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Alabama governor orders special election to fill U.S. Senate seat handed to Luther Strange

Decision truncates two-year temporary term Strange received from disgraced ex-Governor Robert Bentley

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has reversed a decision by her disgraced predecessor and ordered a special election this year to permanently fill the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, forcing Republican Luther Strange to defend the seat nearly a year before he expected to face voters.

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

Strange was appointed to the seat in February by ex-Governor Robert Bentley, who delayed a special election for the vacancy until November 2018, despite a state law mandating that vacancies be filled “forthwith.” But Ivey, who took office April 10 after Bentley resigned, said the “the rule of law” required an election this year.

“I promised to steady our ship of state. This means following the law, which clearly states the people should vote for a replacement U.S. senator as soon as possible,” Ivey said in a statement. She set party primaries for September, with the general election to follow in December.

Ivey’s decision means Strange will have to defend his seat, as questions continue to swirl about his push as state attorney general first to delay Bentley’s impeachment and then downplay an investigation into his conduct after Bentley sent him to Washington.

However, the senator was publicly nonplussed about the prospect of an earlier vote.

“I’m a candidate, and I’m ready to run whether the election is next month or next year,” he said in a statement. “As the only announced candidate for this office, I will spend the next several months being the best senator I can be, upholding Alabama values and working with President Donald Trump to drain the swamp.”

Strange, 64, served as attorney general from 2011 until his appointment to the Senate. He was selected to fill the vacancy created when Jeff Sessions was confirmed as U.S. attorney general.

Bentley said he decided to hold the special election at the same time as the 2018 midterm elections to save money. But as a result, Strange would have received a temporary appointment that lasted nearly two years without facing voters.

Alabama is one of 15 states that require a special election to fill Senate vacancies. In the other 35 states, governors appoint replacements to serve until the next scheduled election.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey

Ivey conceded that an election this year is likely to be costly, but she said “following the law trumps the expense of a special election.”

So far, no candidate in either party has stepped forward to challenge Strange, although the Bentley imbroglio could provide a political opening.

Bentley resigned as state lawmakers were considering impeaching him over efforts to cover up a relationship with a former female aide. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and agreed never to seek political office again.

In November 2016, just before the presidential election, Strange asked leaders of the House Judiciary Committee to suspend their work on possible impeachment charges against Bentley because it might impact “related work” by the attorney general’s office.

But after being appointed by Bentley to the Senate, Strange tried to tamp down speculation that the governor was under investigation, telling reporters, “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor. I think it’s actually somewhat unfair to him and unfair to the process.”

Then, just days later, Strange’s successor as attorney general, Steve Marshall, confirmed that Bentley was indeed under investigation. And because he, too, had been appointed by Bentley, he recused himself and named a special prosecutor, who negotiated the plea deal that pried the former governor from office.

Strange has insisted that his actions as attorney general regarding the Bentley investigation were above board. However, Bessemer attorney Sam McClure has filed a complaint with the Alabama State Bar Association, asking for Strange to be disbarred for accepting the Senate appointment after delaying the impeachment proceedings, which he said violated legal ethics.

McClure has indicated he will file a similar complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission, which could also investigate Strange.

However, a strong argument against any quid quo pro between Bentley and Strange is the fact that at the time he asked the Judiciary Committee to suspend its process, Donald Trump had not been elected. So Strange had no way of knowing that Sessions would be appointed as attorney general and a Senate vacancy would open.

In another twist, a legislator who pushed for Bentley’s impeachment, State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, now says he met with Bentley shortly after Strange’s appointment, and the then-governor told Henry that he sent Strange to the Senate not to impede the investigation into his own conduct but because Bentley thought Strange was corrupt and wanted to get him out of the state.

Henry has now told this story in both national and state media outlets, prompting strong denials from Bentley’s attorney. Two other state legislators have now gone on the record saying that Henry told them the details of what Bentley said in that meeting, although they were not privy to the conversation.

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