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Fighting back in different ways

“We will be watching the election returns here tonight. I hope you will come.” These were the words of Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association.

These election night gatherings are held for virtually every state election but I knew this one was special. I heard something more than an invitation in Hubbert’s voice.

When I walked into the AEA Headquarters, an eclectic atmosphere met me: hope and fear; confidence and doubt; expectancy and reluctance; joy and hurt; determination and anxiety; etc. A mixture of feelings said that this was a moment to remember.

Bradley Byrne had made the destruction of AEA the centerpiece of his campaign. He had raised some $8 million based in part on his promise to kill off AEA. And AEA had fought back furiously.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James had captured the struggle in memorable words: “Bradley Byrne kicked a mule and the mule kicked back!”

These words paint graphic pictures. I immediately see an image of a little short thin man puffed up on his self perceptions of power and importance kicking a big powerful mule.

The next image is that of a big powerful mule kicking the little man with both hind feet. The third image is of the man flying through the air.

AEA had certainly kicked back, and this election night would determine whether the mule kicked powerfully enough for a knock out blow.

Some years earlier, the Business Council of Alabama went after the Alabama Trial Lawyers in a relentless campaign. They attacked on all fronts: media; political; courts; financial; etc.

The trial lawyers played strong defense but did not go on the offense. As a result, their power was greatly diminished.

Then, Gov. Bob Riley went full force after the bingo industry. He used the power of the governor’s office extensively. Riley created a task force that took the power of the Alabama attorney general. He utilized hundreds of Alabama state troopers.

He also utilized the authority of the Alabama Supreme Court. The Alabama Supreme Court, in the opinion of many, went well beyond the law in an attempt to legalize Riley’s attacks. As a result of these brutal attacks, bingo operations have been virtually knocked out of business.

AEA seems to have decided that Bradley Byrne in the Governor’s Office would be a constant nightmare. They decided to fight back on every front, including the Republican Party.

Bradley Byrne is perceived as a creation of Riley. Byrne was serving as an Alabama state senator with me and 33 others in 2007 when Riley plucked him to be chancellor of Post Secondary Education, commonly called two year colleges. Many perceived Byrne as running for governor from the very day he became chancellor.

Byrne was widely viewed as Riley’s heir apparent. He was strongly favored to win the Republican primary and become the next governor.

Riley strongly endorsed Byrne in the Republican primary and again in the run-off. So did many other Republican leaders and groups. To many, he seemed destined to become governor.

But Hubbert and others had different ideas.

I don’t know what Hubbert was thinking on election night but all these things (and more) ran through my mind. I thought about how Hubbert and AEA kicked back: articles week after week in the Alabama Education Journal, with its circulation of 110,000; ads against Byrne in the primary that AEA may have helped create and finance; ads that AEA may have helped create and finance in the primary run-off; and efforts to persuade Democrats to vote in the Republican primary run-off.

The kick-back wounded Byrne in the primary.

The fallout from the Byrne-James primary fight allowed Dr. Robert Bentley, a little-known Republican member of the Alabama House of Representatives, to slip into a run-off by 167 votes. Bentley had run an unorthodox but effective campaign.

I had received calls earlier in the day about the many Democrats, white and black, voting in the Republican primary run-off.

I knew the mule was kicking back. I just did not know whether the hoofed feet would land a knock-out blow.

Hubbert was in a good mood as he talked individually with those gathered. He was not real “up” but he almost never gets too “up” or too “down.” He knew the poll numbers as well as anyone and they looked good. But he also knew that the only poll that really counts is the one that comes from polling booths on election day. And that moment was at hand.

The early trends looked favorably for Bentley. The percentage fluctuated but the trend held steady.

At 8:50 p.m., Hubbert announced that The Associated Press had just called the election for Bentley. The crowd clapped and shouted but Hubbert was quiet. He still was not real “up,” but he was obviously pleased.

The final results were Bentley 56 percent, Byrne 44 percent.

Byrne had kicked the mule and the mule had kicked back, landing a knock-out blow.

EPILOGUE – Sometimes we have no choice but to fight back. Sometimes we have to fight in different arenas. Sometimes we have to fight in different ways. Hubbert and AEA demonstrated the power of fighting back in different ways and in different arenas.

Sen. Hank Sanders represents Dallas County in the Alabama Legislature.