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The curious resurgence of Alabama’s most powerful Democrat

Seth Hammett, Chief of Staff for Governor Robert Bentley, talks to a group of PowerSouth Management Trainees during a visit with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley at the Capitol in Montgomery, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Seth Hammett, Chief of Staff for Governor Robert Bentley, talks to a group of PowerSouth Management Trainees during a visit with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley at the Capitol in Montgomery, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

In June of last year, Yellowhammer’s video crew was in Governor Bentley’s office inside the Capitol setting up for an interview when the door opened behind us.

“Good morning, Mr. Speaker,” one of the governor’s staffers said as he stood up.

I turned around in the cavernous wood-paneled office expecting to see Alabama’s current House Speaker Mike Hubbard, but instead was greeted by Alabama’s immediate past House Speaker Seth Hammett.

Without any further explanation, nothing about that story is particularly interesting or noteworthy. But upon further consideration, it is probably one of the most unlikely scenes in American politics.

Hammett, a Democrat from Andalusia, was first elected to the Alabama House in 1978. Twenty years later, he was elected Speaker of the House, a lofty perch from which he ruled Alabama’s state government for the next twelve years. He saw the Republican wave coming in 2010 and decided to retire from public office rather than be relegated to irrelevance in the crumbling House Democratic caucus.

As Hammett was exiting the scene, Robert Bentley, a little-known Republican House member from Tuscaloosa, was capping off his meteoric rise out of obscurity and into the Governor’s Mansion.

The two men — and their associated political parties — were headed in opposite directions in Alabama.

And yet here was Mr. Hammett, a Democrat’s Democrat, standing in a Republican governor’s office, and not just as a guest, but as his closest adviser, his chief of staff.

His appointment had been announced roughly a month before, but it was my first experience seeing him there first-hand, and the cognitive dissonance was tough to ignore.

Let’s imagine an alternate universe for a moment:

Mitt Romney wins the White House in 2012 and ushers in a new Republican-controlled executive branch whose primary objectives are to roll back the Obama Administration’s policies and take the country in a new direction. He will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to rally support for a Republican legislative agenda and place like-minded Republicans at the top of every agency. And to top it all off, his right-hand-man, his go-to-guy, his closest confidant will be Nancy Pelosi.

Wait, what?

That’s right. In our alternate universe, former Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has decided that if she can’t beat ’em, she should join ’em, and Romney has made her once again one of the most powerful and influential people in the world by installing her as his top staffer — someone who is effectively the president when the president’s not in the room.

That scenario is so beyond unrealistic it’s almost unfathomable.

And yet it is an almost exact parallel to the real-life Bentley-Hammett partnership that has emerged on Goat Hill.

Some of Gov. Bentley’s other staffing decisions during his first term also raised some eyebrows.

In the 2010 general election, Bentley beat Democrat Ron Sparks, whose policy positions included support for ObamaCare, the stimulus and expanded gambling in the state, as well as opposition to school choice. But after the election, Bentley almost immediately turned around and hired Sparks to be the director of the newly-formed Alabama Office of Rural Development. In our alternate universe, that would be something like Romney keeping Obama on to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office.

Gov. Bentley then appointed Democratic State Rep. Neal Morrison, who chaired the Contract Review Oversight Committee, to the Cabinet position of Commissioner of the Department of Senior Services. He also asked Hammett to briefly be the director of the Alabama Development Office, where he served for six months. Other Democrats have since then been appointed to staff positions in other parts of the administration.

So to return to our alternate universe one final time, it would be like Romney bringing Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight committee, into the administration to run The Administration on Aging and having Pelosi do a brief stint as U.S. Trade Representative.

But all of those hires — while they were highly unusual not only because they crossed Party lines, but also because they were so numerous — pale in comparison to Gov. Bentley’s decision to elevate a Democrat who was the face of everything Republicans ran against in 2010.

The Pelosi comparisons continue to be an almost perfect fit.

Just like the California Democrat, Hammett was the fundraising machine that kept Democratic legislators awash with cash. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much money he raised and distributed because PAC-to-PAC transfers made it impossible to track the money, but public campaign finance reports reveal that he personally gave tens of thousands of dollars to dozens of Democratic entities and candidates, including disgraced former State Rep. Terry Spicer, who’s currently serving a prison sentence for pleading guilty to accepting a bribe.

And much like Pelosi oversaw the passage of ObamaCare, Hammett spent a dozen years at the top of the House shepherding various Democratic priorities, from passing tax hikes and a lottery bill to blocking teachers union-opposed education reforms and spending cuts.

But one of the most interesting aspects of Hammett’s impressive resurgence is that he’s managed to do it all without having to take the pay cut that would normally come with being a staffer employed by the state.

Although Hammett serves full-time in his role as chief of staff, he remains a full-time paid employee of PowerSouth, where he is Vice President of Business Development.

“Seth Hammett is on executive loan and does not receive a salary,” a spokesperson for the governor told Yellowhammer recently. “This was the arrangement we had when he served as ADO Director in 2011.”

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that anything improper has taken place during Hammett’s tenure in the Administration. The governor’s legal counsel cleared the hire with the Alabama Ethics Commission, who signed off with the caveat that Mr. Hammett not “use his influence with the Governor’s Office to benefit PowerSouth.” He continues to submit financial disclosures as if he were a public official.

But it is anything but a typical scenario for the governor’s chief of staff — Bentley’s voice when he’s not in the room — to be on “executive loan,” whatever that means, rather than a state employee.

Hammett’s rise, like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Alabama Democratic Party, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and unlikely feats of sheer political survival in recent memory. But it also may offer some interesting insight into the leftward tack the governor has taken since his landslide re-election victory left him no longer concerned with facing the voters again. And it’s something worth watching as we inch toward what promises to be a contentious 2015 legislative session that could often pit Republicans in the Legislature against the Republican administration, with Hammett right in the middle of the action.

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