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Inside the Statehouse: 1998 the last time Alabama elected Democrat as governor

By Steve Flowers

Old Fob James had an unusual political personality. When he was out of the governor’s office he showed a tremendous yearning to get back. The proof is he sought the office in 1986 and lost in the Democratic primary and lost again in 1990 in the primary. However, he came back and won in 1994 as a Republican. But once he got the job he acted as if he didn’t want it.

As mentioned a few weeks earlier, Fob set a new standard for alienating his friends and supporters during his first term from 1978-1982. If you were his friend or supporter he refused to even see you. He seemed a little detached during his first term. However, if you think he fumbled his first term, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” because the second term was a nightmare.

Fob seemed completely out of focus during his second term and gave the appearance that he was completely uninterested in being governor. He made multiple mistakes right out of the gate and seemed to not really care. By mid-term it was assumed that whoever ran against Fob would beat him. When polls indicated this to be true, Don Siegelman made the decision to pull the trigger.

Siegelman had been elected lieutenant governor in 1994 as a Democrat and saw his chance to grab the brass ring. In the 1990 governor’s race Siegelman ran second to Paul Hubbert in the Democratic primary, this being his only defeat. Hubbert, who had two losing battles under his belt, one in 1990 and again in 1994, wouldn’t be a candidate again.

Siegelman, who’d been secretary of state, attorney general, and lieutenant governor, focused on being elected governor in 1998. He started running hard and scared off any major Democratic opposition. He outdistanced Birmingham lawyer Lenora Pate 85 percent to 15 percent in the Democratic primary, even though she received lots of editorial support.

Fob wasn’t so lucky in his GOP primary. The Democrats weren’t the only ones who were disenchanted with Fob and sensed his vulnerability. However, Fob had the religious right wing of the party in his corner because he’d done their bidding.

Winton Blount III had been toiling in the Republican Party vineyards for a decade. He had plenty of time as his father, Red Blount, had made his son wealthy by birth. Winton III took his father’s millions and went after Fob with a vengeance. He cornered the moderate wing of the Republican Party and spent millions on media trying to corral conservative independents into the Republican primary. This worked to some extent. It was a tough 50/50 race, but Fob edged out a victory in a tough runoff primary that split the Republican Party.

Fob was weakened and had spent all the money he could raise. He wasn’t a good fundraiser, and although the religious right is big on talk, it’s small on giving and the business PACs could see the polling that showed Fob would lose in the fall. Winton’s supporters never came home. The primary fight had been too bitter. Winton never even endorsed Fob.

Siegelman worked tirelessly. It was the chance for the job he had been working toward all his adult life. He ran hard on a platform favoring a state lottery. When the votes were counted in November, Siegelman trounced Fob. Siegelman won the 1998 governor’s race and became one of only two Democratic governors in the South. Republicans had won in all the other Southern contested governor’s races. Indeed, Alabama has not elected a Democrat as governor since the 1998 Siegelman victory.

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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