Two different flavors but no major changes
Yes, we have a choice this fall. And yes, the nominees have some key policy differences. But if you're looking for a lot of systemic, big-picture change, you probably need to keep looking.
The state's best chance at electing a truly transformational governor in 2010 disappeared last month when Artur Davis, the only major candidate who pushed modernization of our state constitution and tax system as a major platform plank, got crushed in the Democratic primary. And the odds of education reforms -- good or bad -- to which the Alabama Education Association objects fell to about zero after Bradley Byrne's big loss in the Republican runoff Tuesday. (Rule 1 of Alabama Politics: Never start a land war with the AEA with fall approaching.)
Both Bentley and Sparks say they support legislative revisions of individual sections of the constitution -- it's funny how that never seems to happen given how often lawmakers say they support it -- but they oppose a convention to rewrite the document. They're also sticking publicly to "no new taxes" stances (if you don't count Sparks' gambling plans, that is).
You'll hear Bentley and Sparks battle it out in the coming months on a range of issues, including whether to allow more gambling, whether to waste state resources fighting against federal health care reform, and whether to pay for ending the state grocery tax or just cut the tax and hope the money magically replaces itself. Those issues, especially the latter two, are very important to Alabama's future. I wouldn't claim otherwise.
But it's likely that neither man will pledge to use the gubernatorial bully pulpit to push heavily for structural changes like greater home rule for counties or a major set of reforms to make our overall tax system more balanced and humane. Don't be surprised to hear numerous vague platitudes about job creation but few specifics about how to cope with the budget shortfalls that could force major job losses for public employees in 2012 after federal stimulus money disappears. And Alabama's new governor will be largely powerless to enact an agenda without cooperation from the Legislature, which can override vetoes with a simple majority thanks to the constitution that won't be getting rewritten.
Perhaps worst of all, now that Sparks and his facial hair have gone their separate ways, Alabama will miss a prime opportunity for its first unapologetically mustachioed governor since Charles Henderson left office in 1919. (Then again, maybe our state's last mustachioed governor was William Brandon in the 1920s. Some mustaches are less impressive than others, you know.)