By Steve Flowers
When Guy Hunt took office as the first Republican governor in January 1987 not much was expected of him. After all, he’d been elected only because of the backlash resulting from the handpicking of Bill Baxley over Charlie Graddick by the Democratic Party leadership. Few people voted for Hunt because they thought he was the better choice or that his credentials rendered him more qualified.
Hunt was a simple man, a rural hard shell Baptist preacher. However, the Republican leadership realized it had been given a golden opportunity so it seized the moment and surrounded Hunt with good people. Most Alabamians warmed to him. He worked hard to get to know the legislature and put together a legislative majority comprised of Republicans and conservative Democrats. He had an uncomplicated agenda and worked to get his programs passed.
Hunt was a tireless campaigner. He began running for re-election the day he was sworn in. He visited every county and attended every event from the Peach Festival in Chilton County to Mardi Gras in Mobile. He even had a statewide train ride to celebrate the state’s birthday. His first term was surprisingly successful, especially from a public relations standpoint. Hunt wouldn’t be a pushover for re-election in 1990. However, you wouldn’t know he was strong to see the field of Democrats lined up to take him out when the bell rang to start the 1990 governor’s race.
The powerful head of the Alabama Education Association, Paul Hubbert, figured if everybody called him governor he may as well run. He’d already become the most powerful lobbying force on Goat Hill. He had grown in power and prestige and built AEA into the strongest special interest group in Montgomery. However, he had pretty high negatives as a candidate. No special interest power broker had ever run a serious race for governor. He’d received some pretty harsh press over the years because of his political muscle, but he took the plunge into the race, bringing with him the largesse of the AEA PAC money.
Don Siegelman, after years of working up the ladder of secondary statewide offices, was ready for the big leagues. He longed for his shot at the brass ring, which he had coveted since his University of Alabama days as student government president. He jumped on the lottery issue, running hard in favor of a state lottery.
Fob James was tired of his life of fishing at Gulf Shores and was ready for a comeback. He jumped into the Democratic primary. Tennessee Valley Congressman, Ronnie Flippo, left a safe seat he’d served for 10 years to make the race. He was a power on the Ways and Means Committee in Congress and brought a ton of campaign money from Washington to the Democratic primary. Jasper coal magnate and State Sen. Charles Bishop also joined the fray.
Hunt, who was unchallenged in the Republican primary, sat back and saved his money. Tort reform was a big issue and Hunt was squarely on the side of the business community. He was stockpiling quite a war chest for the November general election, which he planned to use to paint whoever won the five-man Democratic fight as a tax and spend, trial lawyer loving, liberal.
The Democrats had a tough and expensive family brawl. Whoever won would be beaten up and broke when it was over in late June and would have only five months to heal and replenish their war chest.
Hubbert led the Democratic field with 235,000 votes, getting the majority of black votes. Siegelman captured a portion of the black vote and finished second with 185,000. Fob finished a close third with about 160,000. Flippo finished a distant and disappointing fourth with about 60,000 votes and Bishop received only about 15,000 votes in the Democratic primary.
Hunt’s ability to save his campaign resources and lay low during the first half of the year held him in good stead. He beat Hubbert 52 percent to 48 percent in the November general election. Thus, the first Republican governor of Alabama in 100 years also became the second GOP governor of the century by winning re-election in 1990.
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.