Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: The Get acquainted race

  You have an advantage on me as the results from Tuesday’s primaries are known to you as you read this column because the column was sent to your newspaper prior to the vote. Undoubtedly we are looking at a July 13th runoff for governor on the Republican side. The Democratic nominee has been decided.

  The governor’s race is the marquee political event in Alabama politics. This year’s race is even more intriguing because it is the first time in two decades that we have not had an incumbent governor on the ballot.

  Alabama had a somewhat peculiar law in effect until the 1970s which prohibited the governor from serving more than one consecutive term. However, you could come back and run again after waiting out four years. Big Jim Folsom did this. Bibb Graves also did this earlier in the century, but the terms were not successive due to the succession prohibition. After the succession prohibition was repealed, we have had three more two-term governors, Fob James, Guy Hunt and Bob Riley. Fob won in 1978 and came back to win again in 1994. Hunt won back to back races in 1986 and 1990. Therefore, the only men to be elected to two terms as governor of Alabama were Bibb Graves, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, Forrest “Fob” James, Guy Hunt and Bob Riley. George Wallace stands in a league of his own. He was elected governor four times and his wife, Lurleen, once.

  As a result of the constitutional prohibition against a governor succeeding himself until the 1970s, a recurrent theme arose throughout the century and was quite noticeable during and prior to the 40-year era we just covered. That theme or practice is known in political lore as the “get acquainted race.” Political theory in Alabama was that you ran your first race to get acquainted with the voters. If you ran strong that first race but finished second then you became the front runner for the race four years later because there would be no incumbent standing in your way. This theory made sense because there was no television so you could not buy instant name identification. In the get acquainted race you got to know people and build a statewide organization. If you were serious about winning and loved politicking the way George Wallace did then you would run your campaign for four full years. You were simply getting acquainted in your first race so there was no stigma in losing, but you did need to finish second.

  This practice started early in the century. William “Plain Bill” Brandon made his first run for governor in 1918. He ran a close second to the winner, Thomas Kilby. Brandon continued to campaign vigorously for four years and was elected governor in 1922 by a margin of three to one over Bibb Graves. Graves, having run second, campaigned for four years and won his first term for governor in 1926 and came back to win a second term in 1934. Frank Dixon ran against Bibb Graves in the 1934 election and lost badly. However, he had run a get acquainted race and won in 1938, defeating Chauncey Sparks of Barbour County in the primary. So when Frank Dixon left office in 1942 you can guess who won the governor’s race that year, Chauncey Sparks. Guess who ran against Sparks in 1942, none other than Big Jim Folsom. Big Jim ran a good get acquainted race that year, so as was the practice Big Jim won the 1946 governor’s race. Gordon Persons and John Patterson were one term wonders in 1950 and 1958. Big Jim won his second term sandwiched in between the two, but guess who ran second to John Patterson in 1958. You guessed it, George Wallace, “the fightin’ judge.” After his loss to Patterson, Wallace began running for 1962 and he won and the rest is history.

  So if you ever hear an old timer refer to the “get acquainted race” while discussing Alabama political history you will know what he is talking about.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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