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Wallace-Brewer runoff was a low point in state politics

The 1970 gubernatorial runoff between Albert Brewer and George Wallace was a heartbreaker not only for those who backed Mr. Brewer, but also for those who thought Alabama had moved beyond race-baiting politics.

Mr. Wallace became governor in 1963 and made his national reputation as a defiant segregationist. He couldn't succeed himself under state law, so his wife, Lurleen, ran and won the governor's office in 1966.

She died in 1968, and Lt. Gov. Brewer, who had grown up in Decatur, succeeded her. Mr. Brewer was a successful and visionary governor — dramatically increasing school funding, building roads, creating an ethics commission, and promoting economic development and constitutional reform. He also was a racial moderate. (His stature has only grown with time, and today he is a respected retired law professor and elder statesman.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Wallace ran for president in 1968 on a states'-rights platform (segregation wasn't respectable in a national race). He wanted to run for president again in 1972 but needed the governor's office as a platform.

So Mr. Wallace turned on Mr. Brewer, his former ally, and ran against him — giving the race issue one last ride. Mr. Brewer got more votes than Mr. Wallace in the first primary, and the runoff was vicious. The Wallace camp railed against the Brewer "bloc vote," meaning the black vote. There were doctored photographs and personal attacks on Mr. Brewer and his family.

Mr. Wallace won the governor's race. A would-be assassin shot him during the 1972 presidential campaign. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and in pain, and publicly repented of his racism. But he had missed the opportunity to renounce racism when it required political courage.

Now Kerwin C. Swint, a Georgia political scientist, has put the Wallace-Brewer runoff at the top of his list in a new book: "Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time." Mr. Brewer's succinct comment to The Associated Press: "It's very much deserving."

The saddest thing about that 1970 campaign is that it worked. But voters don't have to let ruthless politicians lead them astray, and 1970 offers some lessons in this, another gubernatorial election year:

Don't base your vote on just one issue, especially one that hurts people or one that fails to address the state's real needs. Don't believe everything you hear. And look for positive reasons to vote for a candidate, not trumped-up reasons to vote against him.

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