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Meet Lee Busby, the Alabama write-in candidate challenging Roy Moore

The former Marine says Alabama voters don’t like either of their choices. So he jumped in the race.

Courtesy of Col. Lee Busby

Republicans toyed with, and then quickly abandoned, the possibility of a write-in campaign to challenge Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race. But at least one guy still thought it was a good idea

“I don’t mean it’s a cakewalk to kick off a campaign 15 days before, with no money, no organization, no experience,” Col. Lee Busby, who is running as a GOP-leaning write-in, told Vox. “But it struck me that the absence of representation in the middle — and I mean the conservative middle, which is Alabama — that the representation of the party choices was not there.”

Alabama is preparing for at least some write-in ballots during Tuesday’s vote. The state’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, said Sunday he wrote in another Republican, and the Alabama Secretary of State released instructions to the public last month “due to a large number of requests.” Whether that interest is in Busby, who just declared his candidacy two weeks ago, or someone else, Alabamans have to follow the same process: jot down the name of the candidate and fill in the bubble in the “write-in” box.

The secretary of state’s office says write-in votes count as long as voters follow those instructions, spell the desired person’s name correctly, or close to it, and the person they select “is qualified to hold the office and not a fictional character.”

Busby, at least, is real. He retired from the Marines in 2010 after more than three decades of service in the reserves and on active duty, including a deployment to Iraq and a stint as an aide to Gen. John Kelly, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. The Alabama native worked in private investment and for defense contractors. He now spends a lot of his time sculpting busts of US service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is making his last-minute bid because he sees Alabaman voters as largely dissatisfied with their two primary options: Republican candidate Roy Moore, who is far to the right and has been accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s; and Doug Jones, who is a Democrat.

Write-in victories are electoral unicorns, let alone a little more than two weeks out from voting day. Republicans who first considered coordinating a write-in campaign after revelations of Moore’s misconduct broke, soon calculated that plan was more likely to split the GOP vote and get Jones elected. Now, with Trump’s ringing endorsement, Republicans appear to have resigned themselves to the likelihood that if people vote Republican, they’ll likely be electing Moore.

But a write-in has its appeal among disgruntled voters. A recent Change Research poll found about 4 percent of Alabamans are mulling a write-in. Busby may have had a short campaigning window, but he said, at least, anecdotally, his candidacy was catching on. Some Alabamans have told him they’re considering voting for the “write-in” guy.

Two conversations with Busby, edited and condensed, appear below.


Jen Kirby

What made you decided to throw your hat in the ring as a write-in candidate?

Lee Busby

I was acutely unhappy with my choices. Sometimes that’s just a personal problem of mine. But the more I talked with people down here, the more just bowled over I was by how many people were acutely unhappy about their choices — a lot of them who are not even going to vote. It’s kind of sad.

Jen Kirby

Had you considered getting into politics before declaring yourself as a write-in candidate in this race?

Lee Busby

No. I’ve had a growing sense over the last year that I wanted to get back involved in shaping the country and the state, but nothing had congealed into anything like the US Senate. I just looked at this, and it struck me as wide open.

I don’t mean it’s a cakewalk to kick off a campaign 15 days before [an election] with no money, no organization, no experience. But it struck me that the absence of representation in the middle — and I mean the conservative middle, which is Alabama — that the representation of the party choices was not there. It wasn’t in the conservative middle ground. I think that’s where most of us are.

Jen Kirby

How do you think Alabama ended up with two candidates, as you say, that people are so unhappy with?

Lee Busby

I think the parties are failing Alabama voters. One has a candidate that doesn’t resonate with voters, and the other has a platform that doesn’t resonate with Alabama voters. The system is getting more and more broken, and I think that had either of the parties offered a platform and a candidate that people could be comfortable with representing them as Alabamians, I wouldn’t be here. And I may not be here after it’s over, but at least I’m in.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned there was a candidate whose platform didn’t resonate with voters, and then a candidate who didn’t resonate with voters. As a Republican leaner, I imagine you disagree with Doug Jones on pretty much everything, but what specifically, do disagree with Roy Moore about? What is different about your platform?

Lee Busby

Roy Moore, there were character issues that I feel kept the majority of Republican voters here from being able to fully get behind that.

There’s all this mess that's erupted just recently, and that’s certainly created questions. I have no idea what took place, but there are enough questions that I can’t vote for that candidate until those questions are resolved and cleared up.

Jen Kirby

You’re saying the recent allegations of sexual misconduct have to be addressed?

Lee Busby

That’s certainly played a part — but even before that. There’s sort of a style to the Moore campaign throughout his career that doesn't feel right. It doesn’t appeal to me.

