Is Alabama out-corrupting Maryland?

Tom Baxter

April 28, 1993|By Tom Baxter

THERE is always a tendency, following politics in thi history-haunted region, to read every big event as if it were the end of a Civil War novel or some kind of biblical coming-to-pass. But as the curious story of Guy Hunt and the change of power in Alabama illustrates, history doesn't account for everything.

Hunt's conviction on state ethics charges, and the ascension to governor of Jim Folsom Jr. is being cast as a morality play in which Hunt's fall represents a rite of passage for a state that has been, as one news story put it, "highly tolerant of political corruption."

More tolerant, say, than Maryland? Arizona? Illinois? Louisiana? It's hard to believe the level of corruption in Alabama is really in the same league, simply because the opportunities in these high-rolling states are so much greater.

Not that Alabama hasn't acquired a colorful reputation -- somewhat self-promoted -- for roguishness. There is, for instance, the story of the time the legislature moved so fast in passing an increase in the usury limit that the agents of the banks that owned the Alabama loan companies couldn't find enough briefcases in Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon to deliver the cash to all the people they'd bought off. The money accordingly was placed on the desks of the lawmakers in Montgomery the next morning in paper sacks.

But it seems a bit strained to portray Hunt, the Primitive Baptist Republican Amway salesman, as the goat for all the state's past derelictions. He is, after all, as much an outsider as any governor in modern times, an improbable chief executive who came to power only after the total meltdown of his Democratic rivals.

Once elected, Hunt wasted no time mixing personal and public funds, or arranging to have state planes fly him around the country to preach on Sunday mornings, failing to report what came from the collection plates to the IRS.

Whatever his offenses, however, they were committed completely outside the circles of corruption that have given Alabama its reputation for chicanery. No one taught him how to break the law in a skillful way; instead he improvised, like some primitive artist making figurines out of pop bottle caps. Whether it was right or wrong, Guy Hunt did what he did with all the openness and sincerity of a newborn pig.

Where the shadow of history does lie heavy is on the brow of Hunt's Democratic successor, Jim Folsom Jr. He is one of a group of sons of noted politicians of the 1950s and '60s who have risen to a certain level in Alabama, but each has failed until now to fully inherit his father's legacy.

His custodial governorship underscores what is really Alabama's biggest problem: the failure, over a generation, to develop a political leadership that can unite the state so that it can address its chronic economic problems.

To succeed, Mr. Folsom not only has to run a more scandal-free administration than his predecessor. He must guide the state with more wisdom than his own great-hearted, generous, but tragically flawed father.

As for the problem of lax ethical standards, it's doubtful that Hunt's departure, for all the symbolism attached to it, will change anything, least of all the predatory habits of those who were doing what they do long before he moved to Montgomery. And Alabama is going to have to acquire a little more worth stealing before it can worry overmuch about thievery.

Tom Baxter is chief political writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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