Luther Strange’s suspect ascension to the US Senate is just the latest in a series of bizarre House of Cards-esque corruption scandals that have shocked the state of Alabama.
If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to the recent slew of corruption and sex scandals originating from the Alabama state capital, you can’t help but wonder if this isn’t all some kind of orchestrated dramatic prelude to Season 5 of House of Cards. Approximately one year ago, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony ethics violations. Then, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roy Moore was removed from office by an unelected Judicial Inquiry Commission for standing up to the federal government and refusing to force Alabama judges to obey the controversial Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that overruled various state laws regarding gay marriage. And finally, Governor Robert Bentley just recently resigned and pled guilty to multiple misdemeanor campaign finance violations as part of a deal to avoid felony ethics charges and impeachment relating to various abuses of power used to cover up his illicit affair with a senior political advisor. In less than one year, the heads of all three branches of government (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) were removed from office. However, this season of our drama isn’t quite over yet.
In the last episode of “House of Cards: Alabama”, Bentley had just resigned from office and Lt. Governor Kay Ivey was being sworn in as the first Republican female governor in state history. Now, as black fades to a wide-angle view of the State Capitol building on a sunny day, the narrator informs us that the state is on pins and needles awaiting the decision of Governor Ivey regarding the US Senate special election. But first, we need to flash back to a few episodes earlier. “November 2016” appears on the bottom of the screen, and we are greeted by an unusually tall figure sitting across a desk from a shorter one. “The Bentley impeachment process had been moving forward rapidly for months,” continues our narrator. “Now, however, Attorney General Luther Strange has called a meeting with Mike Jones, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rumors have been swirling that Strange has been moving forward with a criminal investigation of his own, and may be close to issuing an indictment.” The conversation between our two figures begins. The tall one, quickly recognized as Luther Strange, is asking Chairman Jones to temporarily suspend the impeachment proceedings against the Governor. Why? “Related work,” replies Strange. No details are given, but the implication is obvious: he wants to be the one to take the Governor down. Faced with the prospect of a lengthy, expensive, and very complicated legislative process in order to impeach a sitting Governor for the first time in over a century, Jones eagerly agrees. A criminal indictment instead of an impeachment will not only ensure that the punishment fits the crime, but will save the state significant amounts of money.
A few days later, Donald Trump wins the Presidency. Cue dramatic footage of cheering crowds, waving flags, and patriotic music. Fade to black. Commercial break.
As the latest unimaginative car commercial ends, the next scene opens on dramatic footage of Alabama’s junior US Senator, Jeff Sessions, being sworn in as Donald Trump’s Attorney General in the Oval Office. Alabama voters are ecstatic. It has been almost a decade since any conservative in Alabama held a cabinet position in the Federal government. For the first time in a couple years, Alabamians are cautiously optimistic about their political future. But this does not last long. Across the screen, newspaper headlines dramatically scroll past: “Bentley Preparing to Interview Senate Candidates,” “Bentley Narrows US Senate Picks To Six,” “Robert Bentley Appoints Luther Strange To US Senate,” “Bentley Sets Senate Special Election,” “Steve Marshall Named Alabama Attorney General By Bentley,” “New AG Confirms Investigation Into Gov. Bentley,” “Attorney General Appoints A Special Prosecutor To Continue Bentley Investigation” “Auditor To Sue Bentley, Strange Over Senate Appointment,” “Lawsuit Filed Over Bentley’s Senate Special Election Date,” “Gov. Bentley Wants To Toss Lawsuit On Delayed Senate Election,” “Bentley To Defend His Special Election Decision Next Month,” and so on and so forth.
Governor Robert Bentley, now a convicted criminal, had received an application from, interviewed, and appointed Luther Strange to the US Senate. The same Luther Strange who had been halting his impeachment proceedings for months with no explanation. When questions arose during the interview process about a possible conflict of interest, the then Attorney General said “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor. It’s somewhat unfair to him and unfair to the process.” Not quite an explicit denial, but an obvious implication of one. Both the Governor and the Attorney General insisted there was no conflict of interest, presumably because there was no investigation – despite the impeachment proceedings being suspended for his “related work.”
