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By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Charles Barkley, who's been making noises about entering politics for some time, made it official a couple of weeks ago on The Tonight Show: After his basketball career ends, the Suns hero will return to his home state and kick some bureaucratic ass.
He's going to run for governor of Alabama in 1998.
As political commentators sometimes say, questions remain. Is Barkley serious?
What are his chances?
To assess Barkley's candidacy--and to discuss Alabama's current political issues and answers--New Times last week assembled a long-distance round table of Alabama's punditocracy.
Polled by telephone were Bradley Moody, a political science professor at Auburn University's Montgomery campus; Ron Casey, editorial page editor of the Birmingham News, Alabama's biggest-circulation daily; Joe Reed, a leader of the powerful Alabama Democratic Conference, the state's largest black political organization; and Ted Bryant, longtime political columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald.
Also interviewed, extremely briefly following a workout at America West Arena, was the candidate himself.
First question: Is he serious? Moody, the poly sci prof, says, "His reputation in Alabama is pretty much what it is in Arizona. He's a helluva basketball player, but who knows how serious he is about anything else?
"And so I think his first obstacle would be to convince people that this is not just another Charles Barkley lark, that he really is serious and that he has some serious ideas about what could be done for the state of Alabama.
"If he could do that, crazy as it might seem, he might have some chance, given the Alabama political climate."
Says Sir: "It's something that I am definitely taking serious."
What about that political climate?
Moody says, "I think there are a lot of people in Alabama who are so dad-gummed disillusioned with the leadership in both parties now at the state level that they might be willing to take a lark."
Alabama, the state that gave George "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" Wallace to the nation, is currently governed by Jim Folsom, who replaced Guy Hunt, who was booted from office last year on felony ethics charges and whose alleged crimes will sound vaguely familiar.
Hunt, a farmer-slash-preacher, allegedly used money from an inaugural fund to pay off old campaign debts and to buy nice things for himself, such as a marble shower stall at his house. Press reports also scorched then-governor Hunt for using a state airplane to fly to paid preaching engagements. Hunt is appealing his conviction, and, if successful by January 1995, could get his old job back.
Folsom, the lieutenant governor under Hunt, got off to a good start last April by removing the Confederate flag from the dome of the State Capitol. He also quickly landed a $300 million Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa.
Lately, though, he has been dented by scandal on almost a weekly basis, say the newspapermen who cover him. Folsom and his personal legal adviser, who somehow wound up doing several hundred thousand dollars in subcontracted private law work for the state, are currently under investigation by the same crusading attorney general who nailed Hunt. Folsom is also spatting with newspapers who want him to divulge personal income tax information, which is something he just won't do.
Somewhat to his credit, says columnist Bryant, Folsom is fond of "YMCA pickup basketball," and reacted to news of Barkley's political intentions by challenging the all-world forward to a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Meanwhile, voters seem to be equally dissatisfied with the state's dominant black political organization, the Alabama Democratic Conference. "The general perception is that their primary object is not to help blacks and not to help Alabama, but to keep themselves in office," says Moody. "In a lot of Southern states . . . we have discovered that black political leaders can be every bit as self-serving as white political leaders.
"Everybody's so cynical and so skeptical about politicians in either party that an outsider, if Barkley were able to convince em that he were serious . . . he might have a chance."
But does he know the issues? "I don't worry about the issues," says Barkley. "I worry about how I can make a difference."
Actually, he does worry about one issue, and it's a hot one. Like Arizona's legislature, Alabama's lawmakers are currently struggling with education reform, says columnist Bryant.
Almost fortuitously, education would be Governor Barkley's "No. 1 priority."
"I really think we have created two different types of society," Barkley says. "We have created an educated portion, and an uneducated portion.
"If you don't have an education, you lack self-esteem. I think that's one of the problems in our society. If you don't have self-esteem, you're not going to go out and do things. You're going to go out and you're going to steal. With good parents and self-esteem and a great education, I think your chances of doing something like that are 100 times less. I think what the government has done is, they've depleted our public school system so bad. . . .
"Look, I am 30 years old. . . . Everybody who is 30 to 50, I bet you 95 percent of those people went to public school. And I think the world was a lot better back then. Something had to change these people's mentality. I don't really think kids can be that bad, but I think the public school system has really let them down.