In Wallace’s Wake–New Demagoguery for the Eighties
By Randall Williams
Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 10-12
“Alabama has it all,” brag the interstate billboards leading into the Heart of Dixie. The slogan is aimed mostly at Florida- or Louisiana-bound tourists but nowadays applies equally well to the contest for the state’s governorship.
The Democratic primary and run-off were held in June, but the party’s nominee was undeclared until August due to legal challenges and an order by a three-judge federal panel barring certification of the apparent winner. Among the judges signing the order was Frank M. Johnson Jr., known by many Alabamians over the past quarter-century as the “real governor” of the state for the control he exerted in orders on prisons, schools, mental hospitals, public hiring and civil rights.
In the 1960s and 1970s Johnson’s legal activism was necessary to fill the vacuum left by the inaction of Gov. George C. Wallace, who always found it expedient to let the Federal courts force state officials to do the politically unpopular. It seemed fitting that Judge Johnson’s latest legal entry into Alabama justice came as another Wallace vacuum loomed.
George Wallace, at last, is retiring from the office he has held for four terms, five if you count the term of his first wife, Lurleen, who was elected as his surrogate in 1966 when the law forbade consecutive terms. Contending in Wallace’s wake were Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley, the favorite and the champion of a large but loosely knit coalition of labor voters, blacks and Wallaceites; former Gov. Fob James, well-liked by business (“the rich get richer and the poor get Fobbed”); former Lt. Gov. George McMillan, darling of the reform-minded and determined to avoid the “wimpy” image that may have cost him the Governor’s Mansion in 1982; and . . . Atty. Gen. Charlie Graddick, the law-and-order dark horse who has emerged as the latest demagogue in an Alabama lineage stretching back through George Wallace to Cotton Tom Heflin and William Lowndes Yancey.
Graddick is the New version of the Old Wallace. Many who remember only the extremities of the past find it hard to call Graddick a racist because he actually does nothing overtly against blacks; his popularity with racists is due to the fact that he largely ignores the quarter of the state’s citizens who are black, and that he is a demagogue for the Eighties, a subtle master of euphemisms and code phrases that communicate racial meaning without the blatantly nasty words of the previous generation.
In winning the attorney general’s office in 1978, Graddick transformed himself from an unknown Mobile County district attorney with a series of stark, loud television commercials claiming he would get tough on crime. In a speech, he declared he wanted to “fry [murderers] until their eyes popped out and you can smell their flesh burn.” Once in office, he waged a highly publicized prosecution of “food stamp cheats” and feuded with the prison commissioner who sought to relieve the state’s growing inmate population through alternatives such as work release and restitution programs. Critics accused him of being a poor, frequently reversed prosecutor, indifferent to white-collar crime and to such public nuisances as KKK paramilitary training.
Like former Gov. James, Graddick is an exRepublican who switched parties to run a state-wide campaign. Although Alabama has become, since the Second World War, one of the most conservative states, giving large votes to GOP Presidential nominees, it has not elected a Republican governor since Redemption. Alabama’s junior Senator, former admiral and POW Jeremiah Denton, is the first Republican elected to statewide office in more than a hundred years. However, the Goldwater sweep of Alabama in 1964 elected several Republican congressmen, and in recent years a growing number of Republicans have been elected to county and legislative offices. The GOP currently holds two of the state’s seven Congressional districts.
Graddick and James owe their political careers to that still-small contingent of Alabamians who have declared themselves Republicans and to that large and growing block of voters who identify philosophically with the GOP even though they still call themselves Democrats in state and local elections. In short, the Reagan vote. Baxley, on the other hand, stumped vigorously for Mondale and Ferraro in 1984, and he gets his strongest support from the backers of that losing ticket.
Baxley was a two-term attorney general before Grad lick, but there is practically no other similarity
between the two. Where Graddick seems to evoke the old racial passions, Baxley repudiates them. A decade after the fact, he reopened the case of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and convicted a former Ku Klux Klansman for the murders of the four children. Baxley, a law student in 1963, said he was motivated by his shame and anger that people could do such a thing in his state and get away with it.
As attorney general, Baxley was viewed as a tough, able prosecutor but may have been most respected for the job he did recruiting a talented crop of young Alabama lawyers, including some who had left the state to work on Wall Street and the first black assistant attorney general in Alabama history. He then prosecuted murderers and white collar criminals with equal vigor.
On the negative side, the bachelor Baxley had a reputation as a playboy and a gambler who had made and lost large sums in Las Vegas and in the commodities market. Though he had married before making his first attempt at the Governor’s office in 1978. the image stuck with him, renewed in the recent campaign by intimations of an affair with an Associated Press reporter who quickly resigned her job and left the state.
Baxley led the June 3 primary voting by eighty thousand votes, with Graddick a strong second. Graddick then picked up the endorsement of McMillan, causing Baxley aides to charge that McMillan–who had called Graddick unfit to serve before the election–had offered to endorse Baxley in exchange for payment of McMillan’s considerable campaign debt. Graddick probably did not need Fob James’s endorsement; those voters had no place else to go.
Alabama does not require party registration, but voters in its primaries do pledge to support the party nominees in the subsequent general election. Alabama law expressly prohibits voters in one party’s primary from supporting another party’s candidate in a run-off.
Graddick attacked Baxley as the candidate of special interests, playing up donations of about $100,000 Baxley received from political action committees supported by the Alabama Education Association and on Baxley’s endorsement by both of the state’s black political organizations. Graddick was the only candidate who did not seek the black endorsements; in fact, he did not even campaign in the west Alabama Black Belt. Graddick received more donations than Baxley, mostly from businessmen, industrialists and business-related political action committees. Among his biggest contributors were well-known Republicans, including former Nixon Postmaster Winton Blount, and June Collier, the “Buy American” auto parts manufacturer who was appointed by Reagan to the Industrial Policy Advisory Committee.
