Saturday, June 26, 2010

Which Democrat for Attorney General?

Sometimes, when one is a Democrat in Alabama, it's hard to be humble. One of those times I enjoyed was contemplating the primary fields of the two parties in the race for Attorney General on June 1. To put it simply, any of the three Democrats running in our primary would be so superior to either of the losers in the other primary, that there's simply no choice. Not that the Republicans set the bar very high this time, giving their primary voters a choice between Troy the Sex Toy Boy and a lobbyist for Big Oil who's apparently never tried a case in court.

Against those two, we offered a choice among three attorneys, none of whom could be said to be less than an excellent choice for the post. Before proceeding to the point of this post - looking at the upcoming runoff - a passing word about Michel Nicrosi, who isn't in it. In many ways, she offered what we should
want in an Attorney General: an otherwise apolitical, experienced career prosecutor with a number of malefactors' scalps under her belt to show for it. Her campaign this year got sandwiched between two much, much better funded opponents. She only got up on TV in the last week of the campaign, when any ad is going to only have marginal effect in the deluge of campaign spots. Unlike her two opponents, she did not have an established political network to call on. Considering all this, her showing of 19.3% was very creditable. The bulk of her campaign consisted of personal appearances at Democratic club meetings and fish fries. Obviously, based on her vote, a lot of people liked what they saw in person. One can only hope we'll see her again in the future, whether in an elected or appointed position. My only regret with her posture for that is that she lives in Baldwin County, which makes an effort for a spot as DA or local judge difficult for a Democrat. But there are, and will be, many statewide opportunities.

In the runoff, we have a choice between former Ethics Commission Chairman James Anderson, and former Democratic Party executive director Giles Perkins. Both are well known in Democratic circles in Alabama. The climb facing Perkins in the runoff campaign is made very simple by this map showing the counties each carried in the primary (Nicrosi carried no counties). Overall, Anderson barely missed winning the nomination without a runoff, gathering 49.6% of the vote to Perkins's 31.1%. In the runoff, each has some advantages, and each faces differing hurdles. Either should be a slight favorite against Republican nominee Luther Strange in November.

Why Anderson will win the runoff. To start with, anyone who only came .4% short of winning without a runoff has to be considered the favorite in that runoff. Anderson retains his solid base among lawyers - he is a former Vice President of the Alabama State Bar - and an unsurpassed Rolodex from his years of service as the (unpaid) general counsel of the Alabama Democratic Party. In the final pre-primary finance reports, he outraised Perkins substantially, and there's no obvious reason that won't continue. While Perkins has improved his stump style over the course of the campaign (this is his first campaign for public office as a candidate), Anderson has been better in blue collar and rural settings from the beginning. Anderson's middle-of-the-road conversational style requires little adjustment in the boardroom or the union hall, and he is effective in both environments. Outside Jefferson, none of the only four counties Perkins carried constitutes a major vote center. (Shelby County is almost a footnote in the context of the Democratic primary.) In addition, the Chablis-and-brie crowd who turned out for Artur Davis, and voted for Perkins, in Jefferson and Shelby, have no gubernatorial motivation in the runoff. Anderson, by contrast, showed strong support in every other corner of the state. You cannot win a statewide race carrying only four, or even seven or eight, counties, even if one is Jefferson. In short, it seems that Anderson has so many advantages that Perkins simply doesn't have time in six weeks to overcome them.

Why Perkins will win the runoff. Still, six weeks is a long time, especially in politics. This will be the only statewide race on the ballot, and in many counties, the only race on the ballot. This means that the electorate in the runoff will be a lot smaller than that in the primary, and a change in the electorate can always mean a change in the result. Perkins scored a "must" win when he picked up the New South endorsement for the runoff. (New South had endorsed Nicrosi in the primary.) Given the arithmetic, Perkins can't afford any major "losses" on the ground, and he came through in the biggest test of the inter-primary period. Perkins was faulted as ED of the Party, whether rightly or not, for being obsessed with the I-65 corridor, and ignoring traditional Democratic strongholds in the Shoals, Gadsden and East Alabama. During the primary campaign, he was also tagged, though by people pushing his opponents, as not campaigning outside greater Birmingham. (His high-visibility walk along the Selma-to-Montgomery march route notwithstanding.) Since the primary, he has certainly been more active in other parts of the state, and, as the Nicrosi vote shows, face time = votes. Finally, the configuration of other races on the runoff ballot may tilt slightly his way. His strongest area is metro Birmingham, and Jefferson County features several local runoff races that will increase turnout there. He also ran stronger in the western Black Belt than statewide, and the New South nod will help there. Also critical in light of Perkins's stronger support in that area, is that turnout there may be higher due to the Smoot-Sewell runoff in the 7th Congressional District. One interesting potential game-changer was Perkins's announcement of his support for a moratorium on the death penalty in Alabama until certain reforms can be implemented. It will be interesting to see if Perkins can use the unpopularity of the death penalty among the black population (upon whom it is disproportionately used) will enable him to peel ADC-influenced votes away from Anderson. It will bear close watching over the next few days, to see if this issue gains traction.

