Ken Hare In Depth: Chief justice election stirs memories of 1986

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When the Alabama Democratic Party disqualified Harry Lyon as its candidate for Alabama's chief justice recently, it opened itself to charges that the party was repeating its "handpicking" political debacle of 1986. And it didn't take long for Republican chief justice candidate Roy Moore to take that opening.

Moore quickly issued a statement to the news media: "The last time the Democrats tried this in Alabama, it failed, and this will, too."

But since the "last time Democrats tried this" was more than a quarter of a century ago, when some young voters were in diapers and others were yet to be born, it remains to be seen whether Republicans can stir up the same sort of resentment that arose in the governor's election of 1986 -- an election that some believe helped to speed the Republican ascendance in statewide politics in Alabama.

Lyon was removed as the Democratic standard bearer after his bizarre behavior and attacks on fellow Democrats, Republican justices, the president and gays led the party to believe he had not only violated party rules, but possibly even the canons of ethics that cover judges and judicial candidates.

Democrats then reopened the application process for candidates, and Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance was the only candidate to qualify to seek to represent the party in the November election for chief justice.

That differs in several significant ways from what happened in the race for governor that pitted then Democratic Attorney General Charlie Graddick against Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley for the Democratic nomination for governor.

For the sake of those not around Alabama in 1986, perhaps a history lesson is in order.

Going into the Democratic primary that year, Baxley was locked in a tight race with Graddick. (Interestingly, Graddick was defeated earlier this year by Moore in the GOP primary for chief justice.) Neither candidate managed to get a majority of the votes in the first Democratic primary in 1986, requiring a runoff between the two.

As the primary runoff election date approached and it became obvious that it likely would go down to the wire, Graddick invited Republican voters to "cross over" -- to also vote in the Democratic primary. Voting in one party's primary election and the other party's primary runoff election was prohibited by a Democratic Party rule, although that rule generally was not enforced.

Graddick won the runoff by a slim margin -- so slim that the state Democratic Party felt he would not have won without the Republican crossover votes. Some Democrats took the issue to court, and  the court agreed that the crossover votes violated party rules and tossed out the results of the election.

The court gave the state Democratic Party leaders a choice -- either hold the primary again, or name Baxley as the nominee. Figuring that Baxley would have won the runoff without the GOP crossover, the party committee chose to give the nomination to Baxley.

That was the wrong choice, at least politically speaking. The backlash was enormous.

Many Graddick supporters -- Democrats and Republicans -- were irate. Charges of "handpicking" candidates abounded, and the resulting furor swept political unknown Guy Hunt into the governor's chair -- the first GOP governor in more than a century.  Until the Baxley-Graddick fiasco, Hunt was seen as a placeholder for the party with no chance of winning. He went on to win re-election in four years, only to later be removed from office after being convicted of using tax-exempt inaugural funds for his personal benefit.

Back to the present: It remains to be seen whether GOP candidate Moore can stir up some of the same handpicking resentment against Democrat Vance.

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy points out that the party committee did not select its candidate. Instead, it reopened the application process, with Vance the only one to qualify.

"What the committee did was not common but also not unusual," Kennedy said of the disqualification of Lyon. "He violated party rules. He acted erratic and unstable, and he publicly libeled the members of the Supreme Court."

Bill Armistead, chairman of the state Republican Party, put a different spin on the controversy in a statement: "If Alabama Democrats are known for anything, it's making desperate, backroom deals to get their candidate of choice on the ballot."

Kennedy is correct that this time, unlike in 1986, the state Democratic Party reopened the qualifying process instead of letting a handful of party bigwigs decide the nominee. But whether the public will recognize that distinction remains to be seen.

But there is another major difference between 1986 and 2012, and it is Harry Lyon. While Graddick had many supporters in 1986 -- supporters who formed the nucleus of those who rebelled against the naming of Baxley as the party's candidate -- there is no such core of support for Lyon, a perennial also-ran candidate who has never drawn significant support.

In the end, that may be the biggest difference between the disqualification of Graddick in 1986 and Lyon in 2012: Graddick was a legitimate contender, and Lyon was just an embarrassment.