By Hastings Wyman –
“Alabama has been in chaos for a good while,” says a longtime observer (D) of the state’s politics. Last week former House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R) was sentenced to four years in prison after his conviction on 12 felony counts involving using his powerful office for personal gain. And State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) has been sidelined, under suspension for ordering the state’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of federal law.
Gov. Robert Bentley (R), however, is not in a position to pick up the pieces.
Last year, his wife, First Lady Dianne Bentley, acted on her suspicions that the governor had behaved inappropriately with one of his top aides, political advisor Rebekah Mason. The governor was 72, Mason 43. The First Lady managed to record what the governor assumed was a private telephone conversation with Mason. After unsatisfactory confrontations with her husband, Mrs. Bentley moved out of the governor’s mansion and filed for divorce. The story shocked the state.
In addition, Spencer Collier, who headed the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), confronted the governor about his behavior. Bentley later fired Collier, citing problems with ALEA. Collier contends it was in retaliation for bringing up the governor’s relation with Mason.
Prior to his election as governor, Bentley was a successful dermatologist in Tuscaloosa. He and his wife were active in the Baptist Church and civic affairs. They were, said a profile in GQ, “a model Christian couple for Alabamians of all political stripes.”
Bentley and Mason have consistently denied that they had an affair, but transcripts of his phone calls to Mason suggest otherwise, with Bentley talking about putting his hands on Mason’s breasts. Bentley apologized for “inappropriate remarks.” Mason still lives with her husband and her children.
State Rep. Ed Henry (R) has garnered 23 signatures of state House members on an impeachment petition, two more than necessary to initiate an investigation. The House Judiciary Committee is currently investigating whether there is evidence that Bentley committed any impeachable offenses. If he is impeached, then the state Senate would serve as jury to decide whether to convict the governor.
Meanwhile, in a statement he issued in April, Bentley said, “There are no grounds for impeachment, and I will vigorously defend myself and my administration from this political attack.” He has also declined to resign.
“There’s a lot of blustering about it,” says Marty Connors, a former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, “but not from a majority in the legislature.” But, adds
Connors, “With the exceptions of appointments and his veto power, the governor has been neutered,” says Connors. “I don’t see him pushing a legislative agenda.”
While it isn’t likely that Bentley will be impeached, “He will not be able to excise any leadership,” says the Democratic observer. While he proposed some educational reforms in his second term, the personal scandal “has completely neutralized him.”
The reasons why Bentley isn’t likely to be impeached are varied. A number of potential gubernatorial candidates would prefer that Bentley serve out his term, leaving an open seat for the next governor’s race in 2018. If he left office, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey (R) would become governor. Ivey, 71, is not an especially powerful political force, but as governor, she might gain the clout needed to be a strong contender in the governor’s race. Prior to winning the office of lieutenant governor, Kay was State Treasurer.
Another reason is that the most of the Republicans in the legislature are not keen on the idea of impeaching a fellow Republican, especially on essentially personal charges.
The scandal has taken its toll. At one point early in his tenure in office, Bentley’s approval rating was as high as 80%. Since the scandal, however, his numbers have plummeted. In an unscientific poll taken by AL.com taken in late March, of the 20,155 responders, 89% thought Bentley should resign; only 8% thought he should not. A survey of the popularity of all 50 state governors, taken by Morning Consultant, showed Bentley was the 11th most unpopular governor, with a rating of 46% approve to 45% disapprove. A late June poll by Birmingham Southern University showed his favorable rating was 17%.
Nevertheless, Bentley has continued to perform the ceremonial functions of his office, presenting awards to local heroes, visiting an automobile factory assembly line, recognizing schools for excellence, making appointments and declaring a state of emergency in the face of power outages. He recently told a reporter that based on the responses he was getting around the state, he did not believe he was that unpopular.
In any case, a severely damaged political establishment in Alabama is now headed by a seriously weakened governor. “It’s a shame,” says Marty Connors. “He’s a good guy.”