Why Anderson would be the stronger nominee. As I have noted elsewhere, the Democratic ticket this year has a north Alabama tilt for the first time in decades. Anderson's Montgomery roots would make a nice balance. His 31-year career as a litigator will make a better contrast to Big Oil Luther's lobbying-only experience, than will Perkins's mainly transactional practice. Anderson is well known in white Montgomery - which includes the Republican base counties of Elmore and Autauga - as a moderate, and as something of a white-shoe lawyer, whose firm's clientele includes many local businesses. This gives him the chance to carve votes from the GOP core. Finally, his connections among the Alabama Bar can't be matched. To the extent people across the state ask their personal lawyers for guidance on this race, Anderson will clobber Strange. Finally, any realistic assessment of the two candidates' electability has to consider the extent to which Perkins's commendable stance on the death penalty might be used against him in the general election campaign. Charlie Graddick's "fry 'em 'til their eyes pop out" death penalty ads from 1978 come to mind.

Why Perkins would be the stronger nominee. Several statewide Democratic campaigns in recent years have faltered on the basis of low turnout in Democratic precincts in Jefferson County. Don Siegelman's 2002 campaign comes to mind. Perkins is very, very close to the political operations of former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington. (Perkins is the son-in-law of Bev Head, one of Arrington's closest and earliest supporters.) Ron Sparks's triumph in Jefferson County shows that the Doc still knows how to turn out votes, and those same gears would be enthusiastically churned for Perkins. While Anderson boasts Montgomery connections, Perkins is a Mountain Brook resident, and a member of St. Mary's Episcopal Church alongside such blue-blood Birmingham families as the Arants, deBardelebens, and Harberts. He, too, can claim the ability to make inroads among Republican strongholds.

Why either should win in November. I hate to keep harping on the same issue, but ... if the Business Council had known the Deepwater Horizon was going to explode, they would doubtless have recruited another challenger for Troy King, as much as they love Big Oil Luther. The "lobbyist" handle was going to be a millstone around Strange's neck under the best of conditions, but his list of Big Oil lobbying clients should be a deal-killer in the must-win Republican precincts of Baldwin County. Add to that, Alabamians are going to be leery about electing an attorney general who has never uttered the phrase, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury ..." Don't think either Anderson or Perkins will let that go unmentioned. Also, because Strange is inextricably tied to Boob Riley, he will poll well below Republican averages in the Dothan area (also a must-win area for any successful Republican), where Riley's bingo raids have destroyed literally thousands of jobs. There's nothing like unemployment to sour a voter on his Republican past.

Strange did not win the Republican primary because he's a great prospective attorney general. He won it because his name is not "Troy King." A wise political operative once told me, "You want to predict the winner of a Republican primary? Go with the guy they
think they are supposed to vote for." In this case, that was Strange. Prediction: by late August, you will see "polls" in The Birmingham News and its sister Newhouse rags publications showing Strange with a comfortable lead over the Democrat. Those polls will probably originate from Rasmussen, or from Public Policy in North Carolina. Just remember, those are the same papers, publishing the same pollsters, who gave Artur Davis a 10+ point lead over Ron Sparks up until the day of the primary. Then enjoy your laugh.

Battle of the Ads. OK, for the sake of equal time, I linked to Perkins's main TV spot. But sorry, Giles, the best TV spot of the year is Anderson's first ad, which got a heavy statewide buy, and became almost as famous as the Dale Peterson guns-and-llamas ad. Believe me when I tell you, this ad got more notice nationally, in the professional political community, than the Peterson joke. Its ironic self-deprecation manages, in 60 short seconds, to push at least a dozen buttons of satire about all that is wrong with media campaigning today - all while still doing a very effective job for its candidate. (The casting even made a presumptive hint about Anderson's winning of a key endorsement.)

In a nutshell, as tempting as it is to intermeddle in the Republican gubernatorial runoff, we do have important business in our own yard on runoff day. We have two good candidates from whom to choose, for a position we really need to take this year. The politicization of "criminal" investigations, and high-handed GOP "opinions," has gone on for 16 years, and needs to stop. While I think James Anderson would make the stronger candidate in November, and he remains a clear favorite in the runoff, both are making good arguments for their campaigns, and deserve our presence at the polls (in our primary) on July 13.


  1. Is Alabama the new Chicago? Do people really meddle in opposing party primaries and run-offs?

  2. The Republicans did that for decades, until they got their own competitive primaries.

  3. I have known James Anderson for years. Not only is he probably the best lawyer I know, many of my Republican acquaintances who also know him will vote for him.

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