Jen Kirby

Your answer is probably the mark of a good politician. But what, specifically, are you pointing to?

Lee Busby

And thank you, if that sounds like a good politician, that’s not bad. I've just never thought I’d hear that.

On a personal gut level, there’s a self-righteousness that emanates out of that campaign that I think doesn’t belong in office. I admire a man of principle. That’s great. But when you put your hand on the Bible and take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and laws — if you have a difference in principle and are willing to take a stand on principle, that’s fine. I admire that, but you don't use the office to which you’ve been entrusted to do that.

Jen Kirby

Why do you think a good number of Alabama voters are still supporting Moore despite the allegations?

Lee Busby

In conversations with other Alabamians, what I run into over and over and over again is ‘I just can't go in there and vote for him.’ The other reason is the forecast of what kind of turnout we’re going to have in this election. The big story down here in Alabama is how formerly active, responsible Republican voters can’t bring themselves to go to the polls and vote for the Moore campaign.

Jen Kirby

But it seems he does have supporters. You’re just saying that he will always have his supporters in Alabama and that’s how it is?

Lee Busby

No, don't get me wrong. He has a very committed base of supporters. Very committed. But the way that manifests in a low turnout election is that small minority of committed voters can hijack the mud yard if that majority doesn’t get out and vote and doesn’t get out and vote their conscience.

Jen Kirby

The RNC has started funding Moore again, and the Republican Party seems to have backed away from its earlier condemnation saying, basically, “We’ll leave it up to the voters.” How does the Republican Party’s reaction to Moore change how you see the party?

Lee Busby

Well, I don’t think they just said leave it up to the voters. I believe I read they just pumped another $1.1 million into the campaign down here, and that's not just leaving it up to the voters. [Note: A pro-Trump super PAC committed to spending that amount.] I certainly am a big boy, and I understand the pragmatics and the numbers in politics, but I think the Republican Party had a chance to do the right thing.

Jen Kirby

I’m curious about your political evolution. Have you always leaned Republican?

Lee Busby

I think that’s accurate. In that long stretch when I was in the military, or back and forth between the military and business work, I was an apolitical creature. But typically voted Republican.

Jen Kirby

If you are elected, will you serve as a Republican or independent?

Lee Busby

I would be an independent. I’m a Republican voter, but I’m not the Republican nominee. But it is a Republican agenda that I would support, and I am a supporter of President Trump.

Jen Kirby

Though you say you are a supporter of the president, how would you see your role in the Senate with respect to Trump?

Lee Busby

I would see it as a Republican-leaner, committed supporter of the Republican platform. But like any other elected senator, Republican or Democrat, my interest is in representing the people of Alabama, and if that were not incorporated into that agenda, then I would not support it. I would be perfectly free not to. Nobody owns me. I don’t know anybody big favors.

Jen Kirby

What’s something in your platform that is of particular importance to you — what you’ll want to focus on if you’re elected?

Lee Busby

If you’re painting with a broad brush, you can paint me as a supporter of the Republican agenda. But I have a growing concern, highlighted to me through family members, about what’s going on across the landscape right now with the abuse of power. Primarily, I’m talking about the abuse of power to take advantage of children and women and how widespread it is. I’m disgusted by that, and that is becoming a part of what I’m trying to do.

Interstate 10, which runs across South Alabama, is becoming a freeway for moving drugs and women who are being abused and being held captive, or even children. That ties in with the emphasis on border control. It’s important that Alabamans understand, and I think they do, that just because we don’t have a foreign border in the sense of a Texas, we’re impacted by what’s going on.

Jen Kirby

So security, but with policies to protect vulnerable women and children?

Lee Busby

The border issue I’m talking about is how it’s facilitating and supporting human-trafficking and drug trafficking.

Then there’s another angle of it, when you’re having these eruptions across the landscape not only in Congress, but Hollywood and business, where you’ve got people — primarily men — abusing their power to bully around and take advantage of women. I think it’s completely unsatisfactory, and I think it ought be dealt with harshly. I don’t think it’s an issue of educating people, I think people have an innate sense of right and wrong, it’s an issue of holding them accountable.

Jen Kirby

What you bring up plays into what’s going on with Roy Moore and the Alabama Senate election in many complicated ways.

Lee Busby

I think people have to be held accountable, not only by the organizations that they’re using to accrue that power, but they have to be held accountable by the individuals who are putting them in those positions of power, whether they be shareholders or voters or viewers or customers. Again, this is across the landscape that I’m talking about it.

