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  •   In Alabama, a GOP Squabble

    Gov. Fob James (R)
    Incumbent Gov. Fob James faces a June 30 runoff. (AP)
    By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, June 16, 1998; Page A01

    BIRMINGHAM—The contest to determine who will represent the Republican Party in this year's governor's race in Alabama has degenerated into a rancorous internecine battle, with the sort of exchanges rarely seen even in partisan general elections.

    Antagonism between the two candidates – Gov. Fob James Jr. and challenger Winton Blount – has been building for years. It peaked earlier this month when Blount called on Alabamians to elect a governor who would not "continually embarrass us." James, himself no svelte figure, responded by suggesting that Blount was fat. Sticking to that theme, James's wife, Bobbie, called Blount a "big, fat sissy."

    The exchange drew snickers from political observers around the country. But for James, the election is no laughing matter. At a time when governors of both parties are enjoying near-unprecedented popularity, James faces the possibility of being booted from office by a fellow Republican.

    Other Republican governors, such as George W. Bush of Texas and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, are expected to cruise to reelection, but James could manage only 48 percent of the vote in the five-way GOP primary on June 2. He will face businessman Blount in the state's June 30 Republican runoff. Some Republicans fear that while the two candidates spend money attacking each other, the Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, will benefit.

    Generally speaking, James, a staunch supporter of school prayer, is viewed as the candidate of choice for social conservatives, while Blount draws his base of support from economic conservatives. James has accused Blount of insulting Christians for not supporting his positions on school prayer and has criticized him for refusing to rule out tax increases. Blount has accused James of ignoring economic development and the state's business interests.

    The battle has been cast as a case study for the larger, national issues facing the GOP, where social conservatives and the more moderate, economic wing of the party are fighting for dominance.

    In the last few years, James has made issues such as school prayer and the teaching of creation key planks in his agenda. Since he was elected in 1994, he has supported abortion restrictions and has signed an executive order banning same-sex marriages. He put prisoners back on chain gangs but disbanded them a year later. James, who served one term as a Democratic governor in the late 1970s, switched parties in the early 1990s.

    James may be among the most controversial governors in the country, but he has emerged as a hero of the religious right. One of his campaign consultants is Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition. Many well-known social conservatives – including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson – are pushing for his election.

    In a letter of support, Falwell wrote that "virtually alone among the nation's governors, he has stood up and vowed that he will no longer allow liberal judges to deny school children the right to pray. Fob James also courageously declined to tear the Ten Commandments down from the walls of Alabama courtrooms."

    James gathered his troops at his campaign headquarters south of town last week to deliver one of those rah-rah speeches politicians give to boost spirits and let everyone know he has no intention on fading gently into the humid Alabama night. Dozens of supporters surrounded James at the podium.

    "This is what you call a runoff," James started, in his folksy, Deep South twang. "And a runoff is kinda like a prize fight. Because you got two gentlemen in the ring."

    "One!" someone in the back of the room shouted, dismissing Blount's gentlemanliness, as the crowd dissolved in laughter.

    James smirked, but in an unusual display of restraint, kept with the script: "As an incumbent running for reelection, I would be less than candid with you if I did not say what I must do is run on my record. Period."

    Blount, who received 41 percent of the vote in the primary, said the combination of James's style and record has turned off many Alabamians. Blount cited James's assertion that the Bill of Rights does not apply to Alabama and James's announcement that he would call out the National Guard to defend a county circuit judge's right to display the Ten Commandments in the courtroom.

    Last year, James volunteered to lead prayers at any school that wanted him to after a U.S. District judge ruled that a state law sanctioning student-initiated prayer was unconstitutional. Schools in De Kalb County in the northern part of the state openly defied the judge's ruling, with James's endorsement.

    State Attorney General William Pryor asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling. But James, without Pryor's agreement or consent, appealed directly to the Supreme Court – with his son serving as counsel – arguing, in essence, that the Constitution could not forbid school prayer because the Constitution did not apply to the states.

    The governor's statements and actions, Blount and his supporters say, have perpetuated the state's image as a backwater populated by uneducated simpletons and rednecks. In particular, Blount said, James's threat to call out the National Guard evokes memories of former segregationist governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of a school to block a federal desegregation order.

    "He's hurt our image," Blount said in an interview. "This is a nation of laws. No one is above the law, and I would never encourage anyone to violate the law."

    Blount, the son of Winton M. "Red" Blount, President Richard M. Nixon's postmaster general and a prominent patron of the arts, insists that he hasn't forsaken Christian conservatives. In a news conference Thursday, he said his first act as governor – after signing the oath of office – would be to ask the attorney general to issue clear guidelines, based on Supreme Court decisions, about what types of religious expression are allowed in schools. He also would sign an executive order obligating the state to pay legal costs associated with school prayer-related lawsuits.

    Winton Blount
    Republican businessman Winton Blount won 41 percent in the June 2 primary. (AP)
    Nonetheless, many Christian conservatives say James is their man. Joe Thomas, 65, of Birmingham, said he supports the governor "because he's a fine Christian gentleman. And I think it's time we start praying. And we're going to be in trouble if we don't start with the kids."

    The day after the primary, Blount said Alabamians had the chance to elect a governor who would not embarrass the state. He mentioned, for example, the day James appeared before the state Board of Education in 1995, "walking across the stage like a monkey" to mock the theory of evolution.

    Later that day at a news conference, James responded that at least "I'm a monkey that's in good shape. I'm not a fat monkey." Asked if he was calling Blount fat, James said, "I'm not a monkey whose daddy has put $2.5 million in my campaign either. . . . If he says I'm a monkey, I must say, 'Well, I'm a pretty slim monkey. I'm not a fat monkey.' "

    Earlier, Bobbie James had responded to Blount's accusations that James had directed state business to the family's landfill by saying: "He's a big, fat sissy."

    James – a former all-American halfback at Auburn University who made his money selling barbells – has since said he was joking. But he has persisted in referring to Blount as Win-TON, with an emphasis on the second syllable. In an interview, James said except for "that one incident," he has run a clean campaign and "Blount has run the negative campaign."

    After the primary, the other three candidates, led by former governor Jim Hunt, a Primitive Baptist preacher, endorsed Blount. But several political observers said most Hunt supporters likely will support James.

    But Democrats can vote in Republican primaries and runoffs in Alabama. Birmingham's mayor, Richard Arrington Jr. (D), last week urged Democrats to vote in the runoff without endorsing a candidate. Many in this African American-majority city likely would support Blount, who is seen as the more moderate candidate, said Natalie Davis, a political science professor and pollster at Birmingham-Southern College.

    As James went from table to table shaking hands and asking for votes at Niki's West restaurant here, Peggy Polk told him she was a Democrat, and she planned to vote against him in the runoff.

    "We want no more Fob," said Polk. She described herself as religious, but said she opposes what she believes is James's brand of judgmental Christianity. "If we just have to have a Republican, I'd rather have Winton Blount."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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