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Opinion: Amid the Alabama Mess, a Reason for Optimism

Gov. Kay Ivey provides an example of politics done right

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, center right, seen here with presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, is a bright spot in the state’ political buffoonery, Murphy writes. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images File Photo)
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, center right, seen here with presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, is a bright spot in the state’ political buffoonery, Murphy writes. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images File Photo)

It’s no secret Alabama politicians have been giving Chicago pols a run for their money when it comes to corruption lately.

The state’s most recent governor, Republican Robert Bentley, resigned in April as he faced possible impeachment related to campaign spending and a sex scandal.

Alabama’s former House speaker went to jail earlier this year for his own corruption scandal, and a former Democratic governor was recently released from federal prison on totally different corruption changes.

On Tuesday, Alabama voters will vote in the GOP runoff in the race to fill the Senate seat of Republican Jeff Sessions, who is now attorney general.

On the ballot are Roy Moore, the twice-removed former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, facing off against “Big Luther” Strange, the sitting senator who was chosen by the now-resigned governor just as Strange was heading up (or heading off?) the state investigation into the governor’s affairs, so to speak.

The race so far has been one hot mess for Republicans.

President Donald Trump is backing Strange; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC has spent more than $10 million to attack Strange’s Republican rivals, often with a barrage of false advertising, and conservatives led by former Trump ringleader Steve Bannon are vowing revenge and more primaries for other senators in Washington no matter what happens Tuesday.

And did you catch the part where the president used a Strange rally to insult NFL players and inflame a racial divide?

But don’t convict the Yellowhammer State just yet of being just another political cesspool. Because out of the muck of Alabama’s political buffoonery has come Kay Ivey, the state’s new Republican governor and a woman who might just restore your faith in politics, even for just a minute.

The 72-year-old former school teacher may look like your sweet Grandma Mary, but Ivey is the woman who had the backbone, when she took over from the disgraced Bentley, to move the Senate election up from 2018 — when Bentley had planned it — to what she described as the soonest date possible for voters to choose their new senator, rather than letting the pick of a scandalized former governor settle in for too long.

The do-or-die timing of the runoff Tuesday could break open a GOP civil war during one of the most politically tumultuous times Americans have seen in the last 40 years.

It wasn’t the easy choice, nor has it been a popular choice for Republicans who wish this race could have just taken place during the 2018 elections, as Bentley originally planned.

If Strange loses Tuesday, Republican incumbents nationwide say they fear more primaries like this one in 2018.

But it was the right thing to do, and Gov. Ivey should get credit for being a much-needed and probably lonely example of professionalism in a political climate of deliberate division and back-door self-dealing.

Ivey woke up the morning of April 10 as Alabama’s lieutenant governor and went to bed as the governor, sworn in during a near constitutional crisis to fill out Bentley’s unfinished term after his surprise resignation.

She was experienced, having been elected first as state treasurer in 2003 and then as lieutenant governor in 2011, but not expecting the job she was handed.

Although she is a social and fiscal conservative, as most Republicans are in Alabama, she has moved forward on a path of pragmatic box-checking.

“Her first priority was steadying the ship of state,” her spokesman Daniel Sparkman told me. “And removing the dark cloud that was hanging over the state of Alabama.”

Sparkman said Ivey’s top priorities have been economic development and education reform. And although she has no “anti-corruption” platform per se, she has moved quickly and deliberately to be a new kind of governor for the state in recent years — an honest one.

“She just wants to make sure government is open, honest and transparent,” Sparkman said.

In addition to sending the entire governor’s office to ethics training, and going herself with pen and paper in hand to take notes, Ivey disbanded dozens of special commissions Bentley had created for appointees to study various projects and ideas without ever producing much of anything.

Ivey also signed an executive order preventing the executive branch from appointing registered lobbyists to state boards or commissions.

But tellingly, her first official act as governor was to move up the special election for the Senate seat from November 2018, when Sen. Strange would have enjoyed a longer incumbency and lower-profile campaign, to this year. Tuesday’s winner faces Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 special general election. 

It’s important to note here that Sen. Strange had said before his appointment that he intended to run for the Senate in 2018. Nothing has linked him to any specific quid pro quo, so he appears to be just one of a long list of the beneficiaries and the bagholders of Robert Bentley’s life choices.

But by accepting the appointment as he did, Strange’s circumstances are also of his own making.

Ivey has not endorsed Strange or Moore, and she has no plans to weigh in on it either way, aside from timing. She recently announced that she is planning to run for her own term as governor in 2018 and will face at least seven other people who also want the job.

Her first ad is just about as no-frills and self-explanatory as her first months in office have been, saying her parents “taught me what was right and what was wrong and just do what’s right.”

Doing the right thing is such a simple concept that it might seem easy. But an awful lot of politicians inside and outside of Alabama make it look hard.

Ivey has the distinction of being the rare politician we can point to today who is doing the right thing when the easier and more politically expedient choice was to do nothing at all.

We don’t know now who will win the runoff Tuesday, nor what that will mean for the Republican Party, but neither did Ivey when she chose to move the election up.

And that’s the point.

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