It was a busy weekend in Alabama politics. The Republican Party finally said goodbye to Bill Armistead, the outgoing party chair and Obama conspiracy theorist. Armistead & the party’s Executive Committee had been fighting a low-level war with each other for the past few years, but that’s nothing compared to the battles going on in the Alabama Education Association (AEA).
Executive Secretary Henry Mabry’s ouster stunned some and thrilled many, but it’s unlikely to strengthen the AEA. I had already started to write a long post about the decline and fall of the Alabama Democratic Party, and what we can do to bring it back. As I worked on that article, I realized that the relationship between the ADP and AEA makes it impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. So bear with us here at LIA over the next couple of days as we review what went wrong for both organizations and talk about a strategy to reinvigorate Alabama Democrats.
The 2010 and 2014 midterm elections pushed the party over the cliff, but we’d been driving towards the edge for quite a while, and nobody applied the brakes.
Historically, Alabama Democrats have fought each other, not Republicans
After 100+ years in power, it’s tempting to assume your position is permanent. In 2010, a number of Democratic incumbents had been in office for decades, when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election. Cycle after cycle, the “real” campaign played out in the Democratic primary, and those fights were vicious. The 2010 primary battle between Sparks and Davis was nothing compared to Baxley/Graddick in 1986 or Wallace/Brewer in 1970:
With support from a coalition that combined blacks, upper-class whites, and educated middle-class whites, Brewer shocked Wallace by running first in the Democratic primary. In the runoff campaign, the contest turned vicious. The Wallace camp whispered claims ultimately proven true of Republican support for Brewer, spread nasty and untrue rumors about Brewer’s family, and spread doctored photographs of Brewer in friendly poses with controversial black activists. Wallace supporters covered Brewer bumper stickers with their own that read, “I’m for B & B: Brewer and the Blacks.”
Historical note: I was in first grade during that campaign, and I had an Albert Brewer bumper sticker on my book satchel.
As a result, Alabama Democrats were much better at fighting each other than they were at fighting Republicans. Kind of like the Alabama & Auburn football teams spend a lot more time preparing to play each other than they would if the game were against a high school team. Well, in the 1990’s, the Alabama Republicans started playing college ball and the Democrats didn’t notice until it was too late.
As has been reported before, Republican Dark Lord Karl Rove tried out his dirty tricks in Alabama State Supreme Court races in 1994 when his allies tried to brand Judge Mark Kennedy as a pedophile. And ask Don Siegelman what happens when a Democratic governor rewards contributors with appointments to state boards – an activity that every Alabama governor has always done. US presidents can hand out ambassadorships, but governors have more limited options.
Alabama Republicans were patient, gaining legislative seats bit by bit over time, winning some surprise statewide races, and using corporate money to take over the state court system. Once a party starts winning elections, it’s easier to recruit candidates for other races. Candidates who might otherwise have reflexively run as Democrats started giving the GOP a chance.
Meanwhile, party building in the ADP was non-existent. The party and its candidates were almost wholly dependent on big-money donors for funding, AEA members for campaign workers, and voters who reflexively voted for state and local Democratic candidates – even if they voted Republican for national offices. That strategy had always worked in the past, but while inertia is a powerful force, it’s not invincible.
AEA became the ADP’s biggest asset and liability
Ironically, the Alabama Democratic Party’s biggest asset – support from AEA – was a huge liability in the long term when the relationship became the issue for the GOP.
In their heyday, co-chairs Paul Hubbert and Joe Reed were geniuses at coalition-building and interest group politics. They didn’t mince words with candidates: “We have the money & campaign workers. You have the vote in the House/Senate. You vote with us; you get our money.” AEA was a powerhouse. One example: what we now call “Spring Break” used to be almost universally referred to as “AEA week” when I was in school in the 1970s. While many families headed for the beach, Alabama’s public school teachers and support staff got together for a convention attended by state legislators and national leaders: Vice President Al Gore dropped by during his presidential campaign.
But you know the problem with almost absolute power? It breeds corruption and hubris. The organization’s rise to the top of the parabolic arc of legislative success was a thing of beauty, but the descent has been swift and humiliating. The state is the worse for it.
Sadly, much of the damage was self-inflicted. It started long before Henry Mabry – even before Alabama Republicans began patiently chipping away at Democratic-held seats. When an organization thinks of itself as all-powerful and undefeatable, it’s at risk. For decades, AEA and the Alabama Democratic Party acted as if their power was some law of nature, like gravity or Newton’s First Law of Motion. That meant that neither was prepared for change. They spent way too many election cycles whistling past the graveyard as the Republicans picked up a seat here and a seat there in the Legislature and began winning statewide and judicial races.
At its height, AEA helped set the agenda in the statehouse. Its influence rivaled that of Alabama Power, ALFA, and the BCA. If a candidate really wanted to serve in the legislature, his/her first duty was to stop by the AEA building in Montgomery and get Paul Hubbert’s pledge of support. AEA poured money into political races and expected a good ROI. I remember in the mid-1980’s listening to an AEA regional representative describe the donation given to one AEA-endorsed legislative candidate: “When the guy raises $40k for his race and we gave him $35k of that, you BET we own him!”
Fast forward to 2010, when AEA’s money & endorsement no longer guaranteed victory, and seemed only slightly less toxic than an endorsement from the American Communist Party. Indeed, willingness to accept AEA money was a black mark against Republican primary candidates, and one of the chief sources of discord between outgoing AL GOP chair Bill Armistead and some even-more-far-right members of the party’s Executive Committee. In 2010, the Chair of the Marengo County Republican Party had to resign because of his ties to Hubbert and the AEA.
The 2010 midterms were a blow to Democrats all across the country, but devastating for Alabama Democrats. It was made even worse because our shortsighted leadership didn’t do anything to control the damage. That’s a failure of leadership.
In Parts two & three, we’ll discuss how the GOP took the ADP’s weaknesses and used them against the party in 2010 and 2014. Part 4 focuses on the relationship between AEA & ADP leaders and how that affected the Democratic Party, and Part 5 looks ahead to the upcoming legislative session and the road ahead for Democrats hoping to rebuild the party.
It’s all a depressing read, I know. It was depressing to cover at the time too. But when you hit bottom, there’s only one way to go. The Republicans are giving us plenty of ammunition and we need a party leadership organized enough to start firing.
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