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Inside Alabama Politics – August 16, 2022

We’ve admittedly been a little sparse on Inside Alabama Politics editions lately. Summer is notoriously slow for political news and we have made most breaking news content available on the ADN site without delay. Still, we look forward to more insider political coverage in the months to come as the campaigns heat up.

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Governor Ivey and the Montgomery rumor mill

The texts started passing around the Capital City about ten days ago.

“What are you hearing about Gov. Ivey??”

“Hey, what’s going on in the governor’s office?”

“You hearing this chatter about Kay???”

These and several others like them marked the latest round of rumors about Gov. Kay Ivey‘s health and her longevity in office. The end result was a speculative column by Kyle Whitmire, a statement in response by Communications Director Gina Maiola assuring the press of the governor’s wellbeing, and then a tarmac photo op with fellow Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota aimed to put the rumors to rest.

So what really happened and why was the governor’s office so tight lipped about it? Based on conversations with multiple sources, Inside Alabama Politics has been able to piece together the basics that help answer that question and some others.

First off, as her office stated, Ivey does not have cancer and has not since being treated for early stage lung cancer in 2019. She has suffered from a non-emergency intestinal issue that eventually required treatment this month. IAP is told the outpatient procedure was scheduled for after the election in the least busy month of the year, speaking to its non-emergency nature. Given the non-life-threatening nature of the condition, the governor did not feel like the world needed to know about her being treated for a personal medical issue. Plus, let’s be honest, a 77-year old southern woman has her dignity and telling the whole state about an intestinal issue doesn’t exactly fall within it. But that didn’t stop someone at UAB from spilling the beans about Ivey being there for a procedure, kicking off the game of telephone that ended with wild rumors about cancer and impending resignation. As Ron Burgundy would say, it really escalated quickly.

Would Ivey and her office have been better off being forthright from the beginning? Probably. She is the governor and the citizenry, to say nothing of the press, tends to decide for itself what it expects to know about its leaders. At the same time, if you think about it from the perspective of your own mother or aunt or grandmother, it’s easy to understand why she believed it is nobody’s business.

Anyway, it is good news that Alabama’s governor isn’t in dire health. But we can start the clock on when the next round of rumors will begin because that’s how Montgomery works, especially during the dog days of summer. But perhaps we should all be more skeptical next time.

Speaker’s race heats up

The leadership of the Alabama House of Representatives will look much different when the Legislature reconvenes next March. It will have a new Speaker, Speaker Pro-Tem, Rules Chairman and probably also a new Majority Leader and General Fund Ways and Means Chairman.

The race for Speaker is most interesting because it represents the first time an extended and truly competitive process has selected the top leader in decades. When former Speaker Mike Hubbard sought the gavel in 2010, the deal was done. Hubbard had engineered the GOP takeover so his ascent to the speakership was not in question. Four years later, even with Hubbard’s legal troubles there were only 14-15 votes against him in the caucus. In 2016, after Hubbard’s removal from office, the race to replace him basically consisted of one caucus meeting in which those interested gave speeches before a vote was taken. This time, those seeking the Speaker’s chair will have campaigned for the better part of a year before a caucus vote is taken after the November elections.

Though additional candidates can throw their names in the hat, the confirmed contenders are current Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter and Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse. The two are right now making their cases to current and incoming colleagues, and IAP has gathered the gist of their arguments – and caveats.

The case for Clouse

Clouse is tied with Rep. Jim Carns as the most experienced House Republican having served seven terms. His supporters argue that experience is going to be key in the next term with the bulk of the caucus having one term or less under their belt. Consider this: there are only seven House Republicans elected before 2010: Clouse, Carns, Reps. Steve HurstRandy WoodAlan Baker, Chris Pringle and Allen Treadaway. Also, of that “red wave” class of 2010, only two remain in the House: Reps. Terri Collins and Paul Lee. Twenty members were elected in 2014, giving them two terms under their belt. And a full 48 members – to include those likely to be first elected this year – will have served one term or less. That dearth of experience among the rank and file calls for more of it at the top, Clouse’s supporters say. They also argue that Clouse has helped steer the state through some tough budget years and that perspective will be critical in the uncertainty of the years to come.

And yet, that bottom-heavy balance of members could ultimately doom Clouse’s chances. Those numbers add up to caucus votes and the fact is Clouse has many fewer colleagues closer to his age and term than Ledbetter, who was elected in that highly ambitious 2014 class. The Ozark Republican’s challenge will be convincing younger members, including this year’s class, that experience matters.

