Luther Strange lives up to his name and he finds that vexing. After just two months on the job, the Alabama senator hasn't been able to shake the curious allegations that he owes his seat to someone else's sex scandal.
That's because Strange was appointed by disgraced Governor Rob Bentley, a man accused of misusing taxpayer funds to underwrite a love affair with a member of his staff. And until leaving for Washington, it was Strange's job as attorney general to carry out an investigation.
Politically-charged rumors of the quid-pro-quo variety naturally abound. "It's frustrating when people question your integrity," Strange admits. But the 6-foot-9 mountain of a man doesn't show it. Nicknamed "Big Luther," the freshman speaks softly instead, pointing to his record to dispel the still swirling rumors.
As Alabama's top cop, Strange took a hard line against corruption and made plenty of enemies. One investigation led to the impeachment of a sheriff who allowed inmates to run a human trafficking racket from inside the Sumter County prison. Another case ended with the felony conviction of Alabama's Speaker of the House on ethics violations.
"When I was attorney general," Strange reminisces with a quiet pride, "we had the strongest public integrity unit in the country." Leaning back in his chair during an editorial board at the Washington Examiner, he repeats his old campaign promises "to clean up Montgomery; drain the swamp or whatever."
And it worked. With an unmistakable frame and a record of rooting out corruption, Strange won reelection as attorney general. Afterwards, he seemed well suited to make a bid for either governor or Senate. But thanks to Jeff Sessions, he never had to run.
When Bentley started scouting candidates to fill the vacant Senate seat, Strange, who had already been mulling a run at some point, threw his hat in the ring. The disgraced governor brought more than 20 eager applicants to his Montgomery mansion. Figuring that Bentley probably "promised it to more than half of them," Strange says he didn't even bother booking a plane ticket. Once he got the nod, though, the newly appointed senator quickly left Alabama and an ongoing investigation behind.
On both sides of the Mason-Dixon and across the ideological divide, newspapermen have savaged Strange for that decision. John Archibald of the Birmingham News argues that the governor and attorney general "blew their one shot at redemption." Erick Erickson of the Resurgent predicts that the freshman will never escape "the smell of impropriety." And Kyle Whitmire of Alabama Media accuses Strange of turning his back on the state.
Of course, Strange dismisses that criticism out of hand. The giant freshman says he accepted the job on two conditions. First, that the same squad that helped him ferret out corruption would stay in place. And second, that the governor wouldn't replace him with a patsy. "I don't think I would've taken the appointment," Strange explains, "had I not been assured [Bentley] would put someone in who would continue the work of my team." According to Strange, both conditions have been met.
Things haven't gone so well for Bentley though. On Wednesday, the state's ethics commission released a report detailing charges against that the disgraced governor used taxpayer money for illicit purposes. Meanwhile, Strange's old team continues its own investigation. And the state legislature moves gradually closer to impeachment.
Removed from the controversy for now, Strange wants to refocus on his new role. New in town, the junior senator says he's working to overcome a learning curve on procedure and policy. But the freshman needs to get up to speed quickly. Strange must survive a special primary next June before the general election.
If he's going to keep his seat, the senator must give voters something to think about besides the strange circumstances that brought him to office.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.