"He frankly lost his mind," AL.com reporter Leada Gore told The Fix on Thursday. "He starts throwing out tax increases — it's almost as if somebody flipped a switch and we got a different governor."
That flipped switch, many in Alabama now think, had something to do with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a former TV anchor who attended the same church as Bentley in Tuscaloosa and rose to become his top adviser.
Mason joined his upstart campaign in 2010 as a spokeswoman. By the time she resigned her job Wednesday over allegations of an affair with Bentley, lawmakers and political operatives had taken to describing Mason as the state's "de facto governor." Mason and Bentley both deny they had an affair, although there is pretty damning evidence suggesting otherwise.
Whether or not the two were ever together in a physical capacity, it's becoming increasingly clear that Bentley professed his love on the phone for a woman named Rebekah about the time of his reelection and second term. This week, Bentley told reporters of the sex scandal: "These are old issues."
But to lawmakers in Alabama, who battled with Bentley over that proposed tax increase and issues such as teacher pay and Medicaid, the revelations of the past two weeks are an "aha" moment. Bentley's relationship with his party started to decline precipitously around the time Mason's influence with the governor started to increase, they say.
"Looking back at it now, he was in the throes of an affair, if the timeline was accurate," said state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, a Republican who famously posted a billboard opposing Bentley's tax increases and says Bentley tried to cut off transportation funding for his district in response. "Or at least, he was in the throes of telling another married woman he loved her during the same time he was making these decisions regarding tax increases and then retaliating against me for taking a hard stance.
"So looking back, it makes you go, 'Huh. That explains it a little bit.' "
Bentley has never been known in Montgomery as a man who makes a decision and sticks with it. A common refrain in the capitol is that the last person in the room with him is the one he ultimately listens to.
Over the past few years, that person has increasingly been Mason. She rose to his inner circle at the expense of other advisers and, some would argue, at the expense of Bentley's relationship with the Republican-led legislature.
"She was a sorry political adviser," wrote AL.com columnist Kyle Whitmire, who credited Bentley's decision to campaign on his no-new-tax record and his feuds over teacher pay to Mason's guidance: "With Mason whispering in his ear, Bentley became the Wile E. Coyote of Alabama politics — always scheming, always with 90 percent of a plan, always getting maimed when the plan backfired."
Personal attachment can surely make people do things they otherwise wouldn't, but not everyone in Alabama is buying the idea that Bentley's professional and apparently personal relationship with Mason drove him to political insanity.
Bentley also had the reputation as a pragmatic man — a dermatologist from Tuscaloosa who just wanted to be a "doctor to the state's economy," as he put it in his first campaign for governor in 2010. Those close to him at the time say they think the governor always knew there'd have to be some kind of tax increase to shore up the state budget, and that as soon as he began his second and final term (constitutional offices are term-limited in Alabama), he had nothing to lose by going for it.
Whatever his motivations, Bentley's past, present and future will probably forever be viewed through the lens of his relationship with Mason now that the salacious, often cringe-worthy scandal has taken on a life of its own. And that's exactly why a growing number of Republican lawmakers, including Holtzclaw, say he's got to go:
"I do believe there has been a sincere moral violation; a lapse of judgment that may have happened two years ago," he said. "But it's still pretty clear and present today."