The case for Ledbetter

Most insiders tell IAP that Ledbetter is the odds-on favorite to win the Speaker’s gavel primarily due to his direct role in helping elect so many within the caucus. As Majority Leader, he has the ability to leverage caucus PAC funds to help incumbents and new candidates. He has now done that for two election cycles, giving him plenty of influence with the bulk of the caucus. That influence was on display earlier this month at a gathering of newly nominated Republican House candidates hosted at the Alabama Realtors building. After Ledbetter kicked off the informal event, the prospective members introduced themselves one-by-one and then were greeted by dozens of the most influential politicos in Alabama, many of whom had checks at the ready.  (Not to be outdone, Clouse also attended the meeting and got face time of his own.) Those supporting Ledbetter say his actively playing the part of Majority Leader in and out of session makes members comfortable seeing him as the top leader next term.

One potential vulnerability for Ledbetter that the other side may use is his 2010 candidacy for House as a Democrat. Ledbetter ran and lost to former Rep. Todd Greeson by about 1,000 votes. There are no shortage of Alabama Republicans who were once Democrats – including Gov. Kay Ivey and Sen. Richard Shelby – but not many were in the other party as recently as 2010. Still, that obviously did not prevent him from getting elected Majority Leader twice.

The Clouse Leadership PAC has given out $75,000 to 25 veteran and first-time candidates, according to filings with the Alabama Secretary of State. Meanwhile, Ledbetter’s Alabama House Majority PAC has given about $153,000 to about 30 candidates, both incumbents and newcomers.

Pro Tem, Majority Leader

As IAP previously reported, a crowded field is developing for the Speaker Pro Tem position. At the moment, Reps. Terri Collins of Decatur, Jim Hill of Moody, Craig Lipscomb of Gadsden, Phillip Pettus of Green Hill and Chris Pringle of Mobile are all running.

Collins recently wrote a letter to her House colleagues detailing her qualifications for the position and asking for their support. She noted having a woman in such a senior role “would serve both our party and its future well.”

During the BCA Governmental Affairs Conference in Point Clear, Pringle hosted an informal reception for lawmakers and others to get the word out about his candidacy. State House observers have pointed out that Pringle is the only candidate from south of Birmingham. Geographic disparity sometimes crops up as an issue in leadership races, and that could be true this time around with so much of the legislative leadership hailing from north Alabama.

While it has sometimes been viewed as a ceremonial role, most expect the next Pro Tem to exert more influence in the Legislature. By rule, the Pro Tem serves as the chair of the Legislative Council, a body of members that deliberates on internal State House policies and procedures. Those decisions matter to the rank and file membership, so chairing the Legislative Council is a key role.

An interesting race is shaping up for House Majority Leader. Reps. Joe Lovvorn and Scott Stadthagen are the two candidates contending to lead the caucus. This looks to be a competitive race as both have started leadership PACs to assist their campaigns.

Stadthagen, elected in 2018, said he recently surveyed members of the caucus to find out what was important to them.

“I believe it is important to operate a caucus that meets the needs of our members If elected leader, I will maintain that philosophy,” Stadthagen told IAP about his reason for running. “I believe that as a caucus, we are here for the sole purpose to serve the members so that they can serve their districts. In order to do that we must never forget that every district is different and I want to make sure we are responding to each member district’s individual needs and not taking a cookie cutter approach to this position.”

Lovvorn, elected in a special election in 2016, said his time as a first responder helped him develop the ability to have a steady mind in a challenging work environment.

“The role of Majority Leader has always felt as a perfect fit for my leadership style and work ethic,” Lovelorn told IAP. “Leader Ledbetter has done a wonderful job of holding our Republican caucus stable and assists us in serving our districts.  I am fortunate to serve with many talented leaders, and I will work side by side with them to better their districts and our state.  My plan is to continue building our team on the principles of conservative budgeting, smaller government, creating opportunities, and improving the quality of life for all Alabamians.”

 

What’s next for the closed primary discussion?

The ALGOP’s executive committee voted, as expected, to ask Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature to close the primary elections and require voter registration by party. Eighty-one percent of those voting favored closed primaries.

But details and heavy lifting on the proposal would largely be up to the Legislature next year. Legislation will certainly be filed, perhaps different variations, but whether one will pass is a tougher question. Many Republican leaders will publicly say that they favor closing the primaries, but then privately express their doubts about the wisdom of such a move. After all, it was the current process that allowed them to get elected to begin with. Why change what works for them? They fear closed primaries drive competing candidates to extreme ends of the political spectrum to gain ground. It’s the most extreme members on both sides of the aisle that usually cause headaches for legislative leadership.

Some party faithful have continued to use Senate District 27 and the one-vote victory for Jay Hovey as the poster child for why primaries should be closed. There is little doubt that Democrats did play a role in that race, though who’s to say some did not vote for Sen. Tom Whatley who himself was once a Democrat. But that case may not carry water in the State House. Some lawmakers were not sad to see Whatley go and, in any case, see himself to blame for losing the race after spending $1.2 million.