Jen Kirby

How would you address this abuse of power, how would you hold people accountable if you were in the position of power as a senator? I think it's something that a lot of people want and are asking for, but there’s been few good solutions.

Lee Busby

It’s not complicated. It’s not. It’s very direct, and that is hold people accountable. If you’re that organization, you hold them accountable. You fire them. You get rid of them. You get them out. If it’s a major corporation, you do the same thing. If it’s the media, you do the same thing.

At the individual level, if you’re one of the individuals whose support took those people into positions of power — you're a voter and somebody in Congress. You’re a shareholder. You have control over how you vote in our political election or in a corporate scenario. Individuals have control over that.

I saw these proposals that Congress is going to institute mandatory training and all this. It doesn’t taste right. People know at a gut level what’s the difference between treating women as a gentleman would or doing something other than that. It doesn’t take mandatory training to teach people, particularly men, how to be a gentleman. Obviously, the biggest part is men right now because males fill most of those offices of power, but it runs on both sides of the male-female line. It shouldn’t be tolerated.

Jen Kirby

You say that you’re generally supportive of Trump, but I am curious how you square your stance against the abuse of power with the Access Hollywood tape and the allegations of sexual harassment against him?

Lee Busby

I think you're asking about that sort of eruption during his campaign where there was a film. ... Is that right?

Jen Kirby

Yes, but he's been accused of harassment by multiple women, so I'm just curious how you say it’s important to hold people accountable, and how you square that with President Trump’s past. How would you approach it?

Lee Busby

Well, I think my memory is that he dealt with that in the campaign and he got up and apologized for the irresponsible use of what he called “locker room” talk. And in my opinion, that’s dealt with. The voters had a chance to listen to that and decide for themselves. That’s my comment on that.

Jen Kirby

You also mentioned border security. What’s your general stance on immigration?

Lee Busby

I’m all for immigration. We are a land of immigrants. The vast majority of those of us here are here because of immigration. But, I’m only a proponent of legal immigration.

If existing laws are broken, then let’s fix them in the prescribed way. But, to simply say, “Oh, we're just not gonna do that,” it’s really beyond me. It’s incredibly unfair for those families and individuals who have gone through that process, have gone through the time and aggravation and expense of doing it according to how we say we require it done. It’s a disservice to those immigrants who came here by following those rules.

When I was in Iraq, my interpreter [and] translators were putting their lives on the line every day just by being associated with us, and their families weren’t in some sort of theoretical danger. Their families were being hunted down and killed to deter anyone from cooperating with us and those people badly wanted to immigrate to the US and at that time — the ‘07-’08 period — and we were not able to.

We were able to give recommendations and write special letters, but we weren’t able to get programs in place that recognized what those people were doing. I haven’t followed it that closely now, but at a personal level, I saw and worked with people whose lives were in danger because of what they were doing with us, and yet we couldn’t get them in [to the US] under the existing laws.

Jen Kirby

That’s a huge issue, and also brings up broader issues of security — policies such as Trump’s travel ban, and whether that particular policy might turn off the people we need to work with us, and whether such a policy will effectively keep the US safe.

Lee Busby

This term “extreme vetting” gets tossed around, and that's an easy something to support in theory, and I’m all in favor of it. The devil is in the details. Many of these people are — to put it lightly, incredibly difficult to vet, but we certainly can do a better job than we’re doing now. I think some of the episodes coming out show that it’s been too casual. When you’re dealing with folks coming here whose life is just different — it’s difficult to find and do the research and the investigation. That can be difficult. But simply observing the laws that we have, that is a huge step.

Jen Kirby

Obviously, the biggest criticism of your campaign, at least from the Republican side, is the idea that you would be splitting the vote. Are you nervous or worried about that at all? And have you heard from anyone in Washington or elsewhere that has advised you against running as a write-in for those reasons?

Lee Busby

Let me answer the second part first: No, I have not. I have had a couple of subtle, cryptic phone calls from people who I don’t know and wasn’t acquainted with before. Afterwards there was a sense of that was what they were trying to communicate with me, but I don’t know these people. I don’t know their background or their connections.

Go back to the first part again. Does it worry me that it might divide the vote?

Jen Kirby

Yes.

Lee Busby

What would worry me more, is that the Alabama voters didn’t have a chance to vote for somebody that they believed in. That’s what I have to focus on. This is not party politics, not for me.

Jen Kirby

What kind of feedback have you gotten from fellow Alabamians about your write-in candidacy?

