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Alabama Governor's Primary Race Is All About Corruption


It's no secret that there's been rampant corruption among state leaders in Alabama, and it's escalated in recent years. Voters have noticed. And judging by the anti-corruption political ads and flyers blanketing mailboxes and screens, candidates in Tuesday's Alabama primary are responding. From member station WBHM, Gigi Douban reports on how this is playing into the GOP governor's race.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Here's one example from an ad for incumbent Republican governor Kay Ivey.


KAY IVEY: Don't give me a mountain oyster and tell me it's seafood. I know corruption when I see it, and we are not having it. We've cleaned up the mess.

DOUBAN: To understand where she's coming from - never mind the mountain oyster reference - it helps to know how Ivy got to the governor's seat. When former Governor Robert Bentley resigned last year amid a sex scandal, Ivy, then the state's lieutenant governor, took over. Since then, she's been quick to point out how she has righted the ship of state. But Bentley's transgressions weren't the first for an elected leader in Alabama in recent years, not by a long shot. John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist with the Alabama Media Group.

JOHN ARCHIBALD: Of course, over the last couple of years, we've had the speaker of the House convicted in - of ethics violations.

DOUBAN: He's talking about former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, convicted of 23 felony corruption charges. There was former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, fired from the bench twice for questionable ethics. And most recently, he was accused during his run for U.S. Senate of sexual misconduct by women who, at the time, were in their teens.

ARCHIBALD: And going back over the last - what? - six governors we've had, half of them leave office with corruption charges.

DOUBAN: The list goes on, and this stain of corruption has rubbed off on voters. Take Sean Grehalva, a Republican from Hoover, Ala. He's kind of tired of it.

SEAN GREHALVA: That is an understatement (laughter).

DOUBAN: Corruption, he says, is something people in Alabama just can't seem to escape from.

GREHALVA: It is embarrassing at times, especially when I travel. I get questions a lot about, well, what's happening with this investigation or that investigation?

DOUBAN: Huntsville, Ala., Mayor Tommy Battle is running in the Republican primary for governor. He meets people at barbecue restaurants and coffee shops. And he sees this anxiety among voters who dread the idea of yet another ethics spectacle.

TOMMY BATTLE: I think one of the saddest things that you hear when you're out on a campaign trail is people say, well, just don't embarrass us.

DOUBAN: Just don't embarrass us. He says that's a low bar. And he says people need to be able to regain confidence in government because right now there is none. Jeff Vreeland is an Alabama-based Republican strategist. He says in a place where voters are desperate to feel confident in their elected leaders, the whole drain-the-swamp thing works really well.

JEFF VREELAND: A lot of politicians want to drain the Montgomery swamp, and that is, you know, exactly what President Trump ran on when he ran in 2016 - was to drain the swamp in D.C.

DOUBAN: Vreeland says to Alabama voters that message signifies a clean candidate, and it aligns them with Trump, who, of course, has strong support in Alabama. But if there has been a silver lining to Alabama's corruption problem, it's that it's pumped some energy into the race, especially down-ballot.

VREELAND: To me, the easiest thing to look at is the overwhelming slate of candidates that are running both on the Republican side and on the Democratic side.

DOUBAN: He says one way or another, people here are motivated to vote out shady politicians. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gigi Douban