Alabama Goes Viral
By GAIL COLLINS
O.K., not an opening likely to maintain reader interest. Let’s start again, with the words of Dale Peterson, candidate for agriculture commissioner in Tuesday’s Republican primary:
“Listen up! Alabama ag commissioner is one of the most powerful positions in Alabama. Responsible for five billion dollars. Bet you didn’t know that. You know why? Thugs and criminals!”
This is the start of Peterson’s campaign ad. He rides into the screen on a horse that looks increasingly worried as things progress. Brandishing a rifle, the 64-year-old farmer barks at the camera about his opponent (“a dummy”), somebody stealing his yard signs and immigrants being “bused in by the thousands.” The overall effect is like being cornered at a party by an eccentric neighbor who thinks the garbage man is spying on him for the federal government. It’s extremely popular.
There is quite a lot of this sort of thing going on this campaign season. You raise enough cash to film an outrageous ad. Then you post it on the Web and pray that it goes viral, gets mentioned on the cable talk shows and draws in enough donations to put the thing on TV.
The trend goes back to Demon Sheep, the legendary ad for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the Senate nomination in California. It had regular sheep and then cartoon sheep and then a guy crawling around the ground disguised as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He had on a cardboard mask with red light bulbs for eyes. I believe the message was supposed to be fiscal responsibility, but really, all you got was Demon Sheep. Red eyes. Carly Fiorina.
The man who made it, Fred Davis III, then took up the cause of Tim James, a deeply unremarkable Alabama businessman who wants to be governor. To separate James from the crowd, Davis came up with “Language,” a 30-second ad in which the candidate stared at the camera and demanded to know why “our politicians make us give driver’s license exams in 12 languages.” (The actual answer is: a federal court ruling.)
“This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it,” James said irritably. “We’ll only give the test in English if I’m governor. Maybe it’s the businessman in me, but we’ll save money.”
James’s staff insisted it was fiscal conservatism, not xenophobia, that put their candidate on the driver’s license warpath. But Alabama’s tests are automatically graded by computer, using federally financed software — even the approximately 2 percent that are taken in a language other than English. Given the fact that the state would probably have to defend the policy in court, James’s idea would actually be a new expense.
But I cannot emphasize how totally beside the point all that is. “Language” went viral. “This is the first election in a long time where the fate of the campaign really did change on a single ad,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the University of Alabama political science department.
James is now one of the front-runners, despite a last-minute crisis involving a rumor that he believed the state was spending too much money on the University of Alabama football coach, who makes $4.1 million a year. Which James vigorously denied wanting to cut. It’s the businessman in him.
He now has a sequel to the driver’s license ad, in which he says that as a businessman, he feels sex offenders should be required to “re-register with the state, face to face, every 90 days.”
“Some politicians think that might inconvenience the sex offenders,” James said somberly. He did not explain who those politicians were, but I suspect the same guys who keep stealing Dale Peterson’s signs.
This has been a peculiar political year, even for Alabama. James’s biggest opponent, Bradley Byrne, was attacked by a group called True Republican PAC, which ran an ad charging that Byrne supported the teaching of evolution.
Byrne, who has multiple degrees and was chancellor of the state community college system, indignantly denied the charges.
But wait, there’s more. It turns out that True Republican PAC was bankrolled by the state teachers’ union, which is angry at Byrne for trying to ban teachers from holding second jobs as state legislators. The Alabama Education Association apparently felt a good payback would be to spend $500,000 on a group that encourages people to vote against any candidate who believes there is a scientific explanation for the origin of life.
Meanwhile, over in the Fifth Congressional District primary, Les Phillip, a Republican, has an ad that features him telling a story of two young African-American men. One did great, served his country and became Les Phillip, while the other fell in with terrorists and other bad company and became Barack Obama.
So far, this is only on the Web, but the campaign is hoping to go viral.