Just when it seemed that Gov. Robert Bentley might be re-elected without serious opposition, now comes word that a Democratic state senator is considering challenging the incumbent. And he has Auburn connections.
State Sen. Billy Beasley, a Barbour County Democrat, is said to be seriously considering throwing his hat into the ring. Beasley’s district stretches through several counties and includes south Auburn. A pharmacist, Beasley formerly ran Toomer’s Drugs, when the establishment known for its lemonade had a drug store on premises.
Whether Beasley could mount a significant challenge to Bentley, who has stayed away from controversy and ruffled few feathers during his first three years in office, remains to be determined, but a well-financed effort by Beasley could provide drama to what might otherwise be a lackluster election year.
Bentley’s one issue, his refusal to accept an expansion on medicaid, has created a bit of controversy. The federal government has altered the guidelines for Medicaid recipients, meaning that Alabama is eligible for literally billions in new federal dollars. The federal government would pay all of the costs of the expansion through 2016, and afterward the federal share never would dip below 90 percent.
Dr. David Bronner, the respected head of Retirement Systems of Alabama, estimates the expansion would mean more than 30,000 new high paying jobs for the state. Proponents point out that Alabama has spent hundreds of millions of dollars attracting far fewer jobs at industries like Mercedes Benz and Austel, but the state wouldn’t have to spend anything upfront to hire the 30,000-plus doctors, nurses, and other medical practitioners. They argue that it is unwise for Alabama to refuse to take back tax dollars it sends to Washington. They note that recipients would not be persons who don’t work, since they already are eligible for Medicaid, but persons in low-paying jobs who are not provided company insurance.
Bentley, the Tuscaloosa Republican, says the Medicaid program already is expensive, costing the state well over $200 million annually, and needs operational improvement. Bentley says the states have to join in the effort to curb deficit spending in Washington.
If Beasley, the pharmacist, takes on Bentley, the physician, Medicaid expansion will be a major campaign issue.
But is it an issue that Democrats could win the election on? After all, with the departure of Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb a few years ago, there no longer is a single statewide elected Democratic officeholder in the state. Republicans tie Democratic office seekers to Washington spending, meaning that the Medicaid issue might not be viable here.
And then there’s the matter of campaign funds. With the primary six months away and the general election 11 months into the future, Bentley already has raised a few million dollars. As an odds-on favorite for re-election, Bentley will be able to raise whatever amount needed to wage an effective campaign. Millions more.
Beasley would probably be able to raise some money himself. He would be able to tap some sources others might not. His brother, after all, is Jere Beasley, the former lieutenant governor and head of the Beasley Allen law firm, one of the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ law firms. And Beasley has deep ties with municipal officials throughout the state, since his wife, Rebecca, is longtime mayor of Clayton.
Beasley, a Caucasian running in a heavily African-American district, was given little chance of winning four years ago. But he had the best advertisement of the campaign cycle. The elderly black gentleman praising Beasley for taking medications to sick people’s homes, whether they could pay for the meds or not, was so effective many believed the man to be a paid actor.
But would Beasley really have a chance against a relatively popular incumbent who is not considered vulnerable on very many issues? That’s a question for the voters to answer. But the odds of Beasley’s being elected right now are probably about as good as they were that Bentley, the little known state representative from Tuscaloosa, would win at this point in the process four years ago.
—Auburn attorney Don Eddins is managing partner of The Auburn Villager, LLC, which operates The Auburn Villager newspaper and auburnvillager.com. Email him your comments about the publications to firstname.lastname@example.org.