This Tuesday is the occasion for the Alabama 2012 primary, moved to its early date in the 2011 legislative session in an effort to make Alabama more relevant to the presidential nominating process. In a further effort to save money (it does cost a lot to run an election), the Legislature also moved the primary for downballot races to the March date.
The media, as it is wont to do, has put a laserlike focus on the presidential primary. This is not wholly irrational. Alabama will indeed be the focus of the nation’s attention Tuesday night, especially as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (I am not going where his tie choice leads!) try furtively to push each other out of the Republican race. As only one example of this focus, The Washington Post offers this catchy graphic showing the race’s importance. Mitt Romney, in an effort to secure a win in the Deep South that would contribute substantially to his “inevitable” theme, has expressed a newfound affection for grits and other Southern culture, that is certainly as genuine and sincere as his commitment to freedom of reproductive choice and universal health insurance. The Alabama GOP presidential primary is worth watching, and it will be worthwhile to pick over the numbers starting Wednesday.
I say this because of the adage in Sun Tzu’s widely-read classic The Art of War, that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” But if we really want to know our enemy, the GOP presidential race may not be the place to look. That contest has become an exercise in pathological syncretism, as the three non-Paul contenders have devoted their full energies into seeing which can most totally pander to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. (Much to the justified delight of President Obama’s campaign staff.) Because of this, the Republican presidential results are going to tell us little more than which of the three was most effective at deploying this strategy.
The more perceptive analyst will be looking at downballot GOP races, in particular at those for Chief Justice and President of the Public Service Commission.
The race for Chief Justice features incumbent Charles Malone of Tuscaloosa, appointed last year by Governor Bentley; Mobile County Circuit Judge Charlie Graddick, and former Chief Justice Roy Moore. Many write off the latter two as contestants for the Shorty Price Award for Futile Candidacies. Graddick burst on the state political scene in 1978 as the candidate for attorney general whose “fry ‘em til their eyes pop out” TV ads (the posted clip is the only remnant I could find online) brought him to the head of a crowded field in the Democratic primary. After two terms as AG, he ran for governor in 1986, and won the Democratic runoff against Bill Baxley. He was properly, if inartfully, stripped of the nomination by the SDEC for encouraging illegal crossover GOP votes in the runoff. After another unsuccessful statewide run - this as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor against Don Siegelman in 1994 - he settled into a circuit judgeship in Mobile County, where he had started as district attorney in the 1970’s.
Judge Roy Moore, of course, is widely perceived as a caricatured religious fanatic, whose insistence on placing the Ten Commandments in the Heflin-Torbert Building led to his ouster as chief justice. While Moore’s views on the First Amendment need work, his brief tenure on the Court was somewhat more complex. His fixation on the Ten Commandments, for example, includes the radical concept that “Thou Shalt Not Steal” applies to banks and insurance companies, and “Thou Shalt Not Kill” applies to Fortune 500 companies that knowingly sell dangerous products to consumers. This, more than any tactical retreat in the face of public opinion, explains why the state GOP stood silently by while he was ousted from the Supreme Court. (The Judicial Inquiry Commission that prosecuted him was then chaired by a Democratic stalwart, Circuit Judge Randall Cole of DeKalb County.)
Chief Justice Malone is not only a political protégé of Governor Bentley, he is a fellow Tuscaloosan. Like Bentley as governor, he has disappointed as chief justice in not standing up to Business Council interests, but both have had to look over their shoulders at GOP primary races, and both have doubtless not wanted to become the primary target of Business Council wrath. Whether either can, or will, do better after those primaries remains to be seen, but our corporate masters have to have some residual anxiety about that prospect.
Thus, the race for chief justice gives us a pretty good picture of three competing power centers in the GOP. Moore’s vote will give us a clear picture of the strength - or weakness - of those Republicans for whom the New Testament is the shibboleth. (Pardon the mixed biblical metaphor.) Malone, like Bentley, represents that part of the GOP that would like to see the party appeal to a broader constituency than the Mountain Brook Country Club or the First Baptist Church of Gardendale. (For that reason, this element may be the most dangerous to a Democratic renaissance in Alabama.) Graddick probably represents the quiet wishes of the Business Council element of the party. Although The Birmingham News reports that “Malone has the backing of the state’s business establishment,” take that with a grain of salt. Malone’s support from the business community represents more of a hedge, and a prudent support of a chief justice who will, regardless of the primary outcome, be in office until next January. A careful review of Graddick’s financial disclosures will reveal substantial business support, if only viewed through the prism of the actual weakness of the GOP’s much-ballyhooed PAC-to-PAC transfer ban.
The race for the right to face Lucy Baxley for PSC president this fall provides a sharper picture of the BCA-Tea struggle within the GOP. Associate Commissioner Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh is the consummate Business Council puppet. She is so close to BCA lapdog Bob Riley, that she could avoid conception by giving the former governor her Yaz. Her support is clearly centered on that wing of the GOP.
Her principal opponent in the race is Kathy Peterson of Shelby County.
Peterson is the wife of unsuccessful 2010 agriculture commissioner candidate Dale Peterson, whose YouTube ad continues to bring ironic chuckles. (If only people knew that Dale and Kathy’s “farming” business is based on raising show llamas!) Peterson’s vote is going to give us a good feel for the continuing vitality of the Tea wing of the Republican Party. Her husband’s support of the brief bubble of presidential candidate Herman Cain has been repaid by the salesman of mediocre pizza’s campaigning in Alabama on her behalf.
In many respects, these GOP contests are not between light and darkness, but between darker shades of pitch. We should be as careful of rooting for a “moderate” in these races, as we would be of rooting for a “less extreme” mullah in an Iranian “election.” While I will be watching the presidential returns closely, in the long run, I will be picking apart the returns in these two statewide races more closely. They will tell us much more in the long run about the beast we need to slay. Or, at least, cage.