Gary Palmer, who is seeking a House seat in Alabama, is a unique candidate. Until this year, he’d never run for political office. Yet he has a long and impressive record in politics. He was a walk-on for Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama football team – whoops, that’s not politics.
Palmer’s little-noticed founding of the Alabama Policy Institute (API) in 1989 turned out to be a critical moment in the state’s history. Under his leadership, the think tank led successful fights to defeat a state lottery and a $1 billion tax hike proposed by Republican governor Bob Riley. His unyielding efforts cleared the way for school vouchers – $25 million in scholarships in 2013 – and sweeping ethics reform.
That’s quite a record for a candidate, a non-politician, who’s never worked in government. And it’s a candidate’s record that matters most. It tells voters two things. If a candidate has a history of accomplishments, it’s evidence that he’s capable and qualified, even gifted and talented. And if the candidate’s record is in sync with his campaign pitch, all the better. That candidate can be counted on to pursue in elected office what he says he will.
We know the folly of ignoring a candidate’s record. Barack Obama had the most liberal voting record in the Senate, but sounded far more centrist when he ran for president in 2008. His record, not his campaign rhetoric, foretold his presidency.
Palmer, 59, is not the first think tank president to run for Congress. Jeff Flake was executive director of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona before being elected to the House in 2002 and the Senate in 2012. Mike Pence headed the Indiana Policy Review Foundation prior to winning a House seat in 2000. He was elected Indiana governor in 2012.
Palmer tops both of them. He is a think tank pioneer. He initially established a family policy council in Alabama as part of Focus on the Family’s network. It soon embraced a broader agenda. “We believe that all public policy is family policy,” Palmer says. “It affects everybody.”
In 1992, he helped create the State Policy Network, then served as its president. It started with fewer than 20 conservative state think tanks. Today there are 65 – at least one in every state – and together they’ve become influential nationally. “I’m the only guy running for Congress who has a 50-state network,” Palmer says.
In 1999, Alabama was on the brink of adopting a lottery, the equivalent of a highly regressive tax. The poor pay. “Everybody thought the lottery was a done deal,” Palmer says. “I didn’t.” He took a leave of absence from API to fight it. The lottery was defeated 54-46 percent in a referendum.
In 2003, he took on the hefty tax increase advocated by Gov. Riley. It was backed by much of the business community. It lost 67-33 percent. Instead of raising $1 billion in taxes, spending cuts have been substituted to deal with the state’s fiscal mess.
After Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, two of Palmer’s special projects came to fruition. School vouchers were enacted. Just as important, the corrupt practice of laundering campaign contributions through a string of political action committees was outlawed. It had been used by the gambling industry, among others, to hide its contributions.
Palmer and API have also worked on national issues, such as opposing the federal estate tax. In 1997, API published Facts, Not Fear, a conservative guide for parents and teachers to inform schoolchildren about the environment. It’s still the best book of its kind on environmental issues.
For all his accomplishments, Palmer is not a famous figure. Leaders of think tanks rarely are. He’s one of seven candidates in the Sixth Congressional District in the suburbs of Birmingham. It’s an open seat since the 9-term incumbent, Spencer Bachus, is retiring. The district is solidly Republican. Whoever wins the June 3 primary or a likely runoff on July 15 will be the next congressman. Besides Palmer, two state legislators, an investor, and a doctor who’s the tea party candidate are in the race. They’re all conservatives but none comes close to matching Palmer’s record.
I’ve known Palmer for a dozen years. THE WEEKLY STANDARD doesn’t endorse candidates. But from time to time, a conservative candidate of character, conviction, knowledge, and leadership is worth noting. Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton is one. So is Gary Palmer.