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Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville running for U.S. Senate

Tuberville gives Trump a shout out in his announcement; Sean Spicer reportedly set to work in his campaign

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

BIRMINGHAM (CFP) — Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville has announced that he will seek the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in football-happy Alabama in 2020.

U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville

“After more than a year of listening to Alabama’s citizens, I have heard your concerns and hopes for a better tomorrow,” he said in a brief statement posted on a new campaign website and on Twitter. “I am humbled to announce the next step — I will be a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.”

In his tweet, Tuberville used the hashtag #MAGA, President Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.”

Politico reported the Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, plans to work for Tuberville’s campaign.

Tuberville, 64, coached Auburn for nine seasons from 1999 to 2008, ending with an 85-40 record. He won  an SEC championship in 2004, when his team went undefeated but wasn’t invited to play in the national championship game.

Among Tuberville’s biggest achievements at Auburn — beating in-state rival Alabama six straight times. Now, he’ll need to appeal to those same rabid Alabama fans to make his political dreams come true.

The man now sitting in the Senate seat, Democrat Doug Jones, is an Alabama graduate.

Tuberville will face U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who went to law school at Alabama, in the Republican primary next year.

At least two other GOP candidates, State Auditor Jim Zeigler and State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, are also looking at the race.

Jones won the Senate seat in a special election in 2017 after the campaign of Republican Roy Moore imploded amid allegations of sexual contact with underage girls.

Given Alabama’s strong Republican tilt, Jones is considered to be the most vulnerable Democratic senator facing re-election in 2020.

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Republican U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne first to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones in 2020

Byrne’s past criticism of President Donald Trump could become an issue in the GOP primary

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

Watch Byrne’s campaign kickoff. Video below story.

MOBILE (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne has become the first Republican to enter the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Alabama, drawing a contrast between what he called “bedrock” Alabama values and the priorities of Washington — and between his positions and those of the  Democrat now holding the seat, Doug Jones.

“Look at Washington and tell me you don’t see a disconnect between your values and the values you see up there,” Byrne said at his campaign kickoff February 20 at an oyster house in Mobile. “Look at Washington and tell me you don’t see people that have a vision that’s fundamentally at odds with what America is.”

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne kicks off Senate campaign in Mobile (From WKRG via YouTube)

Byrne drew a contrast with Jones over his opposition to Brent Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, his stand in favor of legal abortion, and his opposition to the president’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“When the people we charge with patrolling our Southern border, with protecting you and me, tell us we need to build some more border wall, we build a border wall,” Byrne said, to applause from his supporters.

Byrne also warned his supporters that “the people that presently hold this seat intend to keep it, and they will stop at nothing.”

Byrne, 64, from Baldwin County just across the bay from Mobile, was elected to Alabama’s 1st District U.S. House seat in a 2013 special election and has won re-election easily three times. He had previously served in the State Senate and as chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

While Byrne offered full-throated support of Trump in his campaign kickoff, his previous comments about the president could come back to haunt him in a Republican primary in a state where the president remains popular.

During the 2016 campaign, after a video surfaced in which Trump was heard describing how he groped women’s genitals, Byrne withdrew his endorsement and called on Trump to exit the race, saying he could not defeat Hillary Clinton. However, he later made it clear that he did not support Clinton and would vote for the Republican ticket.

Byrne was joined by two of his House colleagues from Alabama, Martha Roby and Mo Brooks, in criticizing Trump during the campaign — and both of them discovered, as Byrne might, the political consequences of running afoul of the Trump faithful.

Brooks came in third place in the Republican primary in a 2017 special election to fill the Senate seat Jones now holds against two candidates who criticized him for his comments about Trump. Roby was forced into a primary runoff in 2018 for the same reason, although she survived.

Jones, 64, won a special election to the Senate in 2017 after the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, was accused of pursuing sexual relationships with underage girls, allegations which Moore denied. Jones is considered among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats on the ballot in 2020, in a state Trump carried in 2016 by 28 points.

During his time in the Senate, Jones has not tried to tack to the right to appeal to Alabama’s conservative electorate. He has supported the Democratic leadership on key votes, which included voting against the Republican tax cut plan and the Kavanaugh nomination, and he also supports same-sex marriage and providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants.

