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Alabama Teachers Org. Helps Underdog Win GOP Runoff

Pundits are crediting the Alabama Education Association for helping propel Republican state Rep. Robert Bentley past a better-known, better-funded GOP candidate to clinch the nomination for governor earlier this week.

Bentley, a physician from Tuscaloosa, edged out former state Sen. Bradley Byrne, who had the GOP establishment backing him, including outgoing Gov. Bob Riley. Byrne had also been the top vote-getter in the state's earlier primary, while Bentley barely won enough votes to make the runoff.

So how does the AEA, a National Education Association affiliate—whose top leaders are high-profile Democrats—come to be a player in the Republican runoff? It starts with a history of bad blood between the AEA and Byrne, who got crossways with the association during his days in the state Senate and as the chancellor of the state's community college system. They sparred over tenure and charter schools.

Hostilities between Byrne and the AEA grew intense—and expensive—during the campaign. The union's executive secretary and political mastermind, Paul Hubbert, has been a high-ranking official in the state's Democratic party, though he just announced he'll give up his party leadership role to focus exclusively on AEA business.

The AEA—which functions purely as a political and lobbying operation, since there is no collective bargaining for teachers in Alabama—poured millions into negative television ads against Byrne, who ended up running a campaign largely against the teachers' association. The AEA's involvement in the GOP primary and runoff has drawn harsh criticism.

But with its nemesis out of the picture now, the AEA will no doubt go back to putting resources into the gubernatorial candidate who everyone would expect it to favor: Democratic nominee Ron Sparks, the state's commissioner of agriculture and industries.

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