Monday, October 18, 2010

Paper accuses Robert Bentley of collusion with AEA. But where's the smoking gun?

[NOTE: In the spirit of full disclosure, I first supported Tim James in the GOP primary.  I then voted for Bradley Byrne in the runoff (yes, I picked the loser twice in one primary election).]

image In a story that ran in Sunday’s Mobile Press-Register, Political Editor George Talbot tries to lay out a plot between Republican gubernatorial Robert Bentley and the Alabama Education Association during a tense run-off for the GOP nomination.  Talbot suggests that the evidence contradicts Bentley’s claims of  “innocent bystander” status in an ongoing row between Byrne and AEA.

Talbot says Bentley may also be in violation of the Alabama election law requirement that candidates disclose in-kind contributions in addition to direct cash.

AEA is one of the most powerful political organizations in the state, with a massive get-out-the-vote machine and very deep pockets. Bradley Byrne, who finished first in the primary but was forced into a runoff with Bentley, has been a staunch political enemy of the AEA and its retiring Executive Director, Paul Hubbert.  As the Chancellor of Alabama’s Community College System from 2007 through his 2009 gubernatorial campaign announcement, Byrne was instrumental in Republican attempts to rid the public education system of “double-dippers” and corruption in state Government.  “Double dipping” is the practice of serving in the Alabama state legislature while also holding a teaching or administrative position in state government (i.e., community colleges).

Excerpts from the story (emphasis added):

Bentley, throughout the runoff battle, stayed true to his public pledge not to run negative ads. But privately, a daring strategy was taking shape, according to internal e-mails and interviews with campaign officials.

As election day neared and Byrne’s momentum increased, documents show that the Bentley campaign took a calculated risk — reaching out to Byrne’s archenemy, the Alabama Education Association.

To be effective in a GOP runoff, the collaboration between Bentley and the AEA would have to be secret.

Working through back channels with Bentley’s campaign, the AEA pummeled Byrne with a barrage of attack ads and automated phone calls, according to e-mails and telephone records obtained by the Press-Register.

On the morning of Thursday, July 8, the Bentley campaign was in overdrive.

At 9:45 a.m., Bentley’s campaign manager, Bob Wickers, flashed an e-mail to Stan Pate, a Tuscaloosa businessman and close adviser to Bentley.

“I need you. Can we speak this morning?” Wickers asked.

Pate, according to e-mail records, served as a middle man between the campaign and AEA, a role he acknowledged in an interview last week. He said that Wickers wanted to nail down arrangements for Bentley to record an automated message — known as a “robocall” — that AEA would distribute to voters via its phone network.

Minutes after receiving Wickers’ e-mail and speaking with him, Pate took a call from David Stout, a public relations manager for AEA, he said in the interview last week.

Stout e-mailed Pate with instructions for setting up an account with AEA’s calling service and attached a proposed script for Bentley to read.

Pate said that he forwarded the e-mail to Wickers and business partner Bryan Sanders, who arranged for Bentley to record the call.

On Friday, July 9, Sanders e-mailed Pate to thank him for his help.

“Doc recorded two automated calls today for our friends to drop to their statewide list,” Sanders wrote.

“He will record a third call within the next 24 hours. The call center guys have been notified and the first call will drop today. The second call will drop Saturday. Mike Huckabee has recorded a call to drop Sunday to a different statewide list through a different call center. And the final call will be recorded within the next 24 hours to drop Monday.”

AEA blasted Bentley’s 30-second messages out to more than 500,000 phone accounts daily over the next three days, according to results provided to the campaign by Stout.

Talbot’s piece attempts to tie Bentley’s campaign to a series of blistering AEA ads targeting Bradley Byrne.  Alabama television and radio markets were inundated with negative ads, attacking Byrne for ties to Bill Clinton (Byrne is a recovering Democrat), British Petroleum (the runoff was during the worst of the oil spill), and lobbyists.  The ads were effective in driving down Byrnes’ public approval and probably led to the large margin of victory for Bentley. Bentley won the nomination convincingly 56-44.

But nothing in Talbot’s story ties Bentley to the ad campaign.  The only evidence Talbot shares in the story are a chain of emails between Bentley’s campaign staff and the operators of the largest robocalling organization in the state.  The result of those emails is apparently a set of three calling operations carried out in the week before the runoff vote. If you’re spending money on GOTV efforts in this state, who do you turn to?

Was it shrewd for Bentley’s campaign to turn to a rival political organization’s apparatus?  Perhaps.  But if the Bentley campaign reimbursed AEA for the robocalling effort, or if Bentley’s campaign records show the in-kind services were reported, then there is no violation of campaign law here. Political shrewdness may gall some voters, and the secrecy of the deals that made the robocalls happen may hurt Bentley’s image of the gentleman grandfather turned political reformer. But there’s no law against shrewdness, and in Alabama politics, backchannel deals are as much a part of the game as Coca Cola and Golden Flake.

It’s also worth noting that the AEA brazenly encouraged registered Democrats to cross over and vote for Bentley.  They wanted no part of Byrne in the Governor’s Mansion, and this was a secret to no one.

Where’s your smoking gun, Mr. Talbot?  Where’s the evidence that Bentley’s campaign colluded with the AEA to coordinate a negative ad campaign against Byrne?  And remember, I’m asking this as a former Byrne supporter.

Late last week, the Democrat candidate for Governor, Ron Sparks, lamely accused Robert Bentley of accepting campaign cash from “gambling interests.” And some time last week, The Mobile Press-Register “obtained” emails exchanged between the AEA—a Democrat-aligned political organization—and Bentley campaign operatives.  I seriously doubt that the Bentley campaign was the source of the leaked emails, don’t you?

To my cynical eye, this has all the makings of a coordinated, last ditch effort to knock Dr. Bentley down a few notches with baseless smears. It should also be a very important lesson for the Bentley campaign—you cannot lie with a pit of vipers and expect to be un-bitten.

If this is the best October Surprise you can deliver Mr. Hubbert, then you’re well past the prime of your game, and retirement is coming none too soon.


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