The first thing to know about “Big” Luther Strange is that no one actually calls him “Big” Luther Strange.
That’s a catchy Southern nickname that a campaign guy or a marketing guy came up with several years ago because they needed a catchy Southern nickname for a commercial, which featured Luther Strange driving an old Ford pickup on his way to “clean up Montgomery.”
The other thing you should probably know about Strange is that he did not clean up Montgomery.
That much, at least, was likely evident from the uproar in Alabama over Strange’s selection on Thursday to fill new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacated U.S. Senate seat. Strange, the now-former Alabama attorney general, was not a popular selection.
That’s because Strange’s office was supposed to be investigating the man who appointed him to Sessions’ seat, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.
Let’s pause here for a moment and let me explain a couple of things for those of you who might not be familiar with Alabama politics.
It is a cesspool. And that might just be an insult to cesspools, since some cesspools serve a necessary function.
Alabamians have watched their Speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard – the most powerful man in state politics – be convicted of a dozen felonies for misusing his office.
We have a state Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roy Moore, who is currently suspended from the bench for the remainder of his term because he violated judicial ethics – for the second time. (The first time he was booted off the bench completely.)
And our governor is facing impeachment proceedings started by lawmakers from his own party after it was discovered that the 73-year-old grandfather was carrying on an affair with a 43-year-old staffer, Rebekah Mason.
This has all occurred within the last year.
That’s right. One calendar year.
We shouldn’t dare venture back beyond that, because we also just had a former governor released from prison – he was the second to go to prison in my lifetime – and we haven’t even touched on regular ol’ scandals and corruption.
So, this is the swamp into which you’re wading, and it’s best you know that going in.
And that’s sort of what makes Luther Strange’s appointment to Senate – specifically, the way it was handled – so disappointing.
Because Strange had managed to live a fairly filth-free political life in Montgomery during his six years as the state’s attorney general. There were relatively minor issues and loads of speculation about misdeeds that Strange was hiding, but little of it stuck to the man. At least, not among the voters who would elect him and keep him in office.
Strange even did some good.
It was his office that went after Hubbard for misusing his office. Yes, Strange recused himself, but he still allowed and pushed for an investigation and prosecution of the state’s most powerful Republican. And he won.
That battle was not without its casualties, though. During the prosecution of Hubbard, Strange was forced to push out three employees, including a deputy attorney general and a top investigator, because they were allegedly aiding Hubbard’s defense team. Such disloyalty likely says something about Strange’s ability to run an office. And for those who know Strange and who have worked with him, such issues aren’t exactly a surprise. Strange doesn’t have the demeanor or the patience to operate a large office and staff.
He is notoriously aloof – with everyone. He rarely conducted media interviews, and when he did, they were usually so dry you walked away thirsty. According to a number of people who have worked with and around Strange, he spent very little time in the office. That showed, they said, in his lack of personal involvement in most of his office’s cases, including many of the most high-profile cases.
But aloof, maybe even uninterested, does not mean dirty.
And about the dirtiest anyone could paint Strange was by accusing him – mostly without evidence – of taking money from one gambling entity in the state and then working to keep other gambling entities closed.
That is, it was the dirtiest until Thursday. Until the moment Luther Strange accepted an appointment from a man he was supposed to be investigating.
It doesn’t matter if Bentley didn’t do anything to violate the law. People believe he did, and they believe a jury would indict him for misusing state funds to facilitate and cover up the affair with Mason.
Up until late last year, a legislative committee was investigating Bentley’s affair and had initiated impeachment proceedings against the governor. But Strange asked in November that the committee stop its work.
Committee members say they were led to believe that Strange’s office was investigating Bentley. They believed that because Strange’s letter to them asking that they halt the impeachment process basically said that.
That letter said Strange’s office was investigating related matters, and he was concerned of overlap and interference by the committee. Members of the impeachment committee said they were led to believe by Strange and his office that Bentley was the target of a grand jury investigation, which is why they stopped.
And now, this happens.
At Thursday’s press conference, where Bentley and Strange professed their mutual love and respect, the guy who was going to “clean up Montgomery in his Ford” was instead backtracking and double-talking like a true politician. His story now is that he didn’t technically say that his office was investigating Bentley, only that it was investigating matters related to Bentley.
See? Not the same thing at all.
Now, Strange has the Senate seat for the next two years and will have an unbelievable advantage in raising money to win the 2018 primary and general election. In the meantime, Bentley will be allowed to appoint the state’s next attorney general, who will undoubtedly be selected based on one qualification – an aversion to prosecuting governors.
And in the end, Luther Strange will drive on to D.C., leaving Montgomery a little dirtier than when he found it.
Which is why, just like we don’t refer to him as “Big” Luther Strange, we also don’t refer to him as honest and ethical either.