Steve Flowers: Looking back at epic 1986 governor’s race

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Since this is a gubernatorial election year, allow me to share an epic Governor’s Race with you.

The 1986 Governor’s race will be remembered as one of Alabama’s most amazing political stories. In 1978 Fob James sent the Three B’s, Brewer, Beasley and Baxley packing. Brewer and Beasley had been permanently exiled to Buck’s Pocket, the mythical destination for defeated Alabama gubernatorial candidates. However, Bill Baxley resurrected his political career by bouncing back to be elected lieutenant governor in 1982, while George Wallace was winning his fifth and final term as governor. Another player arrived on the state political scene. Charlie Graddick was elected as a fiery tough lock ‘em up and throw away the key attorney general. Graddick had previously been a tough prosecuting district attorney in Mobile.

When Wallace bowed out from seeking reelection in 1986, it appeared the race was between Bill Baxley, the lieutenant governor, and Charlie Graddick, the attorney general. It also appeared there was a clear ideological divide. The moderates and liberals in Alabama were for Baxley and the archconservatives were for Graddick. Baxley had the solid support of black voters, labor, and progressives. Graddick had the hard-core conservatives, including most of the Republican voters in Alabama.

The Republicans had gone to a primary by 1986 but very few Alabamians, even Republicans, participated. It was still assumed that the Democratic Primary was tantamount to election. The Democratic Primary would draw 800,000 Alabama voters while the GOP Primary might draw 40,000, so most Republican leaning voters felt that in order for their vote to count they had to vote in the Democratic Primary.

Baxley and Graddick went after each other with a vengeance in the primary. The race was close. Graddick came out on top by an eyelash. He encouraged Republicans to come vote for him in the Democratic Primary. They did and that is why he won. This was not something that had not been happening for decades. Brewer would have never led Wallace in 1970 without Republicans. Fob would have never won the Democratic Primary and thus become governor in 1978 without Republican voters. Basically, Alabama had been a no party state. We still have no party registration law. So how do you police people weaving in and out of primaries without a mechanism in place for saying you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent?

After Graddick defeated Baxley by less than 25,000 votes in the runoff primary, the Democratic Party did the unthinkable. They convened the hierarchy of the party, who clearly favored Baxley, and declared Baxley the Democratic nominee because they guessed Graddick had won the primary with Republican crossover voters. They paraded experts in front of their committee to testify that Baxley should have won if just Democrats had voted. They boldly and brazenly chose Baxley as the nominee in spite of the fact that Graddick had clearly gotten the most votes.

This move went against the grain of the vast majority of Alabama voters. They felt that Graddick, even if they had not voted for him, got the most votes and should be the nominee. The Democratic Party leadership sloughed it off. They assumed that the Democratic nominee would win regardless. After all, there had not been a Republican Governor of Alabama in 100 years. In addition, the Republicans had chosen an unknown former Cullman County Probate Judge named Guy Hunt. Hunt had no money and no name identification.

The Democratic leaders guessed wrong. The backlash was enormous. The bold handpicking of a nominee who had not received the most votes was a wrong that needed to be righted. Baxley did not help his case any by ignoring Hunt and dismissing him as a simpleton. He mocked Hunt saying he was unqualified because he only had a high school education. Baxley, as politically astute as he was, should have realized that he was insulting the majority of Alabama voters who themselves only possessed high school educations. This created a backlash of its own.

When the votes were counted in the November general election, Guy Hunt was elected Governor of Alabama. This 1986 result gave new meaning and proof to the old George Wallace theory that more Alabama voters vote against someone than for someone. Alabama had its first Republican governor in 100 years. The 1986 Governor’s race will go down in history as a red-letter year in Governor’s races. It was truly historic and memorable.

See you next week.

•••

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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