Friends, family politics affect races

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2015

As a young boy I would sit for hours contemplating and analyzing the next governor’s race. At that time the governor could not succeed himself. He was limited to one four-year term. Therefore, we had developed a tradition whereby the man who had run second in the last governor’s race would automatically be considered the frontrunner for the next election. He had run what was called his “get acquainted race.” So I always began my conjecture assuming that the second place finisher was the man to beat. History revealed that was usually an accurate assessment.

When I was a boy there was no such thing as a computer. Therefore, I would get my trusty encyclopedia out and turn to Alabama where I could find a list of counties, their population, and a nice map of the state. I would put the projected candidates in a column, then list all the counties and go county by county to calculate my projections on how well each candidate would do in each county. I would wait until the end to tally them, so as not to prejudice myself.

My primary consideration would be where the candidate was from and in what neck of the woods he lived because even then I knew that Alabamians had a tradition of “friends and neighbors” politics – a pronounced habit of voting for someone simply because the candidate is from their hometown.

This voting trend has prevailed in the Heart of Dixie decade after decade. We vote overwhelmingly for the candidate from our county and adjacent counties. Big Jim Folsom won his first race for governor in 1946 due to this friends and neighbors practice. He actually claimed two homes. He was born and reared in Elba in Coffee County in the Wiregrass area of the state, but moved to Cullman as a young man. In the first primary, Big Jim got 29 percent statewide but in both Cullman and Coffee counties he garnered more than 70 percent of the vote.

Alabamians’ trend of voting along “friends and neighbors” localism patterns continues unabated in today’s politics. In the 2010 governor’s race, Dr. Robert Bentley would not have captured the brass ring of Alabama politics without overwhelming local support. In the GOP primary he received upwards of 90 percent of the vote in his home county of Tuscaloosa where he had treated a lot of patients in his dermatology practice. He also reaped a similarly popular vote in the surrounding counties of Fayette, Lamar and Pickens. This Tuscaloosa/Northwest Alabama support is why Bentley edged Tim James out of the runoff and ultimately propelled himself to victory over Bradley Byrne.

In 2014, the only contested statewide GOP primary contest was the Secretary of State’s race. John Merrill, who had served in the House of Representatives from Tuscaloosa, was facing two probate judges from South Alabama. Since there are no issues so to speak in secondary statewide races, it appears the primary criteria is localism. Merrill was born and raised in Cleburne County where his daddy, Horace Merrill, was probate judge and his uncle, Pelham Merrill, was elected three times to the Alabama Supreme Court. John went to the University of Alabama where he was Student Government President. He remained in Tuscaloosa after college, began his professional career and raised his family. In the 2014 GOP primary runoff, Merrill defeated his two south Alabama opponents throughout North Alabama but in his two home bailiwicks he trounced them, receiving 75 percent of the vote in Tuscaloosa and over 90 percent in his native Cleburne County.

As a television commentator on election night in the 2010 and 2014 elections when I saw the results in the Bentley and Merrill victories, I smiled fondly and tried to convey in the short time that television commentary allows the amazing continuous display of “friends and neighbors” localism in Alabama politics.

When I reveal this historical pattern of “friends and neighbors” localism to my political science students in my university southern politics classes, I tell them that this tendency is so pervasive that Alabamians may know the candidate from their hometown or neck of the woods as a drunk or crook but by gosh he’s their drunk or crook. This is not to suggest that any of the aforementioned victors were or are drunks or crooks, what I am suggesting is that under Alabama’s “friends and neighbors” historical dogma it would not matter.

We will see if friends and neighbors continues to play out in the 2018 governor’s race. It will be an interesting and intriguing race to watch.

Steve Flowers is a former state legislator and a political columnist.