Jones ended 2018 with $2.1 million in cash on hand for the 2020 race, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Given Jones perceived vulnerability, the race is expected to draw an number of Republican challengers into the primary with Byrne. State Auditor Jim Zeigler has formed an exploratory committee, and others considering the race are U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer from Hoover and State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh from Anniston.

The Senate race in Alabama is one of 13 Southern Senate races in 2020. Only two of those seats are held by Democrats, Jones and Virginia’s Mark Warner.

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Watch Byrne’s campaign kickoff:

Will Robert Bentley brouhaha rub off on U.S. Senator Luther Strange?

Strange’s candor about Bentley investigation, timing of special election being questioned

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Now that the sex and cover-up scandal that has transfixed Alabama for nearly a year has claimed the political scalp of ex-Governor Robert Bentley, state political circles are fixating on another question: Will the Bentley imbroglio also ensnare U.S. Senator Luther Strange?

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

Bentley punched Strange’s ticket to Washington in February, tapping him to fill the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was confirmed as U.S. attorney general. The governor also handed Strange another generous gift — he delayed a special election for the Senate vacancy until 2018, even though state law mandates that the governor call an election “forthwith.” That meant that Strange’s supposedly temporary appointment would last nearly two years.

At the time, Strange was Alabama’s attorney general, and the resolution of the case against Bentley–in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and resigned–has raised questions about not only the timing of the special election, but also Strange’s push first to delay Bentley’s impeachment and then downplay an investigation into his conduct. Both men are Republicans.

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.”

But 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.

Also up in the air is the possibility that Strange might have to face a special election to hang on to his seat. Saying Bentley’s appointment of Strange “smells to high heaven,” Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler, has gone to court to overturn Bentley’s decision to delay the special election until 2018.

New Governor Kay Ivey, also a Republican, might also reverse course and order an earlier vote, although she has so far given no indication that she’s considering doing so.

Sex, lies and audiotape: Governor’s scandal roils Alabama

Governor Robert Bentley apologizes after recording surfaces of an “inappropriate” conversation with a top aide

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

alabama mugMONTGOMERY, Alabama (CFP) — Alabama Governor Robert Bentley is denying explosive allegations from the state’s former top cop that he is having an affair with a female aide who exerts svengali-like influence over the governor.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

However, Bentley has apologized to the people of Alabama for making “inappropriate” comments to the aide, Rebekah Mason. The apology came after an audio recording surfaced in which the governor expresses “love” to an unidentified party in a telephone conversation and talks about how much he enjoys touching her breasts.

Just who made that recording isn’t clear, but an unidentified member of Bentley’s own family provided it to officials at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency in August 2014, according to Spencer Collier, the former head of ALEA who was fired by Bentley on March 22.

Collier also claims that he was removed by the governor because he refused to mislead the state attorney general’s office about an investigation related to a political ally, a charge Bentley denies.

In the wake of the salacious revelations, the Democratic leader of the state legislature has called on Bentley to resign, and one of governor’s fellow Republicans, State Auditor Jim Ziegler, has filed an ethics complaint alleging that Bentley used state resources to carry on an affair with Mason.

Collier went public with the affair allegations a day after learning on social media that he had been fired. He told reporters that he first confronted the governor about his relationship with Mason in August 2014, after a member of the governor’s security detail accidentally saw an inappropriate text message from Mason on Bentley’s cell phone.

Several days later, Collier said his agency received audio of the governor “participating in an inappropriate sexual conversation,” which was provided by a member of Bentley’s family that he didn’t identify.

Collier said he informed the governor that he would be committing a crime if he used state resources or campaign funds to facilitate the affair. The governor told Collier he would break off the affair but never did, Collier said.

“Less than a month ago, the governor told me that he was still madly in love with Rebekah Mason,” Collier said.

He said Mason exhibited so much influence over Bentley that she was “the de facto governor.” Collier said he had received complaints about Mason from other law enforcement officials, as well as members of Bentley’s cabinet and members of his family.

“(He) is not the same man that I knew and served in the legislature with and considered one of the best friends I ever had, and for that I am saddened,” said Collier, who said he had been a friend and political ally of Bentley for 15 years.

Collier also denied the allegations of mismanagement in his agency that led to his ouster: “I have not mismanaged a dime.”

