Alabama solid red for now despite Republican scandals

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Posted: Apr 11, 2017 4:30 PM
Alabama solid red for now despite Republican scandals

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The resignation of the governor, the ouster of the House speaker and the suspension of the chief justice have left Alabama Republicans to restore order after nine months of chaos. But one thing is for certain: The GOP is in no danger of losing its grip on state politics.

No Democrat has held a statewide office since 2012, and Republicans have firm majorities in both legislative houses. And the state Democratic Party's structure is a skeleton operation compared with the GOP in Alabama.

"It's one of the most politically conservative places and one of the most politically corrupt," said Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University.

Democratic Party Chairman Nancy Worley said Republican corruption "has spread like kudzu throughout our state," and longtime party activist Doug Jones said the door is open for Democrats to make gains.

But do the math and it's doubtful Gov. Robert Bentley's departure amid allegations he had an affair with a female aide almost 30 years younger will have much effect at election time. Alabama's population is nearly 70 percent white, and an overwhelming majority of them are conservative Christians who solidly vote Republican.

"Sooner or later maybe there will be an opportunity for Democrats, but in the current environment if a Republican messes up that person will probably be replaced by another Republican," said former Democratic congressman Glen Browder.

True enough: Republican Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey was sworn in as governor just minutes after Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign finance charges and quit.

When former House Speaker Mike Hubbard was forced from office last summer after his conviction on charges of soliciting business from lobbyists and corporate executives, he, too, was replaced by a Republican. GOP Chief Justice Roy Moore is currently suspended after being convicted on judicial ethics charges linked to a gay marriage order. Moore is fighting to return to active service on the all-Republican Supreme Court.

Bentley, 74, was embroiled in controversy ever since recordings surfaced last year of him making sexually charged comments to political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason, 45. He acknowledged wrongly using campaign money to pay almost $9,000 for her legal bills and failing to properly report a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign.

One of the new governor's first acts was to fire Mason's husband, Jon Mason, who ran Bentley's volunteerism office.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, one of the state's most powerful politicians, said Alabama was ready to move forward. "We want to show the people we've got things in order. We've cleaned house if you will," he said.

GOP political consultant David Azbell said Alabama's historical makeup leads to characters, some of whom are prone to political scandal. Montgomery was the birthplace of the Confederacy, after all, and the state motto is the defiant "We dare defend our rights."

"Our citizens are also largely drawn to candidates who are outsiders, fighters, and populists," Azbell said in an email. "That's perhaps why we've never had the stereotypical 'New South' governor that most liberals and egghead editorial writers crave."

Browder, the former Democratic congressman, legislator and secretary of state, said Alabama was first established as a safe haven for commercial plantations, and effective governance has rarely been a priority.

"Alabama has a traditionally cynical political culture in which the people seem to neither think much of nor expect much from their leaders," he said. "I hate to use the term 'culture of corruption,' but we seem to have more than our share of these things."

Two of Bentley's predecessors in the past three decades were also convicted of crimes: Republican Guy Hunt in the 1990s, for misusing funds, and Democrat Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery in 2006.

Former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors noted that it was the GOP attorney general's office opened the investigation against Hubbard and it was Republican lawmakers who threatened Bentley with impeachment.

"We had a couple of bad apples," he said. "We have 70 percent of the damn government."

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Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama. AP writer Anthony Izaguirre contributed to this report.