The resolution approved at Saturday’s ALGOP meeting asks lawmakers to make the change in time to take effect for the 2024 election cycle, but party Chairman John Wahl acknowledged that such a change, if approved, could take several cycles to implement.

What happened at the 187th Airwing?

Earlier this month, Col. Doug DeMaio was relieved of his duties as commander of the Alabama Air National Guard’s 187th Airwing. A spokeswoman for the Alabama National Guard told Task and Purpose, a national defense publication, that leadership “lost trust and confidence in Col. Douglas DeMaio’s ability to command.”

The sudden change in command came two years into DeMaio’s leadership of the 187th, a post that most notably included transitioning the unit from its current F-16 Fighting Falcon to the Air Force’s new 5th generation F-35 Lightning II aircraft. Sources tell IAP that DeMaio was specifically recruited to Montgomery for that purpose given his extensive career flying fighter jets in combat.

Col. Brian Vaughn has been tapped as the new commander of the 187th, the legacy unit of the famed Tuskegee Airmen that still flies with the “red tails” in honor of the legendary World War II unit.

The move surprised some on Capitol Hill who are concerned about potential infighting within the Alabama National Guard harming the full transition of F-35s to Montgomery. The 187th was one of only two Guard units nationwide selected for the highly-coveted F-35 mission, a major victory for the state that Alabama’s congressional delegation fought hard to win.

It is unclear exactly what happened to prompt DeMaio’s dismissal, but sources tell IAP it stemmed from festering disagreements between he and Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon, commander of the Alabama National Guard. Specifically, the two were said to have butted heads over preparations for the F-35 aircraft, including the building of specialized infrastructure to house the aircraft and relationships DeMaio built with elected officials in Washington.

Said one congressional staffer familiar with the matter: “There are people in the congressional delegation—past and present—that went to the mat to get the F-35 assigned to Alabama. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of work behind the scenes. Many of those folks are still working to upgrade facilities and support the transition. If the (Adjutant General) allowed a petty personal dispute to interfere with that goal, that is unacceptable. This means a lot for Alabama and the River Region, and we have to keep our eye on the ball. Other states will use this discord against us.”

Sources told IAP that the decision could impact Gordon’s reappointment as commander of the Alabama National Guard. While Gordon serves at the pleasure of Gov. Kay Ivey, her appointment is subject to approval from the National Guard Bureau and Gen. Daniel Hokanson, who serves as its chief of staff. That reappointment process could come as soon as next year.

Others with knowledge of the situation said that Washington types should respect the chain of command and understand that the 187th falls under the TAG’s umbrella of responsibility.

“Leadership lost trust and confidence in Col. Douglas DeMaio’s ability to command,” Mal. Jacqueline Krimmel, spokeswoman for the Alabama National Guard said in an email. “Col. Brian E. Vaughn assumed command of the 187th Fighter Wing August 2, 2022. We are looking forward to the future success of the 187th Fighter Wing and the receipt of the F-35.”

Gordon recently said on Capitol Journal that those preparations are underway with the first arrival of jets expected next year.

“The first jets are expected to arrive in December of 2023,” Gordon said. “It will be here before you know it and all the construction we’ve had to do to prepare for the F-35 – the aircraft maintenance units, the base supply and other things – it takes a while to get that done and be fully prepared to receive those aircraft.”

She added that pilots and maintenance staff alike are going through specialized training for the F-35.

Potpourri

Lindsey Clements Ward is the new Chief of Staff for Public Service Commissioner Twinkle Cavanaugh. Ward is leaving the Alabama Banking Commission to take the PSC post. She is of course married to Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Cam Ward and previously worked in the Legislature for several years.

Madeline Roth joined the Realtors as the director of events and professional development. Madeline is the daughter of well-travelled lobbyists Toby and Michelle Roth and the twin sister of Annabel Roth, who is personal aide and scheduler to Gov. Ivey.

In recent media news, Dylan Smith has been named editor of YellowHammer News. Smith has been writing for the outlet for about a year, following in the footsteps of Sean Ross, who left to start a communications firm with Paul Shashy.

Jeff Poor has been named the executive editor of 1819 News, an outlet owned by the Alabama Policy Institute. Poor replaces Ray Melick, a longtime newsman who recently parted ways with the company. Sources tell IAP that Poor’s experience at Brietbart News make him the best choice to expand the outlet’s mission reach to readers on the right.

API / 1819 have caught the attention of the state’s business community lately with the publication of articles and podcasts taking aim at Alabama’s business and political establishment. Some are watching to see how far they’ll go in this election cycle and in the next legislative session growing into a Club for Growth / Brietbart model that bucks big business.

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