The 3 Bs were Fobbed in ‘78

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 1978 governor’s race between the three heavyweights, former Gov. Albert Brewer, Attorney General Bill Baxley, and Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley, was expected to be titanic. The press coined the phrase “the three Bs.”

Meanwhile, over in east Alabama, a little known former Auburn halfback named Fob James strolled into the race. Fob’s entry evoked very little interest. Fob was exposed as a card-carrying Republican whose only political experience had been as a member of the Lee County Republican executive committee, but even a political novice like Fob knew he could not win as a Republican so he qualified to run as a Democrat along with the three Bs.

Fob had become very wealthy by starting a successful barbell company in Opelika. When he signed up to run for governor, the press wrote him off as a rich gadfly who simply chose politics, rather than golf, as his pastime.

Fob realized he was no political professional like the three Bs, who had spent their entire political adulthoods in public office, so he sought out professional advice. He had the money to think big and wanted to know who was the best political consultant in the South.

It was an easy answer: Deloss Walker, a political public relations genius who lived in Memphis, Tenn. His track record for electing governors of Southern states was 5-0. The scenario was the same for all five upset victories. He took an obscure, unknown candidate and elected him governor over a well-known incumbent or favorite. Walker was the most renowned and expensive political guru in the country in 1977.

Fob quietly sought out Walker, who at first refused to take Fob’s race. Walker’s first impression was that even he could not mold Fob into a winner against three well-financed, experienced thoroughbreds. Fob persisted convincing Walker with the fact he had unlimited personal money to spend. Walker relented, knowing he might risk blemishing his unbeaten record but at least he would make a lot of money off poor old Fob.

Walker’s one condition for taking the race was Fob must do exactly what he said. He must be scripted and never deviate from Walker’s pat ads and speeches. Nobody was aware Fob had already garnered the genius Walker and been to political school when he signed up to run. Baxley even praised him saying, “Fob would be a good governor. Too bad he’s not a serious candidate.” Those words would come back to haunt Baxley.

Walker’s initial polling showed Fob actually had some name identification from being an Auburn halfback in the 1950s. It also picked up on the fact that Auburn alumni yearned for an Auburn man to be governor instead of a University of Alabama alumnus. However, Fob’s best attribute was that he always followed Walker’s script. No matter what question Fob was asked he answered it with the same pat answer, “I’m for getting back to the basics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

He traveled the state in a yellow school bus and let the three Bs tear each other up. Fob ran positive ads evoking a clean image of himself. By mid-May most Alabamians had seen so many negative ads and mudslinging by the three Bs, they were of the opinion that all three had probably shot their mothers in a bar fight, but they liked old Fob James.

It was too late for the three Bs when they saw a poll about a week before the election showing Fob ahead of all three of them. When the votes were counted Fob was in first place. Baxley finished second because black voters were with him. Brewer was third and Beasley finished fifth behind State Sen. Sid McDonald.

Fob easily beat Baxley in the runoff. Fob James had pulled off one of the most amazing upset victories in the history of Alabama politics.