Enter Steve Marshall. It’s not quite clear what Governor Bentley thought he had to gain by appointing Mr. Marshall as the next Attorney General (which, in Alabama, he can do unilaterally with no approval required). However, it’s obvious that it did not work out in the Governor’s favor. Within 48 business hours of being sworn in, Attorney General Marshall met with his staff and asked them about any potential investigation into the Governor. Upon being informed that there was indeed an ongoing criminal investigation and potential impending indictment, he immediately and publicly recused himself from the process and appointed a special prosecutor. In doing so, he effectively implicated Senator Strange in an ethics violation – by insisting he himself was legally required to recuse himself from the investigation simply because he had been appointed by the Governor, he in effect implied that Luther Strange had been legally required to do the same when he was applying for the appointment to the Senate. Since this time, a bar complaint has been filed against Strange based in part on this sequence of events.
Don’t leave to make more popcorn yet. We’re just getting to the good part.
Now, under any normal circumstances, what would you expect to happen next? Naturally, we (Alabama voters) expected to see a special election for the Senate seat come up. We all figured that the problem with Luther would be quickly resolved in a rapid special election in which he’d spend all his time defending himself from corruption allegations, have no ability to raise money, and have none of the advantages traditionally associated with an incumbent. But we weren’t confident long. Even though our scumbag of a Governor had become fairly well known for being unpredictable, we were all still a bit shocked when he announced that he was not, in fact, holding a special election. The election for the Senate seat would be held in 2018, along with the normal election cycle. This would allow Luther Strange over a year to build up incumbency and financial resources, and would give him time to let the controversy subside before he’d be forced to answer to the general public. Time is the greatest ally of every politician. This proclamation was issued despite opinions written by both the Legislative Reference Service and the Secretary of State that clearly stated that doing so was in direct violation of state law.
Angered at this turn of events, and especially at the clear implication that they’d been misled by Luther Strange for months, legislators began calling for the impeachment process to resume immediately. The process quickly picked back up, and within a month, the first hearings were being held. Governor Bentley did everything in his power to postpone the process and maintain his innocence, but finally caved right before the evidence was due to be presented, and negotiated a deal with AG Marshall and the rest of the law enforcement agencies involved. In exchange for no jail time, he immediately resigned, pled guilty to multiple campaign finance violations, agreed to community service and significant fines, and promised to never run for office again.
Now, we can pick back up where we left off. Kay Ivey is being sworn in as the second female governor in the history of Alabama. She promises transparency and pledges to restore the public’s faith in their government. She immediately fires multiple senior staffers that were known to be involved in the various scandals, including the husband of the Governor’s mistress, who ironically was in charge of Governor Bentley’s faith-based initiatives. Then, the other shoe drops: she announces that the Senate seat would immediately see a special election. Rejoice! Now, we can finally clean this state’s slate of corruption. Remove the last vestige of the embarrassment that was Dr. Governor Robert Julian Bentley.
Not so fast.
There were two factors that nobody had considered. One: Very few people remembered what Luther Strange did for a living before he was Attorney General. What was that? He was a lobbyist. A DC lobbyist, to be specific. He knew how the system worked. He’d been building relationships with the swamp creatures in the Capital for decades, not months. And, two: Mitch McConnell needs a win. Not just McConnell, but the entire GOP establishment. Their ability to defend their own members against attacks from within their own party has been severely diminished over the past few years, starting with the unexpected downfall of Eric Cantor and the rise of the House Freedom Caucus. This significantly impacts the ability of these partisan leaders to whip votes and reassure their caucus members whenever they need them to vote on an issue that is wildly unpopular with their constituents. Now, here’s Luther Strange: a loyal foot soldier and reliable caucus vote on whatever issue Mitch McConnell deems important at the time. They need to prove that loyalty is rewarded with re-election, even in difficult times. So, they’ve placed all their eggs in Luther’s basket. Despite Luther never being elected to the Senate, they are treating him like an invaluable long-term incumbent, devoting unlimited resources to ensure his ascension.
