MONTGOMERY — If the blood feud between Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Attorney General Luther Strange made you queasy last week, you'd better buckle up.
Hubbard's trial on 23 felony ethics charges is likely to dominate Alabama politics through this year and most of 2015, political scientists say. High-stakes battles among Republicans may be the new normal.
"This may be the first episode of what happens when you have a one-party system," said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University. "When one party dominates, you start to see this internecine warfare."
A seemingly sleepy political year in Alabama took an abrupt turn last week when state prosecutors revealed that the House speaker was facing nearly two dozen charges on ethics violations. In an indictment that was short on details, Hubbard was accused of using his office to solicit or accept money from a wide range of Montgomery power players, from governor-turned-lobbyist Bob Riley to “Yellawood” magnate Jimmy Rane to former Congressional candidate Will Brooke.
(Hubbard is the only person named in the indictment who faces charges, but the Lee County grand jury may not have ended its work.)
The indictment was no great surprise. Rumors had been swirling around a grand jury proceeding in Lee County, Hubbard's home, for more than a year. But the timing — two weeks before the general election — was a stunner.
So was Hubbard's defense. Surrounded by Republican supporters at a press conference, Hubbard and his lawyer said the prosecution was a political ploy by Attorney General Luther Strange, who is also a Republican. Hubbard supporter and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, called the prosecution “Chicago-style gutter politics,” an epithet GOP operatives usually reserve for Democrats.
The sudden civil war, within a political party so certain of re-election in 2014, had many Montgomery watchers wondering what could possibly happen next.
Experts say one thing is for sure: it's going to be messy.
Republican edge still strong
No matter how nasty the back-and-forth gets, political scientists say, it’s not likely to lead to an election upheaval that turns the Legislature blue again.
"I don't think the Hubbard indictment will lead to the rebuilding of the Democratic Party, because I don't think the votes are there," said William Stewart, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “Alabama's white population is overwhelmingly conservative, and they're still in the majority.”
While an indictment so close to an election would seem to be a gift to the loyal opposition, experts say most Democrats don't have the money to run the ads they'd need to capitalize on the scandal. And after redistricting, few races were really competitive in the first place.
But even if Hubbard returns to the House, it's not clear that he'll return as speaker. State Rep. Jim Carns, R-Birmingham, acknowledged this week that he was seeking support for a shot at the speakership. Another widely mentioned candidate, Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, spoke on Hubbard's behalf at his post-indictment press conference, a sign that he's in the speaker's camp.
Brown and Stewart both say it's likely Hubbard will retain the speakership, but will hand the gavel over to someone else during the next legislative session so that he can deal with his trial.
What happens after that will depend largely on the outcome of the trial — and it could shape politics for years.
Hubbard is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in November, with a trial occurring as early as December. Brown thinks Hubbard's lawyers are likely to ask for an extension, partly because there's so little detail in the indictment.
“They'll file a motion for what's known as a bill of particulars,” he said. "They'll say they need to know what they're defending against."
Stewart thinks the trial could be slowed by the very budget cuts the GOP supermajority is known for.
"We know there have been cuts to the judiciary branch, and they may make the process slower," Stewart said. "I don't think they can justify saying they'll move this case up because it's the speaker."
While he waits, Hubbard — and possibly others as yet unnamed by prosecutors — may be under intense pressure to strike plea deals. That's what happened to former state Sen. Jim Preuitt, who was found not guilty in a 2010 bribery probe that ensnared several lawmakers.
"Everybody is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but I felt like we had to prove our innocence," Preuitt said. Federal investigators put intense pressure on the defendants to plead guilty and testify against others, he said. Preuitt said he dropped one lawyer because that lawyer was convinced he should strike a deal. Ultimately only the defendants who pleaded went to prison; lawmakers who fought the 2010 charge were all found not guilty.
A conviction in Hubbard's case would blast a gaping hole in the power structure that has run the Legislature since Republicans took over in 2010.
"Mike Hubbard was simply the biggest fundraiser in the party," Brown said. "He's the glue that has held the supermajority together."
No one person is big enough to step in and fill that power vacuum, political scientists say, and a House without Hubbard would be more decentralized. Gov. Robert Bentley, who has occasionally locked horns with House and Senate leaders, would likely have more say in the legislative agenda.
"It could give Bentley a second wind," Brown said.
Next to Hubbard, the politician with the most at stake could be Strange, the attorney general. Hubbard's allies have accused Strange of trying to get Hubbard out of the way as a potential rival in a 2018 governor's race. Strange has protested that he recused himself from the case long ago, turning it over to acting attorney general W. Van Davis.
Stewart says the upcoming court battle is likely to bruise both Hubbard and Strange politically, regardless of the outcome.
"I think it will hurt both of them substantially," he said. "Hubbard is hurt because of the indictment, and Strange has made a lot of enemies within the party."
Brown disagrees. A conviction, he says, would help Strange win a key group of voters.
"If Strange gets a conviction, he can say 'I'm willing to root out corruption in my own party,’ " Brown said. "That will go over well with independent voters."
If Hubbard walks free, Brown said, Strange could find himself friendless within the GOP.
If Alabama is becoming a one-party state, political scientists say, this won't be the last time the party is roiled by such an intense struggle.
"I'm old enough to remember when Democrats had this kind of conflict," Stewart said.