Election 2020

Are Alabama’s Democrats Too Dysfunctional to Take Advantage of Bentley’s Scandal?

Former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley walks out of the room after announcing his resignation from office April 10, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

There are manic Mondays and then are manic Mondays. Alabama’s now-former Gov. Robert Bentley had one of the latter this week.

Alabama’s two-term governor, who as PJM reported was operating under the cloud of a sex scandal involving an aide nearly 30 years his junior, was indicted on two charges of violating state campaign finance laws and resigned Monday.

Bentley, 74, left office one step ahead of Alabama House impeachment hearings, which were scheduled to begin as his lawyers furiously brokered the deal that removed him from office.

Bentley agreed to plead to the two charges, reimburse nearly $9,000 in campaign funds, surrender another $37,000 in campaign funds, pay $7,000 in fines and never run again for public office.

He was also sentenced to perform 100 hours of community service as a medical doctor.

Bentley’s world began to fall apart quickly April 7 with the release of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment report. It showed, among other revelations, that Bentley’s ex-wife, Dianne, discovered his affair with aide Rebekah Mason when the governor mistakenly sent her a love-message text thread intended for Mason.

The report also said Bentley ordered state police to find copies of a recording that suggested he had an affair with Mason, along with ordering punishment for the state law enforcement officer who discovered what he and Mason were doing.

Bentley has admitted the affair with Mason but said he never slept with her. He has denied ordering a state law enforcement cover-up or any retaliation against investigators.

However, his resignation was a quarter-pounder of political raw meat for Alabama Democrats, politicians who, to put it mildly, haven’t had much success in recent years. Republicans control all three branches of the Alabama Legislature, every statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats, and all seven seats in the Alabama congressional delegation.

“The pattern and practice of Republican corruption is spreading like kudzu in our state,” said Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party. “Republicans love to campaign on empty promises of family values and integrity, yet the record shows that they have governed with dishonesty, deceit, and corruption.”

Tough talk.

But, to continue with her party’s litany of failure, the last Democrat to hold statewide office in the past four years was Lucy Baxley, who served on the state Public Service Commission. The party hasn’t had one of its members in the governor’s office since 1998. The last time a Democrat was in the U.S. Senate was 1992.

Given the Democrats’ lack of political clout, it’s no surprise that it was the GOP who told Bentley it was time to go.

The Alabama Republican Party Steering Committee issued a statement Sunday calling for the governor to step down.

Before the sun set Monday, Bentley was out.

“There’ve been times that I let you and our people down, and I’m sorry for that,” the AP reported Bentley said after he pleaded guilty.

After Bentley’s resignation, the first female Republican to become Alabama’s lieutenant governor, Kay Ivey, became the second woman in the state to serve as governor. The first was the wife of Gov. George Wallace after he was term-limited out of office.

“Today is a dark day in Alabama but also one of opportunity,” Ivey said after being sworn into office. “Together we steady the ship of state and improve the image of the state. These are my two priorities as governor.”

Worley said it was just one more dark day of many for the Alabama GOP.

“The Republican heads of all three branches of our state government have either been convicted, ousted or resigned within a year,” Worley said. “’Three strikes and you’re out’ applies to baseball and to corrupt Republican politics in Alabama.”

However, to continue Worley’s baseball metaphor, after “three strikes and you’re out,” at some point the other team has to come up to bat.

So far, Democrats are stuck in the on-deck circle.

The party hasn’t been able to field a candidate for four of the five statewide races on the November ballot, according to AL.com.

“It’s just completely atrophied,” Jess Brown, a retired political science professor from Athens State University, said. “As best as I can tell, it has no message and no messengers.”

And one of the team’s stars isn’t happy with its coaches.

House Democratic Leader Craig Ford (D), who is thinking about a 2018 campaign for governor, has accused Worley and Democratic Party Vice-Chairman Joe Reed of “neglect and mismanagement.”

“The Democratic Party — both nationally and in the state — needs to get its house in order if we hope to earn the support of voters,” Ford wrote in an op-ed for the Gadsden Times. “Democrats have got to get away from identity politics, and get back to focusing on the policies that make a difference in everybody’s life.”

Dissension in the dugout was front and center during the Alabama Democratic Party’s meeting in February.

The Montgomery Advertiser reported that several times during the meeting the party’s executive committee accused county party charts of allowing “the strangest and most unusual people” to run for elected office.

Reed took a shot at county-level Democrats who had been criticizing state Democratic Party leaders, like himself.

“You asked what the state party has done,” he said. “What has the local party done?”

Rep. John Knight (D), chairman of the House Black Caucus, declined to support Ford’s call for the ouster of Worley and Reed. But he did admit Democrats in Alabama have problems.

“We need to unify the party as much as we possibly can,” Knight said, “and take advantage of some of the other situations that’s taking place with the majority party right now.”