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Law once limited governor’s term

Published 12:44am Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The governor’s race is the marquee political event in Alabama politics. This year’s race is even more intriguing because it is the first time in two decades that we have not had an incumbent governor on the ballot.

Alabama had a somewhat peculiar law in effect until the 1970s which prohibited the governor from serving more than one consecutive term. However, you could come back and run again after waiting out four years. Big Jim Folsom did this. Bibb Graves also did this earlier in the century, but the terms were not successive due to the succession prohibition. After the succession prohibition was repealed, we have had three more two-term governors, Fob James, Guy Hunt and Bob Riley. Fob won in 1978 and came back to win again in 1994. Hunt won back to back races in 1986 and 1990. Therefore, the only men to be elected to two terms as governor of Alabama were Bibb Graves, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, Forrest “Fob” James, Guy Hunt and Bob Riley. George Wallace stands in a league of his own. He was elected governor four times and his wife, Lurleen, once.

As a result of the constitutional prohibition against a governor succeeding himself until the 1970s, a recurrent theme arose throughout the century and was quite noticeable during and prior to the 40-year era we just covered. That theme or practice is known in political lore as the “get acquainted race.” Political theory in Alabama was that you ran your first race to get acquainted with the voters. If you ran strong that first race but finished second then you became the front runner for the race four years later because there would be no incumbent standing in your way. This theory made sense because there was no television so you could not buy instant name identification. In the get acquainted race you got to know people and build a statewide organization. If you were serious about winning and loved politicking the way George Wallace did, then you would run your campaign for four full years. You were simply getting acquainted in your first race so there was no stigma in losing, but you did need to finish second.

This practice started early in the century. William “Plain Bill” Brandon made his first run for governor in 1918. He ran a close second to the winner, Thomas Kilby. Brandon continued to campaign vigorously for four years and was elected governor in 1922 by a margin of three to one over Bibb Graves. Graves, having run second, campaigned for four years and won his first term for governor in 1926 and came back to win a second term in 1934.

So if you ever hear an old timer refer to the “get acquainted race” while discussing Alabama political history, you will know what he is talking about.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is an Alabama political columnist. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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