Old Wallace adage proved right for Siegelman
By By Steve Flowers
Don Siegelman defeated Fob James in the 1998 Governor’s race by a landslide 18-point margin. Siegelman ran on an overt platform favoring a state lottery for Alabama. He patterned his campaign and lottery issue after Georgia Governor Zell Miller’s plan.
Georgia earmarked their lottery for education and called it the Hope Scholarship Program. Under Miller’s Georgia plan any deserving Georgia high school graduate with at least a “B” average could go to any Georgia college tuition free with proceeds from the Georgia lottery. It was working in Georgia, so Siegelman sold it all over Alabama.
Siegelman perceived that his lottery issue had propelled him into the governor’s office. However, he should have remembered the initial poll he saw in 1996 showing Fob James was so unpopular that anybody could have beaten him. George Wallace had lived by the adage that more people vote against someone than for someone. The people were not as much in favor of Siegelman’s lottery as they were against Fob.
Regardless, Siegelman felt that the lottery would pass overwhelmingly and spent his entire first year in office working day and night speaking of no other issue. He seemed to be obsessed with Alabama’s need for a lottery. He pushed it through the legislature and then worked tirelessly and shamelessly raising tons of money to spend on advertising to pass the necessary referendum to allow gambling. He and his proponents outspent the opposition 10 to 1, but the lottery lost. In a special election, the people of Alabama turned thumbs down on Siegelman’s lottery.
Siegelman was openly dejected and declared he had no backup plan. It was like a knockout punch to him that sent him reeling. He was openly disappointed and seemed to lose interest in doing anything as governor. He wallowed in self pity and dejection for about a year. He finally bounced back, but had lost a lot of support in the legislature.
Although Siegelman had been in politics all of his adult life, he was basically a loner. He had very few close friends and did not have a lot of close legislative allies. A lot of people knew Siegelman but very few people really knew him closely. Siegelman also let his political inner circle allow people to get at the public trough too much. There was a lot of talk of corruption and graft within the governor’s office. As you know, some came to light a year after he left office.
However, when the bell rang for the 2002 Election, Siegelman had little Democratic opposition. He easily defeated Charles Bishop, 86 to 12, to win the primary. Bob Riley seemed to catch on early as the Republican favorite. He was handsome, articulate, and a self-made millionaire who had bought an open congressional seat six years earlier. Riley was a good congressman, a happy guy, and very conservative. Unlike four years earlier, when the Republican Party formed a firing squad that gathered in a circle and fired on themselves, this time they were united.
The Republican Party had really shot themselves in the foot in 1998 with the Blount/Fob feud, but now seemed determined to coalesce behind one candidate and they did. Riley was famous for riding his horse in his congressional campaign television ads. He used the horse again in the Republican primary. He rode that horse to a landslide victory. Riley received 70 percent of the Republican primary vote. Lt. Gov. Steve Windom received only 20 percent and Tim James, Fob’s son, got 10 percent. Riley came to the dance with the solid support of the Republican Party. Windom endorsed Riley and even campaigned for him.
The race between Riley and Siegelman was fierce and bitter. It was by far the most expensive in state history and the television ads were the most negative in history. They brutalized each other night after night on fall television. When the votes were cast it was a dead even 50/50 split. In a questionable and close calculation Riley was declared the winner. Therefore, the winner of the 2002 Governor’s race was Bob Riley in a closer then photo finish.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 75 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.