With the re-election of Gov. Robert Bentley a foregone conclusion — or, at least, as foregone as a conclusion can get in Alabama politics — it might be well to consider what past governors have done with their second terms.
Not way past. Just since Alabama voters decided to prevent governors from running their wives as surrogates and changed the state’s 1901 Constitution to let governors succeed themselves.
Since that constitutional amendment took effect, second terms have been filled with pitfalls, usually brought on by promises made but unfilled in the first term.
George Wallace, for example, spent much of his later terms (he had a bunch) trying to distance himself from his vow to defend segregation now and always.
Then there was Fob James. After a brief flirtation with the GOP, James announced in 1979 that he was running for governor as a Democrat. He won.
There were moments in that first term when it appeared James might be the New South governor progressive Alabamians yearned for. He refused to play the race card and talked a lot about education. Unfortunately, he inherited a state beset by financial problems that hampered reforms he advocated. To make matters worse, he did not work well with leading legislators. When his four years were done, a frustrated James decided not to run again.
Over the next decade, Alabamians got their last taste of Wallace and a double serving of Guy Hunt, who was the state’s first elected Republican governor since Reconstruction. Hunt was elected to a second term but before he could serve it he was indicted and found guilty of theft, conspiracy and ethics violations. Although one of his supporters argued that Hunt “wouldn’t have done what he did if he had knowed what he was doing,” that did not get him off the hook. Forced out of office, Hunt’s second term was not much of a term at all.
Then, to the surprise of many, James announced he would run again — this time as a Republican. Alabama, which by then was moving into the Republican camp, narrowly elected him.
With James less burdened by unfulfilled promises made a decade before, there was hope that he might finally be the New South governor some people believed he could be. Instead, he took another route, championed the old populist causes of school prayer and the display of the Ten Commandments, railed against raising taxes and began telling federal judges that somehow the Bill of Rights did not apply to Alabama.
These issues played well with what were coming to be called “Wal-Mart Republicans,” but members of the GOP establishment lamented the image of the state that the governor was spreading abroad.
It was one thing for the New York Times to call James “a genius of bumpkin publicity.” That could be easily dismissed by the people back home. But when one of the state’s respected journalists described the governor’s trip to the Holy Land to meet with Israel’s leaders as a confab between “our yahoo and their Netanyahu,” people to whom image mattered feared for the future.
James tried for a third term, but after narrowly winning a bitter primary battle with candidates from the more moderate wing of the GOP, he was in no way ready to take on the better-funded Democratic candidate, Don Siegelman.
No small part of James’ second-term troubles and his loss to Siegelman came from his efforts to better fund K-12 public education in Alabama. The James Education Foundation Act forced some local school districts to raise property taxes to the minimum already required. That cost him the support of large landowners. Moving money from higher education to K-12 cost him votes in critical college and university towns. Meanwhile, Siegelman’s signature proposal — a lottery for education — had wide appeal at the time.
Siegelman won. But when the lottery was put it to a popular vote, Alabama’s faith-based community rose against it. What was written on the bulletin board of a small rural church sums it up pretty well:
“The governor says yes.
“God says no.
“What do you say?”
The majority voting on the issue went with God.
The lottery was all Siegelman had. A severe national economic downturn greatly limited what he was able to do with declining revenue, so when he ran for re-election, the obstacles were great. Even so, Bob Riley’s victory in 2002 was the closest in Alabama gubernatorial history.
Siegelman did not get a second term, but if he had the direction he took after the defeat of his lottery proposal suggests he would have fallen into the tried-and-true strategy that has characterized Alabama politics since almost forever — cut a deal with powerful special-interest groups (agriculture, education, banking, etc.), hold the line on taxes, cut spending and treat reform like it was a dirty word.
Naturally, that was the deal political pundits expected Riley to cut.
Only he didn’t, at least not at first. Instead, Riley launched a campaign to actually reform the state’s antiquated tax structure, force special-interest groups and affluent Alabamians to pay more for the perks they had been getting, and generate the revenue needed to run a modern state through those reforms.
As it turned out, voters did not want a modern state.
Opponents of change circled the wagons. What had become the core of the Alabama Republican Party — business, agriculture, evangelical Christians and those who had not gotten over segregation’s downfall — turned against the governor they had just elected and left his progressive agenda dead in the water.
And yet, when Riley sought a second term, Alabama voters re-elected him. Given the choice between Lucy Baxley, a woman and one with a political past, and a sitting governor who had been taught a lesson, voters picked the incumbent. Riley had indeed learned from the experience. There would be no more grand tax-reform schemes. Instead, the governor focused on polishing Alabama’s image, attracting industries and creating jobs. Even though the state’s unemployment rate was high (thanks in part to the decline of the textile industry), the state under the Riley administration was recognized nationally as a good place to do business.
Additionally, the Riley years were largely scandal free, which in Alabama counts for a lot.
Now it is Robert Bentley’s turn.
Were Alabama not such a Republican state, the governor might be vulnerable. He promised when he campaigned for his first term that job creation would be his focus as governor and that he would not accept a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent. The way things are going, the governor’s payday is a long way off. In April, the unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, an increase from the previous month. Newspaper accounts at the time found that the number of people employed in the state actually decreased.
This would be rich meat on which opposition could feed, but for Bentley it is unlikely his main Democratic opponent in November, former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith of Huntsville, can make much of it. The governor’s core supporters — business, agriculture, evangelical Christians — will not desert him so long as he stands firm against new taxes and federal intrusion in what they consider state affairs. Besides, most of them would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Democrat.
Thus, a question: What will Bentley do in his second term?
Smart money will bet on more of the same. Although there will be photo ops at occasional factory ground-breakings, job applications will far outnumber job openings once those cameras are put away. With legislative opposition to new taxes far outweighing the desire for new revenue to shore up the General Fund, and with the state’s rainy day account already raided, there will be more belt-tightening, more state jobs cut and even more unemployment.
Only a significant improvement in the national economy can prevent this, but even that might not be enough. Today, Alabama is not recovering from the Great Recession as fast as the rest of the country, so it is unlikely that economic improvement on the national level will have the impact necessary to improve the employment picture here.
Every second-term governor is a lame duck the minute he or she is sworn in. Bentley seems more lame than most. In all probably, it will be legislative leaders, not the governor, who will determine the direction Alabama takes over the next four years.
Meanwhile, Gov. Robert Bentley will sit in his office and not draw a check.
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.