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Inside the Statehouse: 1970, 1974 governor races go to Wallace

By Steve Flowers

Albert Brewer began the writing of George Wallace’s political obituary by beating him in the first primary in 1970. However, Wallace arose from the grave by playing his ever present race card. He trumped Brewer with the race issue in the primary runoff and came from behind to win, thus, resurrecting his political career. Wallace would be governor again for a third time.

Brewer had mortally wounded Wallace with his slogan, “Alabama needs a full-time governor.” It was a stake through the heart to the Wallace segregationist armor. Alabamians loved Wallace for fighting integration but they also knew he had not been working full time as their governor. Instead, he had been using the title to campaign for president although he was as about as likely to succeed as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Brewer offered Alabamians the opportunity to have a full time, hands on, progressive governor.

Wallace survived the runoff by begging for forgiveness for his absenteeism and promising fervently that all he wanted was to be governor. He pled 20 times a day during the 30-day runoff, knowing Brewer hit a sore spot. The people believed Wallace and felt sorry for their racist hero. After all, he had been telling the whole country how refined we were in Alabama, that busing was wrong in Boston just like it was in Birmingham, that all federal judges were scallywagging, carpetbagging, integrating liars, and if one of those long-haired, anti-war protestors lay down in front of his car he would run him over.

Although Wallace barely avoided the grave, he quickly forgot his promise to forego the national limelight and presidential urge. He was on a plane to Wisconsin the next day running for president in 1972. He campaigned nationwide for two years and had done surprisingly well in the northern Democratic primaries, especially Wisconsin and Maryland. However, it was in Maryland that a nut named Arthur Bremer gunned him down in a suburban parking lot. Wallace was shot several times, wounding his vital organs. The assassination attempt would have killed most people, but Wallace survived. However, he was crippled and left to live in a wheelchair with devastating pain for the rest of his life.

Wallace’s absenteeism from Alabama for the past two years, from 1970-1972, only amplified and magnified the lack of interest he had given to being governor. Brewer had come within an eyelash of beating him in 1970. The general consensus was Wallace couldn’t win re-election to governor in 1974. Brewer would probably have beaten him. If not Brewer, then probably the young, progressive and flamboyant Attorney General Bill Baxley or even Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley. All three were probably ready to pull the trigger and take Wallace out. The Maryland shooting may have ruined Wallace’s life as far as his health was concerned but the bullets saved his political life. He would have lost in 1974 but after the shooting the sympathy for Wallace was so strong nobody could have beaten him. Brewer, Baxley and Beasley realized it and all backed off.

The 1974 race for governor became simply a coronation for Wallace, who became governor for a fourth four-year period. His only opponent was a little-known state senator and land developer from Huntsville named Gene McLain. The Wallace team didn’t even have to attack him much. When they did he reacted like a crybaby, making him less potent than he already was. The only votes McLain received were anti-Wallace votes.

The only story of 1974 was that Beasley, who’d been elected lieutenant governor as Wallace’s candidate in 1970, had shown a surprising impatience and lack of respect for Wallace during Wallace’s recuperation and also during Wallace’s entire four-year term. Beasley felt the backlash in his re-election race for lieutenant governor, when he trailed in the primary to Dothan businessman Charles Woods. However, Beasley escaped with a narrow come-from-behind victory in the runoff. Baxley, who was more popular, won an easy re-election to a second term as attorney general. Brewer simply continued his private law practice.

However, all three knew that Wallace couldn’t succeed himself again in 1978. Sympathy or not, Wallace was prohibited by the Constitution from running for a fifth term in 1978. The three Bs would be ready for the 1978 governor’s race.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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