A short time after Collier spoke, Bentley called his own news conference to flatly deny he was having an affair with Mason, while admitting he had “inappropriate” conversations with her that he described as a “mistake.”

“I am truly sorry, and I accept full responsibility,” he said. “I want everyone to know, though, that I have never had a physical affair with Mrs. Mason.”

“I can assure the people of Alabama that as their governor, I have never done anything illegal,” he said. “At no time have I ever used the resources of my office to facilitate a relationship of any type.”

But when asked if his inappropriate conduct with Mason played a role in his 2015 divorce from his wife of 50 years, Dianne, the 73-year-old governor declined to comment. Asked if he loved Mason, he said, “I love many members of my staff.”

Bentley, a dermatologist, was elected to his second term in 2014. Shortly after his first inauguration in 2011, he made national headlines by telling a church audience that “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.”  He later apologized.

Bentley, who is term limited in 2018, said he will not resign over Collier’s allegations. And although he apologized for the conversation captured on audio, the governor said he had not listened to it, although he had known of its existence for nearly two years.

On the audio, a voice that appears to be Bentley’s can be be heard in a telephone conversation with an unknown party, in which he talks about putting his arms around the other party and putting his hands on her breasts.

“I love you. I love to talk to you,” Bentley says.

Later on the tape, he says, “Baby, let me tell you what we’re gonna to have to do tonight–start locking the door. If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re gonna have to start locking the door.”

One question raised by the audio is where it was recorded. Zeigler’s complaint alleges that a reference in the audio about needing to move a secretary’s desk indicates sexual activity was taking place on state property.

Rebekah Mason

Rebekah Mason

After Bentley denied an affair, Mason fired off her own statement in which she accused Collier of sexism for his insinuation that she exerts undue influence over Bentley.

“He only said what he said about my professional abilities because I am a woman. His comments were clear, demonstrated gender bias,” Mason said.

“Unfortunately, there are still some people who are set on hindering the ability of women to work in the political arena. I am proud of what I have accomplished in the political arena. And I’m grateful for the opportunity God has given me to serve our state.”

Mason’s husband, Jon, who also works for the Bentley administration, took to Facebook to defend his “amazing” wife.

“I wanted to share that I long ago resolved the personal issue playing out now for everyone this week,” he said. “Please continue to support families, the governor and our state with prayers as we all move forward.”

Jon Mason did not elaborate on the nature of the personal issue. But he said his wife “is not a fictional character from a TV show or caricature created by assumptions and imagination.”

While Mason is, by Bentley’s own description, one of his top aides, she is not a state employee. Instead, her salary is being paid by the Alabama Council for Excellent Government, a 501 (c)(4) group with ties to Bentley.

Zeigler’s complaint alleges accepting money from an outside group would make Mason a lobbyist, but she has failed to register as such.

“Either Mrs. Mason is a lobbyist, or she is a government official,” Zeigler said.”If she is (a) lobbyist, she has violated the law by failing to register and file reports. If she is a government official, she has violated the law by improperly receiving private funds.”

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, called on Bentley to step down, saying “it is time for the circus to stop.”

“Public service is about doing what is best for the people of Alabama, and it is clear these countless distractions–whether criminal or ethical–are affecting our legislature and now our governor,” Ford said in a statement.

In his news conference, Collier said his relationship with Bentley began to deteriorate earlier this year when, over the governor’s objections, he complied with a request from Attorney General Luther Strange for an affidavit saying that his agency had cleared a deputy attorney general of allegations of leaking grand jury testimony to a witness.

That deputy, Matt Hart, was the lead investigator in a corruption case that eventually led to a 23-count indictment against Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, an ally of Bentley.

Hubbard has denied the charges, characterizing the investigation as a political attack on him by Strange. Hubbard’s attorneys have raised prosecutorial misconduct as part of their defense.

Collier said Bentley wanted him to say that his agency was continuing with the investigation of Hart’s conduct, when it, in fact, wasn’t. Both the governor and Mason were angered when he wouldn’t go along, Collier said.

“To say she was furious would be an understatement,” Collier said.

“This is not the way government should work. This is not the way law enforcement should work. Elected officials should not be able to yield this much power over a law enforcement investigation. The people of this state deserve better.”

Bentley denied Collier’s accusation, saying, “I have never asked any member of my staff or any cabinet member to lie.”

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