Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reports of Bob Riley’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

By Stuart Rothenberg

Like Rasputin, who refused to die even after he was poisoned, shot three times and beaten with a 2-pound dumbbell, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) is proving to be more resilient than many political observers once assumed.

Riley was pronounced politically dead by many — including me — more than two years ago when a tax increase he proposed and tried to sell to state voters was annihilated at the polls.

But while two-thirds of voters turned down his proposed $1.2 billion tax deal in September 2003, the governor has bounced back and now leads both his major primary challenger and his likely Democratic opponent in polling.

Riley, a wealthy businessman-turned-Congressman before being elected governor in 2002, said he had no choice but to support the package of new taxes to close the state’s budget deficit, improve state schools and make the tax system fairer for the poor.

National and state anti-tax groups blasted Riley, and the governor was attacked by the state Republican Party as well as by many conservatives. But he also failed to get the enthusiastic support of low-income and minority voters, who would have benefited from his proposal but who didn’t trust him generally.

“I want the whole Republican Party to watch this guy fall on his face. He lied to the voters. He’s been a disaster. He’ll never be elected to anything again in his life,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading opponent of the governor, shortly before Riley’s tax package went down to defeat.

I looked at the results and told a reporter that “Riley has a better chance of winning ‘American Idol’ than getting re-elected.” It was a good line, and it seemed right at the time. But I may have been dead wrong.

Two months after voters overwhelmingly defeated Riley’s proposed tax package, a Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama poll of adults found only one in four Alabamans rating the governor’s job performance as good or excellent, while 68 percent described it as only fair or poor.

Riley trailed former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore by 17 points in a hypothetical primary, and he was down by 8 points against former Gov. Don Siegelman (D) in a general election ballot test, even though he had defeated Siegelman (albeit very narrowly) a year earlier.

But in the past couple of years, things have changed in Alabama. Riley looks much stronger as the economy has improved, the state unemployment rate has dropped and memories of his tax package have faded.

Alabama political observers argue that Riley is benefiting from the lack of credible opposition, either within his party or from the Democrats, and they suggest that, unlike some other Gulf Coast politicians, he received a lot of positive exposure responding to hurricanes in the past two years.

“People are fickle,” one Yellowhammer State observer told me. “They don’t have long memories. A faction in the business community is still angry at him, but who else is there for them to go to? Riley has reached out to the business community and worked with them.”

Riley and the chairman of the state House Budget Committee, a Montgomery Democrat, have discussed a potential tax cut, with the governor advocating a higher standard deduction and larger personal exemptions, which would give all state taxpayers a tax cut.

In February, a Republican won a state legislative special election in a seat that had been held by a Democrat. The focus of the race was Riley’s proposed tax cut.

Polling conducted more recently shows the governor with a solid lead over Moore in the GOP primary (though a same-sex marriage ban on the primary ballot could bring out a disproportionate share of Moore voters).

It also shows him with a solid lead over his two most likely Democratic opponents. A February Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama survey of registered voters found Riley with a 9-point lead over Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley (45 percent to 36 percent) and a whopping 26-point advantage over former Gov. Siegelman (53 percent to 27 percent), who faces corruption charges in a trial expected to start in early May.

Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama surveys of registered voters conducted four months earlier, in October, showed Riley leading former Justice Moore by 19 points, 44 percent to 25 percent. In the general election, the governor held an 11-point lead over Baxley and a 15-point advantage over Siegelman.

Even worse for the Democrats, insiders say it is not impossible for Siegelman, a former governor who remains popular in the African-American community even though he is under indictment, to nose out Baxley for the nomination.

Riley’s phoenix-like recovery is proof that voters often forgive and forget, and if officeholders are going to anger voters, it is better to do so early in a term, years before they need to stand for re-election, rather than shortly before an election.

Even Norquist seems to have softened in his view of the governor.

“He tried to do the wrong thing and failed,” Norquist said, “and now he’s trying to do the right thing. It’s easier to forgive him [since he failed] than it would have been if he had succeeded in raising taxes.”

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 13, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.