Wiregrass still riled about Riley

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 1, 2010

As we approach the Labor Day weekend it reminds me of bygone days in Alabama politics. Labor Day was the biggest campaign day of a gubernatorial election year, with campaign rallies from one end of the state to the other. Although politics today are not as colorful, Labor Day still officially marks the start of the fall election campaign.

Robert Bentley and Ron Sparks were not expected to make it to the dance but here they are ready to go. The glaring uniqueness surrounding this year’s contest is the lack of money. Both candidates are having a difficult time raising campaign dough. It is a stark contrast from eight years ago when both Bob Riley and Don Siegelman each raised and spent more than $6 million. It is suggested by some that Bentley and Sparks will be lucky to raise and spend $2 million in the upcoming fall contest.

The weak economy accounts for a lot of the fall-off. There are also some heavy hitters missing from the lineup of contributors that were on the A-list in 2002. Richard Scrushy was on the scene and accounted for more than $2 million. Bobby Lowder was good for more than $1 million so that he could control the governor’s choices for the Auburn Board of Trustees. Lowder is not in jail like Scrushy, but he and his bank have gone by the wayside. Riley’s raids have rendered Milton McGregor hapless and the winners of the bingo monopoly in the state, the Indian gambling bosses, will probably not play in the governor’s race. They got their money’s worth when they bet on Riley in 2002.

Bentley is simply not a good fundraiser. He spent $1.8 million to win the GOP primary, 90 percent of which was his own money. He is too honest to be a good fundraiser. He will not compromise or promise favors to lobbyists who approach him with a hope for some return on their investment. He will raise some money from the Tuscaloosa area primarily because of their pride in wanting a governor from there.

Sparks is coming up short because the deep-pocketed Democratic donors are on the sideline. The AEA spent a lot of its money defeating Bradley Byrne in the Republican primary. With that mission accomplished they will stick to their knitting and concentrate on legislative races. The trial lawyers really have no interest in the governor’s race and, as mentioned, the privately-owned gambling interests are dispirited and deeply drained by the Riley vendetta.

The lack of money will bring a refreshing change. You will probably have a remarkably clean, above-board campaign with very little negative mudslinging.

Both Bentley and Sparks will benefit from a strong friends and neighbors appeal.

Sparks’ position on gambling will accrue to his advantage. One area where he will benefit greatly will be in Dothan and the Wiregrass. These folks are still riled up about Riley, simmering over the torpedoing of their Country Crossing venture. Over the past two decades this area has become one of the most reliably Republican enclaves in the state. But, they may very well vote for Sparks. This carve out could make a big difference. The Wiregrass, coupled with the popular Sand Mountain area, which would normally vote heavily Republican, may very well propel Sparks into a competitive contest.

It is also hard to label the agriculture commissioner as a liberal. In fact, the entire Democratic slate has a distinct good old boy flavor. You just cannot tie Ron Sparks, Jim Folsom, Steve Raby and James Anderson to Nancy Pelosi. Artur Davis would have been devastating to Democratic hopes. However, Sparks and his team are a different story. It will be a fun eight weeks.