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Chip Drago
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The Political Round-Up

'tis the season to give, make us jolly,
say Alabama candidates for governor

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
With the approach of the Dec. 31 deadline for campaign contributions to appear in their annual reports due Jan. 31, the various gubernatorial candidates are spurring their supporters to speed donations to enhance the perception and the reality of their political strength.

For Artur Davis, the Birmingham congressman who would be governor, there is no artifice at all in the appeal.

In an email to supporters, the Davis campaign entreats:

"Early next year, we'll have to publish the first public report showing our fundraising. Contribute $5 or more to my campaign today, before the December 31st fundraising deadline, and help strengthen our 2009 public report!

Our efforts this year have been rewarded with a substantial lead over our Democratic opponent, and even more significantly, polling shows we are running even with -- or ahead of -- our leading potential Republican opponents. The pundits can't believe what we've done because they can't resist judging our state by the old labels and the old realities."

The Davis campaign in many respects mirrors the Obama presidential campaign in seeking to turn voters' assumptions on their heads and thereby create an identity of excitement and sense of destiny. 

"The truth is that a new Alabama is being born -- it is the Alabama of Rep. James Fields and Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, a place where a candidate can be judged based on his vision for our state; it is the Alabama of Lilly Ledbetter, a place that believes work can be honored and rewarded; it is the Alabama that poured its soul into rebuilding burned churches in the Black Belt and into lifting up the fortunes of Katrina survivors," the Davis campaign enthuses.

Of course, it is also the Alabama of expensive gubernatorial campaigns; a quadrennial crucible where money is refined into precious television time; a place where thousands upon thousands of thin screens and flat screens flicker from the Tennessee Valley down south to the piney woods spreading high definition messages that lay claim to the imaginations of her citizens; men, women and, well, not children, but those over 18 who toil and serve, and lest we forget, vote; the good people of Alabama whose aspirations will propel me, us to victory and the power to govern and the right to lead.

The email didn't include that last part. Or the scrutiny that Davis' foes will give to his report to see if Davis' Alabama is also a place of carpetbaggers whose campaign contributions flow into Alabama from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, California and the District of Columbia.   

Davis' fellow Democratic contender Ron Sparks eschews elevated rhetoric in favor of a more reality TV angle with an audience participation wrinkle.

Seeking to rise a rung or two from his present post as the state's agriculture commissioner, Sparks informs:

"As we close in on the Christmas holidays and approach the new year, we have set a goal of reaching 2,010 new online contributors by 2010.

Since Ron first announced his platform and intentions to run for Governor, he has had the opportunity to travel to every corner of the state spreading his vision for a better, stronger Alabama. We are excited about the enthusiastic response to Ron’s message and want to make sure the campaign is a reflection of this diverse support.

Please help us achieve this milestone by making a donation today, and telling your friends and neighbors about Ron’s vision for a brighter future for Alabama. Ask your friends to visit our website and take the 2,010 for 2010 Challenge by donating $10 today."

Of course, $20,000 is a drop in the gubernatorial campaign bucket but this has more to do with the buzz than the bucks.

In that vein, the contributor's $10 might get him or her a lunch with the candidate.

"Additionally, we are going to draw five names from those who join the challenge to join Ron for lunch in January and talk about your ideas for Alabama," Sparks' email closes. Dutch treat or on the campaign's dime, it does not say.

The GOP side of the equation is more traditional, with the odd exception of Bill Johnson.

The teams for Tim James and Bradley Byrne have organized receptions hosted by regular political donors all over the state, with donations usually ranging from $100 to $1,000 for attendees, hosts and sponsors. Whenever an opportunity arises to showcase a country music star, a NASCAR figure, an influential religious leader or a popular sports celebrity, the candidate will usually seize it, as in the case of James whose campaign has drawn the backing of John RIch, of the Nashville-based Big & RIch duo. Byrne's closest brush with celebrity is probably the YellaMan himself, Jimmy Rane of Great Southern Wood who is serving as Byrne's state finance chairman and adding a needed good ol' boy feel to the campaign.

James is following a path blazed in 1978 by his father, Fob, a former two-time governor, whose first bid against great odds succeeded because of his early grass roots approach.

While the state's two-year college debacle was an ill wind for Alabama, it blew some political good for Byrne. Accepting Gov. Bob Riley's challenge to take over as chancellor of the junior college system and shape it up, the south Alabama solon was catapulted ahead of schedule as a player on the statewide political stage.   

Kay Ivey has traveled the state burdened with the struggling Pre-paid Affordable College Tuition program like an albatross around her neck. Her position as state treasurer placed her as the titular head of the program, a political cap feather at one time, but not so much these days. The Jan. 31 disclosure deadline may prove telling for Ivey. Despite the endorsement of high profile GOP figure Mitt Romney, Ivey has struggled to break into the front rank of GOP contenders with James, Byrne and Roy Moore. Ivey has enough personal wealth to hang in the race, hoping for a break in the weather. But if her report shows that the campaign is largely fueled by herself, friends, relatives and a few longtime political allies, this political Rime of the Ancient Mariner will play out.

Oddest of all is Bill Johnson's strategy. A former member of Gov. Bob Riley's Cabinet as director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Johnson seems to bank his campaign on a hook shot from half court -- calling out the state's two-term, still popular and most successful Republican governor and questioning Riley's integrity in the process. Early on Johnson did not get much encouragement from Riley insiders as he sought advice/backing for a run for governor. For the most part, Riley's team has settled on Byrne as their new torch-bearer. Johnson's maverick approach smacks of desperation, even if the future ultimately provides some vindication. Certainly, as with any two-term governor, Riley has accumulated political enemies, some powerful, with scores to settle and funds to bestow on those who would assist in the endeavor. For that reason, come Jan. 31, Johnson's disclosure will be worth a gander, though state campaign finance laws make the trip akin to navigating in a night fog.

Roy Moore? Pass the plate, brothers and sisters.

Lest we forget, there is also the quietly dignified physician, state Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa, whose campaign is praised by friend and foe. Bentley's bid is faintly reminiscent of then state legislator and Arab businessman Sid McDonald's run in 1978 which concluded with a quietly dignified 16 percent of the vote. Once upon a time in Alabama, "quietly dignified" probably played well, most likely some time prior to Big Jim Folsom's day. 

The heavy lifting in campaigns is done through political action committees and those contributions will point the way toward the front runners in each party's primary. But, like Alice falling through the looking glass, divining a true understanding of the sources of those contributions is a task better left to Lewis Carroll. Who gave what to whom? It's Alabama's political version of the Abbot and Costello comedy routine "Who's on first?"

Even so, the key to reading the reports on each Jan. 31 remains the same: The bottom line is the bottom line.
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