Book Review: After Wallace: The 1986 Contest for Governor and Political Change in Alabama

After Wallace: The 1986 Contest for Governor and Political Change in Alabama
by Patrick R. Cotter and James Glen Stovall
University of Alabama Press
Copyright 2009
400 pages

Rating – 8/10

Summary – Two political scientists weigh in on Alabama’s bizarre 1986 race for Governor. This book might not appeal to the general public, but political junkies will enjoy every word of this unbelievable tale.

Review – On August 15, 1986, I was 14 years old and doing some back-to-school shopping in a Montgomery, Alabama, department store. A woman walked through the door and announced, “Well, they gave it to Baxley.” She meant that Alabama’s Democratic Party had just appointed Bill Baxley as its nominee for Alabama’s 1986 gubernatorial election. That I can still remember where I was attests to the controversy surrounding the 1986 election.

In After Wallace authors Patrick R. Cotter and James Glen Stovall recount the bizarre events of 1986. As the title notes, the turmoil started with George Wallace’s decision not to seek another term as Governor. People who were alive in the 1960s remember Wallace as a fire-breathing segregationist, but I remember only his last term (1983 – 1987) and saw him only as a sickly man dogged by corruption charges. Nevertheless, Wallace’s retirement left a vacuum in Alabama politics.

Though difficult to believe today, attaining the Democratic Party’s nomination was – for over a century – tantamount to election in Alabama. In 1986, Alabama had not had a Republican Party governor since reconstruction. The notion that the Democrats “couldn’t lose” played a large role in the 1986 election.

The Democratic primary anointed two clear front runners: Lieutenant Governor Bill Baxley and Attorney General Charles Graddick. Each man is interesting in his own right and one of the missed opportunities in After Wallace is the authors’ failure to spend more time discussing them.

Baxley was considered to be a political savant who had won election as Alabama’s Attorney General before he was 30 years old (in 1970) and had gone on to make an unsuccessful run for Governor in 1978. In 1986, he was the choice of Alabama’s Democratic establishment and seemed primed to win. He was also a very colorful character who was dogged by stories concerning womanizing, drinking, gambling, and other issues.

Graddick was a former Republican who become Attorney General against the wishes of the Democratic establishment. As Attorney General, his tough stand on sending murderers to Alabama’s electric chair earned him the nickname “Charcoal Charlie.”

At the end of the primary, Baxley had a plurality (36%) of the vote, but Graddick (30%) forced a runoff. It was during the runoff that things got complicated and controversial. Alabama has open primaries, so voters do not register by party affiliation. However, in 1979 the Democratic Party had adopted a rule against crossover voting in runoffs. The rule meant that people who voted in the 1986 GOP primary could not vote in the 1986 Democratic runoff between Baxley and Graddick. In spite of adopting the “no crossover” rule, the Democratic Party had never taken any steps to enforce it. (Still with me?).

Crossover voting was a major issue leading to the runoff. The Democratic Party stated that it was illegal, but Attorney General Graddick’s office said that it was legal and Graddick openly appealed to those who had voted in the GOP primary to cross over and support him in the Democratic runoff. On election day, the count was tight, but Graddick eked out a win by about 8,000 votes (50.4% – 49.6%), having made up a 70,000-vote difference in three weeks. Graddick declared victory, met with Alabama legislators, and began planning his administration.

Ah, but things were not so simple. Baxley challenged the election and – predictably – the two sides ended up in state and federal courts. In the end, the courts – citing Graddick’s encouragement of crossover voting – ordered the Democratic Party to either a) declare Baxley the winner or b) hold another runoff.  In their wisdom, the leaders of the Democratic Party – all of whom supported Baxley – decided not to bother with another vote (that they feared Baxley might lose) and awarded the nomination to Baxley. It was that decision to which the woman in the Montgomery department store was referring in 1986.

Many, Alabama voters were outraged that Baxley – who had received fewer voters than Graddick – was the Democratic nominee. The fact that the Baxley was the choice of the Party establishment helped convince voters that the process was unfair. But Baxley and the Party were convinced that voters would get over their anger.

Enter Guy Hunt, the overlooked Republican nominee. Hunt was an unimpressive candidate, a man with little education, who had been an Amway salesman and a Primitive Baptist preacher. Even more damningly (ha ha), Hunt had been the GOP’s nominee in the 1978 Gubernatorial election and had lost in a landslide (73% – 25%). None of it mattered. Hunt easily beat Baxley in the general election (56% – 44%) to become Alabama’s first GOP Governor since reconstruction.

Though After Wallace does a great job of explaining what happened in 1986, the book does little to explain what happened afterward. Baxley retired from politics, divorced his wife, and became a practicing attorney. Though Baxley had an impressive political career, he will always be considered something of a disappointment for failing to become Governor. Graddick changed back to being a Republican and ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1994, but lost big in the general election (62% – 38%). In November 2011, 66-year-old Graddick announced that he would run for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Hunt won re-election in 1990, but was otherwise a disappointment. (After Wallace does not recount one of Hunt’s more-infamous gaffes as Governor; in June 1987 he had to apologize after publicly stating that he “never tried to Jew” Alabama’s fruit farmers on the prices of their crops). In 1993, he was forced to resign as Governor after being convicted of misappropriating $200,000 in funds for his 1987 inaugural. Hunt received a pardon in 1998, then unsuccessfully ran for Governor again the same year. He died in 2009.

After Wallace might offer too much detail (e.g., polling data and details of legal proceedings) for those with a passing interest in Alabama politics. However, those who enjoy politics will not want to miss this one.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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