Inside the Statehouse: James comes from nowhere in 1978 to win governor’s race over 3 Bs
By Steve Flowers
The 1978 governor’s race between the three heavyweights, former Gov. Albert Brewer, Attorney General Bill Baxley and Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley was expected to be titanic. All three men had last names beginning with the letter “B.” The press coined the phrase “the three Bs.” The Republicans were relegated to insignificance on the gubernatorial stage. The winner of the Democratic Primary would be governor.
Meanwhile, in east Alabama, a little-known former Auburn halfback named Fob James strolled into the governor’s race. Fob’s entry evoked little interest, only curiosity as to why he would want to enter the fray against three major players. James was exposed as a card-carrying Republican whose only political experience had been as a member of the Lee County Republican executive committee, but even a political novice like James knew he couldn’t win as a Republican, so he qualified to run as a Democrat along with the three Bs.
James had become wealthy by starting a successful barbell company in Opelika. When he signed up to run for governor, the press wrote him off as a rich gadfly who simply chose politics, rather than golf, as his pastime. Little did they know the fact he was rich and had a lot of time on his hands could spell trouble for the average political opponent who had to worry about fundraising and feeding their family while running a full-time campaign.
James realized he was no political professional like the three Bs, who had spent their entire political adulthood in public office, so he sought out professional advice. He had the money to think big and wanted to know who was the best political consultant in the South. It was an easy answer: Deloss Walker, a political public relations genius who lived in Memphis, Tenn. His track record for electing governors of Southern states was 5-0. The scenario was the same for all five upset victories. He took an obscure, unknown candidate and elected him governor over a well-known incumbent or favorite. He had just taken an unknown school board member named Dale Bumpers and made him governor of Arkansas. Walker was the most renowned and expensive political guru in the country in 1977.
James quietly sought out Walker, who at first refused to take his race. Walker’s first impression was that even he could not mold James into a winner against three well-financed, experienced thoroughbreds. James persisted, convincing Walker with the fact he had unlimited personal money to spend. Walker relented, knowing he might risk blemishing his unbeaten record, but at least he would make a lot of money off James.
Walker’s one condition for taking the race was James must do exactly what he said. He must be 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.