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The Strange politics of a hollow victory

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (Photo: Facebook)
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (Photo: Facebook)

Hollow victory: a victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat.

Exactly one week ago today, an indictment was signed, paving the way for Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard to be arrested on 23 felony counts of public corruption this past Monday.

On Tuesday, Hubbard orchestrated one of the most extraordinary press conferences in recent memory — an event that could at varying points be described as an impressive show of strength, compelling political theater, and a bizarre circus led by part-time ringmaster, full-time defense attorney Mark White.

The center piece of the press conference was the Hubbard camp’s repeated accusation that various individuals in the Alabama attorney general’s office are in the process of executing a “political witch hunt.”

“This is politics at its worst and it’s past time for this state to stop using its criminal justice system to advance a political candidate, or political agenda,” White declared as the half-hour spectacle got underway.

However, these claims were not just being trumpeted by Hubbard’s undoubtedly well paid defense team, but also by a sitting U.S. Congressman, Mike Rogers, who left no doubt about to whom White was alluding by ripping off one of the most straightforward verbal assaults that you will ever hear a member of a political Party direct at another member of the same Party:

What’s happening in this county is political. It started two years ago, but if you had any doubt, the fact that it was dropped two weeks before the election should answer that question. Now, you’ll say, “Mike, you say this is political but the Democrats aren’t doing this,” and you’re right. Think about this, who’d like to be governor in four years that would love to get Mike Hubbard out of the picture, or at least skin him up real good so maybe he’s not as viable a candidate? That’s where you’re going to find your answer. It is not rocket science, but I’ll tell you what it is: it’s Chicago-style gutter politics and it’s got no place in Lee County or the State of Alabama.

It didn’t take long for Attorney General Luther Strange to respond, in part, with this:

I made the decision to recuse myself from the matter involving Speaker Hubbard several months ago. I did so based on the recommendations of our career prosecutors and to completely remove any appearance of politics being involved in the matter.

So if Luther Strange has recused himself from all of this, how is it political?

Well, not to get overly philosophical here, but Aristotle concluded way back in the 3rd century BC that “man is a political animal.” Everything we do is influenced by politics. There are politics in the workplace; politics in the church; politics in your group of friends as you debate over where to go eat this weekend; and yes (gasp!), politics in the Alabama justice system.

Huntsville conservative talk radio host Dale Jackson said it best on his blog earlier this week: “Of course the indictment of Speaker Hubbard is political. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that it is not legit.” Jackson listed several reasons for making that comment, but the most obvious was the simple timing of it all. After working on this for 20-plus months, it just so happens that an indictment comes down mere days before the election? Not likely. But if they had decided to wait until after the elections to indict, that would have been a political decision, too. It doesn’t mean there was any impropriety, but come on, there shouldn’t actually be a debate over whether politics are playing a role.

So what are the political ramifications?

It’s pretty simple for Mike Hubbard. If he’s convicted, he’s done. Toast. Sayonara. He’ll be remembered as a kind of political supernova, shining brighter than anything else in the galaxy of Alabama politics for a brief period of time before disappearing out of the sky in the wake of a catastrophic explosion. If he’s found innocent, he’ll be the sun around which the whole galaxy turns.

In the event of a complete acquittal, the only real question for Hubbard is whether he gets dinged up so bad throughout this process that he is no longer a viable statewide candidate in 2018.

But for Luther Strange, the politics of all of this really could not be any more complex.

First, there are the short-term campaign politics.

He’s running against a well-funded candidate whose sole talking point is that Strange is an “absent attorney general” who has allowed crime and corruption to flourish on his watch. Strange would surely like nothing more than to use the Speaker’s indictment to say “Hey, look, I’m even going after people in my own Party!” He would really love to own it. But he can’t because he recused himself from the investigation early on.

As a result, Strange is just fortunate that he’s got an “R” behind his name in a state Romney carried by a 22 percent margin in 2012.

Then there are the intra-office politics.

Strange’s name’s on the office, so whatever happens is a reflection on him. But since he’s recused himself, he’s left in the unenviable position of bearing all of the public responsibility for what has been going on in Lee County without having the requisite authority. So when two of Strange’s subordinates recently squared off — one alleging the other interfered with the ongoing public corruption investigation and the other making claims of “harassment, threats of physical violence, and prosecutorial misconduct” — Strange was limited in his ability to run his own office. And if at any point he felt uncomfortable with the direction the investigation was going, that was too bad. He made the decision to take himself out of the game and had to live with it.

And finally there are the long-term campaign politics.

By recusing himself from what was sure to be a bloody intra-Party spat, Strange probably assumed — or at least hoped — that he would be able to float above the chaos. And if a potential future rival got taken out as a result of whatever the investigation uncovered, well that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen either.

This is where Strange may have underestimated the ramifications of what was about to take place.

When the Hubbard indictment finally came down on Monday, conspicuously listed inside the various counts were the names of a who’s who of Alabama’s business elite. These were the type of individuals who helped Strange gain a reputation for being a fundraising machine, propelling him into the state’s highest law enforcement office, which was to be little more than a pit stop on his way to the governor’s mansion or the U.S. Senate.

But the content of the indictment completed a months-long erosion of Strange’s support at the highest levels of the state’ business community. There had been a growing belief among many key leaders that Strange had long since lost control of his operation. As a result, his political trajectory has been altered in a profound way.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the public statements of the business community’s official representative, Billy Canary, President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s official Alabama partner.

“I have been privileged to call Mike Hubbard a friend for nearly seventeen years, and during that time, I have never had any reason to question his honor, integrity, or dedication to the people of Alabama,” Canary said this week. “Whether as a public servant, friend, or devoted family man, I have always admired Mike’s ability to meet every challenge with good humor, faith, optimism, and kindness. I know this is a difficult time for Mike and his family, and I want Susan, Clayte and Riley to know that they have our family’s full support and remain in our prayers.”

That doesn’t leave any doubt who’s side of this Canary and his backers have come down on.

So in an attempt to (over)simplify all of this, I’d say Strange is winning the battle, but losing the war, and perhaps losing it in spectacular fashion.

In the short term battle, he’s running as a Republican in a deep red state, against a Democrat who just so happens to share a last name with the guy who just got indicted. And the reality is, not that many people are paying attention to any of this, much less the nuances of recusals and Party politics.

But in the long term war, Strange has gone from being the heir apparent to whatever office he wanted to take a crack at next, to a pariah among the rank and file lawmakers in his own Party and a disappointment to the moneyed men who wield vast influence over who rises up the political ladder and who has the rungs chopped out below them.

Of the two men at the center of this clash, only one of them has his very freedom on the line, and it will be decided by a jury of his peers. But meanwhile, the other’s future has perhaps already been decided for him as he sat on the sideline and watched.


Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims