Special interests take sides
Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, May 13, 2009
As late as 1982, when I was first elected to the Legislature, almost everybody ran as a Democrat. There were only a handful of Republicans and they came from wealthy suburban enclaves of Mountain Brook in Birmingham, Spring Hill in Mobile, or the silk-stocking neighborhoods of Montgomery. They would simply align with the majority, who were conservative Democrats.
If truth were known, the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were closet Republicans. If the voting curtain was exposed you would see that these Democrats probably voted Republican for president. Therefore, there were no partisan fights or controversies. Instead, you were either a pro-business conservative or a progressive and referred to as a real Democrat. Your alliance was determined more by which special interest group you aligned with rather than by party.
The litmus test was where you stood on tort reform. The civil litigation and large lawsuit verdicts in Alabama had made us a tort oasis for trial lawyers and tort hell for business. This battle raged for 20 years throughout the 80s and 90s and was like a cloud that hovered over the entire legislative process. We were all Democrats by label, but we voted with either big business or trial lawyers.
The pro-business legislators were backed by the Business Council of Alabama, the Retail Association, the Medical Association, and the Alabama Farmers Federation. These groups would team up to bankroll and back their pro business conservative candidates who were for tort reform.
On the other side were the trial lawyers. They had as their allies the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Labor Council. The giant was AEA. They could give as much money as the trial lawyers and their endorsement was more meaningful because there are a lot more teachers than plaintiff trial lawyers. In addition, the Paul Hubbert and Joe Reed combination gave the AEA candidate the endorsement of Reed’s Alabama Democratic Conference.
Having the endorsement of Reed’s yellow ballot was very important in a lot of counties. The labor endorsement was still very important in the Tennessee Valley and some areas of Birmingham. However, their importance had diminished over time. Labor had also chosen to distribute most of their campaign largesse to federal and congressional races.
Today these special interests have gravitated to being somewhat partisan. Labor endorses basically only Democrats as do the trial lawyers. However, AEA has surfaced as the most powerful special interest group in Montgomery. They endorse and contribute to some moderate Republicans along with their Democratic friends.
On the business side, the Business Council of Alabama is edging toward becoming a Republican organization.
With the demise of the tort issue, the Medical Association has truly become non partisan. They back whoever is loyal to them, regardless of their party label. This partisan independence displayed by the Medical Association and Dr. Paul Hubbert at the AEA has parlayed them into the strongest lobbyists on Goat Hill.
Historically, the Alabama Farmers Federation has been the most powerful special interest group in the state because of our agrarian past. For 80 years, from 1900 to 1980, they ruled supreme. They controlled the writing and adoption of our 1901 Constitution. With the demise of the number of farms, they obviously do not have the power they had 40 years ago. However, they remain strong due to their insurance company, Alfa.
Twenty-five percent of the homes and cars in Alabama are insured by Alfa. In order to get their cheap rates on cars and home insurance you have to join the Farmers Federation. The $2 dues translate into a gigantic PAC.
The endorsement of the Alabama Farmers Federation is important because 93 percent of Alabamians trust and respect farmers. They also believe that farmers are the most trustworthy and loyal conservatives. Therefore, when 400,000 Alabamians get their endorsement sheets prior to the election they follow it, especially in low profile, down ballot, secondary statewide offices and judicial races. They believe that endorsement is the true gospel conservative seal of approval.
That farm-endorsed candidate is the conservative and the Alfa endorsement can transcend party. They endorse Republicans probably 90 percent of the time. However, if a Democrat can somehow get that endorsement it means something. Just ask Ron Sparks or Jan Cook.