Forum provides insight into 2010 candidates for governor

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

Artur Davis attended his first political event in 1978. He was 12.

“Fob James brought his yellow school bus to Normandale mall,” the Montgomery native recalled, adding that the candidate’s son, then 16, was with the campaign that day.

“That shy child never dreamed he would grow up to share the stage with Tim James as a fellow candidate for governor,” Davis said in a gubernatorial forum hosted by the Alabama Press Association last week.

Davis’s story is somewhat different from Dr. Robert Bentley’s (R-Tuscaloosa). The Shelby County native said his daddy “sawmilled and farmed and was a member of the populist Republicans.”

Yet they have strong similarities. Each is a lifelong member of his current political party, unlike Bradley Byrne, Kay Ivey, Bill Johnson and Roy Moore, each of whom was either run or been elected as a member of a different party.

While Davis and Bentley are lifelong members of parties that seem, at the present, to be bitterly divided, each spoke reasonably about working with the opposite party to get things done. Since both represent a portion of Tuscaloosa County, they already have worked together on a number of projects.

One of the questions asked each of the eight candidates was to give an example of having reached across party lines. Davis had an easy answer.

“I am serving in an extremely polarized and bitterly-divided Congress,” he said. “I want to go to Montgomery and get something done. I’ve gotten things done by reaching across party lines and I will again.”

Bentley referred to the analytical thinking and diagnosis required by his profession, and said that working with others is the only way to reach a solution.

“The people of this state are hurting and you need a doctor,” he said, delivering the best one-liner of the day.

Despite the apparent open-mindedness, in a field of six Republicans, Bentley could easily be in a three-way race with James and Moore for the most conservative candidate on the ballot this June.

Among the Rs, Johnson is the only who’d accept campaign contributions from gambling interests. Predictably, none of the eight on stage favor new taxes except on gambling, which is the only message Sparks delivered. His answer to almost every question was either to attack his Democratic opponent, Davis, or promote his plan to tax gambling, which he believes is legal. Political consultants would call that smart politicking – keeping the focus off of the real issues. But it’s a strategy that doesn’t play well in a room full of journalists accustomed to listening closely to answers.

None of the eight would support legislation to rewrite the Constitution of 1901, although each would work with the legislature to rewrite it article by article. Each is for improving education.

So what, besides personal appeal, will the races come down to?

James and Byrne are expected to pull ahead of Roy Moore in the Republican primary and face each other in a run-off this summer. James, whose demeanor can only be described as angry, is busy painting himself as a businessman accustomed to solving problems with a non-political approach. The strategy plays well with voters, but as his daddy proved to us twice, it’s a hard sell to the legislature once the campaigning is over.

Byrne, the former chancellor of the two-year college system, is presenting himself as a man who has fought the state’s biggest special interest, AEA, and a man who’ll be “focusing like a laser” on jobs.

On the Democratic side, Sparks appears to believe that taxing gambling and/or establishing a lottery will solve all of Alabama’s problems. Davis, who’s not opposed to either of Sparks’ proposals, articulates a more keen understanding of the problem.

“The lottery would generate $220 million,” he said. “The next governor will face a $1 billion deficit in the education trust fund.”

It was fascinating to see them side-by-side, answering or eluding the same questions. I’m looking forward to watching and listening to them in the next three months, as their worlds continue to collide.