By Steve Flowers
The 1986 governor’s race will be remembered as one of Alabama’s most amazing political stories. In 1978 Fob James sent the Three Bs — 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 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 re-election in 1986, it appeared the race was between Baxley and Graddick. It also appeared there was a clear ideological divide. The moderates and liberals in Alabama were for Baxley and the arch conservatives 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.
The Republicans had gone to a primary by 1986 but 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 drew 40,000, so obviously most Republican 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. They disliked each other. 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’s why he won. This wasn’t something that hadn’t been happening for decades. Brewer would have never led Wallace in 1970 without Republicans. Fob would have never won the Democratic Primary and become governor in 1978 without Republican voters. Basically, Alabama had been a no-party state. We still have no-party registration law. 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 fewer than 25,000 votes in the runoff, the Democratic Party did the unthinkable. It convened the hierarchy of the party, who clearly favored Baxley, and declared Baxley the Democratic nominee because it 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 hadn’t voted for him, got the most votes and should be the nominee. The Democratic Party leadership sluffed it off. It assumed the Democratic nominee would win regardless. After all, there hadn’t 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 hadn’t received the most votes, was a wrong that needed to be righted. Baxley didn’t 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 he was insulting the majority of Alabama voters who only possessed high school educations. This created a backlash of its own.
When the votes were counted in the November general election, Hunt was elected governor. The 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, along with the 1970 and 1978 governor’s races. It was truly historic and memorable.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 75 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.