Two weeks before the June 24 run-off, polls placed Baxley and Graddick almost even.
The Alabama Democratic Party began a statewide campaign aimed at discouraging the 33,000 voters in the June 3 Republican primary from crossing-over to vote in the Democratic runoff; there was no statewide Republican run-off and only token local contests. Candidate Graddick, the state’s top law officer, declared that cross-over voting was legal. The day before the election, one of his assistants, the chief of the voting fraud unit of the Alabama Attorney General’s office, after meeting with Graddick campaign officials, issued a letter advising county election officials that they faced possible legal actions if they attempted to prevent Republicans from voting in the Democratic run-off.
The run-off voting was the closest in recent Alabama history, with Graddick on top by 8,756 votes, less than a percentage point of the almost one million total. Graddick’s campaign workers began answering the phone “Governor-elect …” the next day, but Baxley refused to concede without a recount.
Then Baxley supporters filed an election challenge to the state Democratic Party charging that as many as 20,000 Republicans, far more than Graddick’s margin of victory, had illegally crossed over on June 23. After a few days of deliberation, Baxley filed his own concurrent challenge. The charges made sense: In a television interview on election night, Graddick thanked Republican voters and said the crossover vote had made the difference in the run-off. Jean Sullivan, a Republican National Committeewoman from Selma also had bragged to the press that Graddick had been elected by Republicans, and, on the weekend before the run-off, a series of television commercials had been aired in which four Republican state senators stated that crossover voting was legal.
The party challenge was soon followed by a class-action federal lawsuit filed by a black county commissioner and his wife alleging that Graddick had violated Section Five of the Voting Rights Act by advising voters that it was legal to cross over. Graddick had illegally diluted the black vote by changing election practices without preclearance from the Justice Department, the suit charged.
On Aug. 1, federal judges Johnson, Truman Hobbs and Myron Thompson ruled on the voting rights issue.
In strong language, the Court concluded, “The June 24th runoff was so close, the number of illegal crossover voters so great, and Mr. Graddick’s violation so flagrant, this Court cannot take the chance that Mr. Graddick received the Democratic nomination as a result of his illegal actions.” The judges barred the Alabama Democratic Party from certifying Graddick as its nominee and said the Party could either certify Baxley (if it could be proved that he would have won except for crossover votes) or could call a new runoff between Graddick and Baxley.
“It is absolutely clear,” the Court continued, “that as a candidate and, more importantly, as the Attorney
General, Mr. Graddick made every effort to get voters to violate the anti-crossover rule.”
The Court had no sympathy with Graddick’s argument that the anti-crossover rule was unenforced in the two previous elections, saying, “We note also that during the entire time the crossover law remained on the books and allegedly unenforced, Mr. Graddick was the chief legal officer of the state of Alabama.”
With this directive from the federal courts, a five-member committee of the Alabama Democratic Party began hearing the party challenges. On August 15, the committee certified Baxley as the winner based on votes legally cast, although the committee never actually declared it had evidence showing how many crossover votes had been cast nor what percentage of the crossovers went to Graddick. The committee declared Graddick’s actions amounted to “malconduct” and that he had “abused the power of his office” and failed to maintain “separation between his campaign efforts and the official acts of his office.” The subcommittee, as had the federal court, accepted statistical evidence showing that almost all crossovers voted for Graddick, more than enough to change the outcome of the election.
Graddick then went into federal court himself but was rejected in an opinion even more sharply worded than the first. The judges said the attorney general showed “a complete misunderstanding of the controlling legal principles of the case.”
In true Wallace style, Graddick bitterly attacked the federal judges, comparing them to a piano player “on the first floor of a house of ill repute” oblivious to actions on the second floor. He called himself the “people’s candidate” and charged that the election had been stolen by the Democratic subcommittee, a “gang of five.”
Over Labor Day, Graddick traveled about the state raising funds for a November write-in campaign. Political observers in Alabama say a successful write-in campaign would be almost impossible due to the complexity of the procedures and the effort required of voters, and would help Baxley by taking votes from his Republican opponent.
The Republican party leadership, while nervous about a Graddick write-in, is jubilant over the Democratic in-fighting. The two-party system has been born in Alabama, optimists among them have declared, with the expectation that many nominal Democrats are now so disgusted that they will make the jump to the GOP. The Republican candidate, Guy Hunt, a quiet former probate judge who could not buy an audience two months ago and is still often unrecognized as he works the shopping mall crowds, is a classic case of the man in the right place at the right time. Whether he has staying power depends on the depth of the anti-Baxley and anti-Democratic Party sentiment, and on Graddick, who is demagoguing around the state with the energy–if not the style–of a young George Wallace. If Graddick drops the write-in campaign and Hunt proves to be the dull but clean figure he seems, the Republicans’ odds of taking the statehouse will improve from none to possible.
But November is a long time off, and Baxley can still win. He is a skillful campaigner and a strong debater, and he has a large following of loyal Democrats who will work hard for him and the party. His immediate challenge is convincing the uncommitted that it was Graddick— not a five-man Democratic conspiracy— who stole their votes through his willful and greedy violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Excerpts from booklet published during Alabama Democratic Primary campaign by forces opposed to Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley and linked to Atty. Gen. Charles Graddick. The comic book-style piece is customized on the back cover (below) to attack Baxley, but is otherwise a generic attack on the National Education Association. NEA officials say the same booklet has been used in other states by right-wing organizations.
Randall Williams is the managing editor of Southern Changes and a partner in the Black Belt Communications Group of Montgomery, Alabama.