuben Askew, and South Carolina’s John West. Alabama’s best good hope had been Albert Brewer, the lieutenant governor who served only a partial term after Gov. Lurleen Wallace died of cancer in 1968.

Getting a hold on Alabama politics in the 1990s requires context. In the 1970s and ’80s, Southern politics had to change dramatically after the formerly segregationist Democratic Party became (nationally) the party of Civil Rights. The stronghold of the “Solid South” crumbled, and post-movement Southern conservatism needed a new home, a need sensed by Republican Richard Nixon and exploited in his “Southern Strategy.” The 1965 Voting Rights Acts also changed the Southern electorate, and the 1970s had black candidates winning public offices for the first time since the 1870s. The changed region’s electoral votes may have gone to Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush in the 1980s, but state and local officeholders were much bluer than the 1980, ’84, and ’88 presidential maps showed. In Alabama, this odd mixture of old habits, big changes, and new reactions created, on the one hand, a biracial two-party system that necessitated cooperation and, on the other, a climate of party-switching that made for strange bedfellows.

Alabama’s gubernatorial races during these decades had consequently been confusing when it came to political parties. The outspoken segregationist Democrat George Wallace had regained the office in 1970 after coming in second in the Democratic primary, beating Albert Brewer in a runoff, then receiving 75% of the votes in the general election. (No Republican candidate even ran that year.) After being shot in May 1972 during his presidential run as an independent, Wallace was re-elected as a Democrat in the 1974 gubernatorial election, this time with 83% of the vote. A Republican, Elvin McCrary, did appear in the state’s general election, but he had once been a Democrat. In 1978, the general election pitted Republican-turned-Democrat Fob James against Republican Guy Hunt, so the choice was really between two Republicans. Then, in 1982, James did not seek re-election, and Democrat George Wallace returned for a fourth term as governor by defeating Montgomery mayor Emory Folmar, a long-time Republican. The 1986 election made Guy Hunt the first Republican in the governor’s office since Reconstruction, after an ugly Democratic primary between long-time Democrat Bill Baxley and Republican-turned-Democrat Charles Graddick. In 1990, Hunt was re-elected over Democrat Paul Hubbert, the leader of the state’s teachers’ union, but Hunt was convicted on ethics charges in 1993 and succeeded by Democratic lieutenant governor Jim Folsom, Jr. A year later, in 1994, Fob James ran again, this time as a Republican, and defeated Folsom by only a slim margin.

After nearly three decades of political-party maelstrom, which included the sporadic re-emergence of George Wallace’s dominant name and persona, the 1998 gubernatorial elections offered Alabamians three distinct choices: the New South progressivism of Don Siegelman, who campaigned on improving education through a new state lottery; the boisterous conservativism of Fob James, who had, as Raines put it, done “an ape imitation before the State Board of Education” and “announced that the Bill of Rights does not apply to Alabama;” or the modern, middle-class Republicanism of Wynton Blount III, who mainly wanted to be a “governor that won’t continually embarrass us.”  About his view of the situation that the candidates were facing, in comparison to neighboring states, Raines wrote:

Alabama’s contrasting lack of progress can be linked directly to its penchant for electing buffoons. Because of the structure of state politics, only a progressive governor can change things. The Legislature is paralyzed by the gambling, timber and trial lobbies. The revenue system is a joke, having been tailored by Northern corporations to avoid paying fair taxes on their Alabama holdings.

Howell Raines’ lack of faith in Fob James was abundantly obvious. He called James “a contender for worst governor of the century” and “devoid of public-policy expertise.” Raines also added that James’ “record has defied any rational analysis” and that “he has kept the state in chaos by arguing that Alabama, which ranks near the bottom of every educational index, is spending too much on education.” The editorial ended with Raines semi-endorsing both Siegelman and Blount, mainly as antidotes to James’ politics. His conclusion: if voters deny James, “for the first time in living memory, Alabama will have a choice between two progressive candidates whose public appearances will be occasions of pride rather than dread.”

Other national media outlets covered that June 1998 runoff with slightly less opinion but with a similar set of facts. One CNN story was headlined “Alabama Republican Runoff Gets Nasty,” while the Washington Post titled theirs “In Alabama, A GOP squabble.” Both referenced the ugly name-calling that had marked the back-and-forth.

Ultimately, Republican voters in Alabama disagreed with Howell Raines’ bleak assessment of Fob James. A few weeks later, James won that June 30, 1998 runoff with 56% of the nearly half-million votes cast, thus defeating Wynton Blount III. However, in the general election, James lost to Don Siegelman by a margin of 57% to 42%, and Siegelman became the last Democratic governor of Alabama to date.

When the dust settled, Raines got his wish that Alabama get a progressive governor. However, the bad news for a Siegelman administration was equally embarrassing: after being elected on a pro-lottery platform in 1998, his proposed lottery was defeated in a 1999 public referendum. Among the main opponents to his plan were conservative Christians, who had mainly backed Fob James.

1998 was not the beginning of Alabama’s “politics of embarrassment,” nor was it the swan song. With an array of cringe-worthy symbolic gestures to choose from, the state’s politics has a solid tradition of rewarding grandstanding, misdirection, and personality conflicts in lieu of prioritizing policy solutions. So now, two decades later, as Alabama prepares for another round of elections, we still haven’t managed to “turn the New South corner”— but who knows what might happen in 2018?

Further reading:

“Alabama, Despite History of Unruly Politics, Has “Never See Anything Like This.” (Dec. 2017)

“Rep. Mo Brooks suggests rocks falling oceans causing seas to rise” (May 2018)

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