By Jim Ellis
Dec. 2, 2016 — Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is the US Attorney General-Designate as is common knowledge, and upon his confirmation to the position a situation filled with rather unique political intrigue will take center stage in Alabama’s capital city.
Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has the responsibility of filling any US Senate vacancy with at least an interim appointment, and then calling a special election to fill the remaining balance of the term. In this case, the special election for Sessions seat will likely be scheduled concurrently with the 2018 regular primary and general voting cycle. The winner then serves until the next in-cycle election, which will be 2020 for this particular Senate position.
Most of the time, the special election is run concurrently with the regular election cycle, but it doesn’t have to be scheduled in such a manner according to Alabama election law. Since the state is solidly Republican, the individual who Bentley appoints will have a major advantage in capturing the party nomination, and then the seat whenever the special is called.
Every Republican member of the congressional delegation with the exception of Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile) has expressed interest in obtaining the appointment, as have several statewide officials. Bentley defeated Rep. Byrne in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, and the congressman looks to run again when the seat opens in 2018. But, another person may hold a wild card advantage.
Gov. Bentley is in personal, political, and legal trouble. Engaged in an extra-marital affair with a state employee, the legislature had been embarking upon impeachment proceedings because Bentley allegedly used state resources, such as the Alabama airplane designated for the governor’s official use, while engaging in the love affair. Attorney General Luther Strange (R) launched an official investigation into the Bentley situation, thus suspending at least temporarily the impeachment action.
Now, it is becoming very clear that Strange, himself, wants the Senate appointment. Early last week, the attorney general indirectly increased the pressure on Bentley by indicating that he (Strange) will run in the Senate special election whenever it is scheduled irrespective of whether or not he is appointed.
The intrigue comes from Bentley now being in the position of promoting a man who could effectively remove him from office, or even worse if activity that is later characterized as criminal presents itself in the governor’s case.
Obviously, appointing Strange would slow the investigation into Bentley, therefore possibly buying enough time for the governor to finish his term in office. A tangential issue comes forth when understanding that Bentley would then be able to appoint Strange’s replacement as attorney general, or, in fact the very individual who would have the power to either continue or end the investigation into the man responsible for bestowing the vaunted position upon him or her.
This conflicted tale will soon play itself out, particularly if Sessions receives an early confirmation. With Strange exerting pressure to be picked, will Bentley choose him, and then also benefit by possibly quelling the investigation into his potential mishandling of state resources? Or, will the media and public pressure against what would be perceived as a backroom deal be enough to quell the Strange appointment?
The extra-marital affair has cost Gov. Bentley his marriage of 50 years and could force him from office before his second term ends two years from now. Eventually, the Senate appointment will be in Bentley’s hands, presenting a difficult political and public relations decision. Who the governor eventually sends to the Senate would become a life-changing decision for many individual career paths … not the least of which, his own.