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?
And is Alabama--homeland of both Rosa Parks and George Wallace, where they still honor Confederate heroes with paid state holidays--ready for Governor Sir Charles Barkley?
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.
"That's gonna be the No. 1 thing on my agenda. As long as we're creating two different types of societies, we're always gonna have problems."
What party is he?
According to Bryant, Republicans have won only three statewide races since Reconstruction, and two of those wins were by disgraced governor Hunt.
"I don't think anyone who runs as a Republican in this state is going to get very far," says Democratic kingmaker Reed.
Barkley says he's an Independent and plans to remain that way.
"I don't think you should have a party affiliation," says Barkley. "This thing where Republicans look out for the rich and Democrats look out for the poor--hey, I don't want to screw anybody. I want to look out for the rich and the poor. I shouldn't have to have a party affiliation.
"One advantage I think I have is, I've been rich and I've been poor. I'm not in there to try to please anybody. I want to try to help everybody."
Is he even registered to vote? Almost surprisingly, the answer is yes, though Barkley isn't sure himself. "Not yet," he said when asked the question by New Times last week.
But according to Nell Hunter, chief voter registrar in Jefferson County, Alabama--one of two counties that split Barkley's hometown of Leeds--Barkley has been a registered voter there since 1981. Hunter says it was a regular practice in those days for voter-registration deputies to visit area high schools to enlist entire classrooms of new voters at a time, "to catch em before they get out of school and get lost." That, she says, is how Barkley likely got registered, in his final high school semester before leaving for Auburn University. Hunter adds, however, that Jefferson County records indicate that Barkley has never actually voted--either in person or by absentee ballot. "One of the reasons I don't vote, I think people vote for the wrong reason," he says. "When the presidential election came up, it would've been better for me to vote for George Bush, but that would be selfish, because he would've taken better care of me. "I don't think people should vote for who's gonna screw them the least. I think you should vote for who's gonna help the most people. "I think, you know, in the long run, that Bill Clinton will help more people than George Bush would've helped, but for me financially it would've been better for George Bush to be there."
But wait. Don't unused registrations expire? "I think my mother and grandmother keep registering me, to be honest with you," says Barkley of his family members who still reside in Leeds. "My mother and grandmother always try to get me to vote."
Who are his likely opponents?
According to the political rail-jockeys, several candidates seem to be lining up to run in 1998. The early contenders for the race include: Jim Folsom Jr., the current governor. Should he manage reelection this year, Folsom would be eligible to run for a second full term in 1998.
Crusading AG Jimmy Evans, the man who prosecuted Hunt and who now is turning the heat up on Folsom.
Bart Starr, former University of Alabama quarterback and National Football League star, is "frequently mentioned as a possible candidate" for one office or another, says columnist Bryant. Starr, who briefly resided in the Phoenix area during the 1980s while trying to land an NFL team here, runs a medical development business in Birmingham. George Wallace Jr. Currently the Alabama State treasurer, Wallace seems to have the ambition necessary to run for governor, if little of his dad's electability.
Wallace the elder won the Alabama governorship several times--his first wife won it once, when George wasn't eligible to run--and mounted even more campaigns for the White House.
Wallace the younger campaigned unsuccessfully for Congress in 1990 and is running for Alabama lieutenant governor this year. Early polls show him as the favorite in that race. "If he loses, he's gone," says Moody. But if Wallace wins, watch out. As treasurer, Wallace has pushed such populace-pleasing ideas as an early college-tuition investment plan for parents, and aid to farmers.
According to the pundits, Wallace has avoided all race-related controversy and has succeeded in distancing himself from his pop's hate-mongering legacy.
"I don't want to say anything bad about George Wallace Jr. because I don't know him," says Barkley. "But I think it's time for the South to get away from the Wallace-type politics that happened when I was young."
Can a black man be elected governor of Alabama? About 25 percent of the state's population is black, and black representation in the state legislature only slightly lags behind that percentage. Still, the on-the-scene political observers say race would likely be Barkley's biggest hurdle.
"If he were able to convince people he really were serious, there probably are a lot of upper-middle-class Republicans who wouldn't mind voting for a black," says Moody. "But if the question is, 'Are there still people who would vote against somebody just because he's black?'--yes, there still are." Can this black man be elected governor of Alabama?
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Consider Barkley's unquestionable name-recognition advantage over any other candidate. (I think he's kind of universally--gee, admired isn't the word," says editorialist Casey. "Universally noted.)
And consider his massive popularity among young people. (Keep in mind that today's Nike-wearing, trading-card-collecting 14-year-old is 1998's registered voter.)
Charles Barkley may be the one black man on Earth who could do it.
"Race is always an issue in Alabama," says Barkley. "I hope I can make a difference and people won't always look at people by their color. "It's wrong any way you slice it. I don't want to have 30 percent of the white vote and 90 percent of the black vote to get elected. I want to help everybody. I'm not trying to be rich and I'm not trying to be black or white."
Barkley has yet to assemble a staff of handlers and spin doctors, and claims he has not yet been approached by any. (Neither James Carville, the wicked genius who managed Bill Clinton into the White House, nor Ed Rollins, the Reagan administration insider who briefly worked for Ross Perot in 1992, returned calls for comment on possible Barkley strategies.)
"That stuff, it's two years away," says Barkley, who says he will return to Leeds in 1996 to get tanned, rested and ready. "My ambition is to win a world championship this year and take next year off and do nothing. That's my game plan. And then worry about that stuff in my spare time. But I don't want it to become the focal point of my life.