Mitch McConnell is the real-life equivalent of President Underwood on a mad rampage. Over the past few weeks, and even now, he and his operatives at the NRSC are doing everything in their power to not only build Luther Strange up, but to unceremoniously destroy any attempt at opposition to him. They forced numerous consults to resign from opposing campaigns by threatening them and telling them that they’d be blackballed from any future work with the GOP if they dared work against them. They’ve bought off unprincipled Republicans – Luther is personally calling even mid-level operatives himself and offering them large sums of money for their allegiance, many times asking them to switch sides and betray a candidate they are currently supporting. I have personal friends that have received such calls, receiving offers of over $20,000. For every one one of those that refused to auction off their integrity, I shudder to imagine how many accepted such offers and have yet to admit to it.
Despite scaring off numerous legitimate and well-funded candidates and co-opting Donald Trump’s campaign speeches to attack principled conservatives, the NRSC is still boring full-steam ahead in their war against those who refuse to toe the line and bow the knee to party leadership. Just this past week, they placed a $2.6 Million television ad buy with out-of-state funds, saying that it is a “fraction” of what they plan on spending. Buoyed by these out-of-state funds, establishment backing from deep within the swamp, and a total lack of any kind of conscience that would prohibit him from blatantly lying in his campaign ads, Luther is poised to potentially win this seat and escape punishment for his corruption.
However, all hope is not lost.
Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that the field for the Senate seat has quickly become quite crowded. Ed Henry, the state legislator that led the impeachment process against Robert Bentley, was the first to jump in – followed by former Chief Justice Roy Moore, activist Randy Brinson, and Congressman Mo Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus, as well as numerous less well-known individuals on both sides of the aisle. The diversity of candidates in this case is actually helpful, as Alabama uses a partisan primary runoff system. Dividing the anti-Luther vote among several candidates does not guarantee his success. In fact, it can only hurt it, as each candidate that jumps in will pull of a small part of Luther’s voters just through personal relationships and connections. The fewer votes Luther has, the higher the chances of a runoff occurring, assuming Luther survives that long. Once in a runoff, as long as all candidates unite behind whoever is opposing Luther, we’ll be in good shape. But we may not even get to that point.
Yesterday, Representative Ed Henry held a press conference at the Alabama Republican Party headquarters – right as the qualifying period was ending. He shocked the assembled crowd by dramatically tearing his qualifying papers in half and announcing that he had NOT, in fact, qualified to run as a candidate for the Senate seat. In order to maintain his credibility in calling out Luther Strange on his corruption, he has chosen to put ambition aside and do what’s best for the state – fight from outside the race. He talked about the bar complaint against Luther and is actively supporting a ballot access challenge filed by Madison County resident Tom Scovill with the state GOP steering committee. This will hopefully force the 21-member steering committee to vote up or down on whether or not Luther Strange will be allowed ballot access as a Republican candidate. This is a procedural move that has the potential to actually work, given the mountain of evidence compiled by Mr. Scovill to support his challenge. You can download the challenge paperwork here, here, here, and here, and if you want to encourage the Alabama Republican Party to hear the challenge and vote on it, you can call their office from 8am to 5pm at (205) 212-5900. They will be voting tonight (Thursday, May 18) on whether or not to hear the challenge. If it passes that hurdle, they’ll then hold hearings on the evidence presented.
It’s anybody’s guess how this Senate race will turn out. There is too much money being pumped into the race and the field is too wide open for anybody to predict with any kind of certainty a specific outcome. All we can hope is that justice will prevail and the Strange slate of state corruption in Alabama will be wiped clean.
Stay tuned for the next dramatic episode of “House of Cards: Alabama.”
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About the author: Trey Edwards is an Alabama Republican political consultant, and anti-tax/anti-corruption activist. He does not currently work for any candidate or any party/group involved in the US Senate race.