Saturday, April 9, 2022

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - Fob James and the 1978 governor's race

  The crowded field for governor striving to oust incumbent Kay Ivey includes Tim James. He has run before. In fact, this is his third try for the brass ring. His last race was in 2010 when he barely missed the runoff by a few votes. He was edged out by Robert Bentley, who went on to win. 

  Tim James’ primary calling card has always been that he is the son of former Governor Fob James. The elder James was an ultra-successful businessman, who was first elected governor in 1978 as a Democrat and then elected to a second term as governor as a Republican in 1994. 

  Fob James' first election as governor in 1978 is one for the record books. The 1978 governor’s race is one of the classics in Alabama political lore. That governor’s race, which began with three heavyweights – former Governor Albert Brewer, Attorney General Bill Baxley, and Lt. Governor Jere Beasley – was expected to be titanic. The Republicans were relegated to insignificance on the gubernatorial stage. Therefore, the winner of the Democratic Primary would be governor.

  Meanwhile, over in east Alabama, a little-known former Auburn halfback named Fob James strolled into the governor’s race. James’ entry evoked very little interest, only curiosity as to why he would want to enter the fray against three well-known major players. James was exposed as a card-carrying Republican, but even a political novice like him knew he could not win as a Republican, so he qualified to run as a Democrat along with the three B’s.

  James had become very wealthy by starting a successful manufacturing company in Opelika. When he signed up to run for governor, the press wrote him off as a rich gadfly who simply chose politics rather than golf as his pastime. Little did they know that the fact he was rich and had a lot of time on his hands could spell trouble for the average political opponent, who had to worry about fundraising and feeding their family while running a full-time campaign.

  James realized he was no political professional like the three B’s who had spent their entire political adulthood in public office, so he sought out professional advice. He had the money to think big and wanted to know who the best political consultant in the South was. It was an easy answer:  Deloss Walker was a political public relations genius who lived in Memphis. His track record for electing governors of southern states was 5-0. Walker was the most renowned and expensive political guru in the country in 1977.

  James quietly sought out Walker, who at first refused to take his race. Walker’s first impression was that even he could not mold James into a winner against three well-financed, experienced thoroughbreds.

  Nobody was aware that James had garnered the genius Walker and had already been to political school when he signed up to run for governor in the spring of 1978. Brewer, Baxley, and Beasley ignored James. Baxley even praised him saying, “Fob would be a good governor. Too bad he’s not a serious candidate.” Those words would come back to haunt Baxley.

  James traveled the state in a yellow school bus and let the three B’s tear each other up. Baxley, Beasley, and Brewer spent all their time and money attacking each other with negative ads, all the while, James ran positive ads. Folks were of the opinion that the three B’s had all probably shot their mothers in a bar fight but they liked old Fob James, even if they thought his name was “Bob” James.

  It was too late for the three B’s when they saw a poll about a week before the election showing James ahead of all three of them. Baxley refused to believe it and kept hammering at Beasley and Brewer, ignoring James. When the votes were counted, James was in first place, Baxley second, Brewer was third, and Beasley finished fifth behind Alabama state Senator Sid McDonald.

  James easily beat Baxley in the runoff. After all, what could Baxley say? He had run all over the state for three months saying James would make a good governor. Fob James had pulled off one of the most amazing upset victories in the history of Alabama politics. The Fob James story of the 1978 governor’s race is truly one for the record books.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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