Lee Busby

I’ve gotten huge feedback, some of it good, some of it bad. You can probably guess where the bad was. I got labeled by what I presume were Moore supporters that I was everything from a Democratic operative planted to pull Republican party votes away to a vile sell-out scumbag. You know, things like that.

Jen Kirby

Oh, wow.

Lee Busby

On the Democratic side, I did not hear anything near as vile, but I do get vibrations that there’s a concern because it draws away those moderate conservatives who couldn’t vote for the far right, and out of desperation were pushed to the Democratic candidate. We have people down here in Alabama who are Republican voters — active Republican voters — who have Doug Jones signs in their yard.

Jen Kirby

On the good side?

Lee Busby

On the good side, Jen, I’m hearing from people throughout Alabama, the nation, and the world, saying simple things like, “Thanks, thanks for doing this. Now I’ve got somebody I can vote for, thank you.” I don’t want to sound Churchillian, but the eyes of the nation are on us, and to some extent the world. But this is an Alabama fight, we’ll fight it here in Alabama, and it will be Alabama’s choice. We’ll somewhat define ourselves by this. There are a lot of things that define us, not a single election, but this is a factor.

Jen Kirby

The political climate is so polarized; each of us feel so fiercely divided into tribes. I think this has proven especially true in the Alabama election, and imagine that’s why your announcement resonated. Maybe the outcome isn’t as important as a candidate speaking out and trying to represent the middle-ground for Alabama voters. How do you interpret it?

Lee Busby

The outcome is important to me. It’s critical to me. But this fight simply needed to be lit. You talked about tribes. The biggest tribe in Alabama is the one that I’m representing, and what you have on either end is a party trying to convince [voters] and scare them, that without [these parties] peoples’ votes don’t count. I don’t buy that.

Jen Kirby

You’ve mentioned that social media would be key to gaining support on such a tight deadline. What has your social media strategy been?

Lee Busby

The strategy got turned upside down Monday morning [November 27]. The original strategy had been to start out with an organized three- or four-day social media push, and from there be able to convert that to media attention at the national level for simple exposure, but most importantly, at the state and local level, for some more in-depth analysis and to coach the people on how to [do a write-in ballot]. And then, Monday morning broke, and it just completely inverted. We had national media all over it because of the attention the election is getting. Now we’re starting to get the more focused attention from local and state-level media.

We’re trying to hit the small-town newspapers because a lot of the people that aren’t reached by social media still rely on the small-town papers, which are very strong here in Alabama, to help inform readers of what the choices are. Then you still have to get, in the last critical few days, the coaching of you go in, there will be a box here on the ballot, you color that box in and you write L-E-E B-U-S-B-Y. It’s still a formidable task.

Jen Kirby

How has it been going?

Lee Busby

There’s encouraging anecdotal evidence. Empirically, it’s going to depend on somebody with a lot more polling expertise and access to that ability than I’ve got. We’re bumping into these stories from people out in the state who are on a contracting job and the carpenter’s saying, “I’m voting for that write-in guy.”

I swear to you this story is true. I’m jogging down the street Friday [December 1] morning, trying to take a sanity run so the adrenaline subsides enough that I can think clearly, and I hear somebody yelling my name. I look around and there’s a vehicle coming down the road about a half-block away.

This person is yelling my name, waving, and I didn’t know who it was or what it was about. I went back and they stuck their hand out the window, handed me three $20 bills, and said “good luck to you.” It turns out I knew that person, and he’s a Democrat.

Jen Kirby

Speaking of, have you done any formal fundraising?

Lee Busby

We just went live December 1 with the donate button on our website, having jumped through the wickets on the legal side to get set up. That’s done, and contributions are coming in. They’re small. These are not big fish, but they’re coming in from all over, not just Alabama.

Jen Kirby

That’s amazing.

Lee Busby

It is.

Jen Kirby

How about staff and volunteers?

Lee Busby

I’m standing all alone and unafraid Monday morning, when the phones light up and the emails are lighting up. I had not planned it to be a full-bore movement, but when the national media came at it, it operated that way. I called two former marines who were in law school and they grabbed a buddy ran over.

We went out and bought three extra phones so we could handle the calls, and we went from there. It’s a volunteer team that’s very small, and we are getting offers through the website and Facebook to volunteer. Our problem is catching up enough to direct those offers into meaningful, effective work.

Jen Kirby

Finally, you create sculptures of fallen US soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. I watched the video of your studio, and the likenesses seem so real. Are you self-taught, and how did you get into that?

Lee Busby

I am pretty much self-taught. There is a very talented sculptor in town who I’d say is internationally acclaimed, his name is Caleb O’Connor, he’s always mentored me on an informal basis.

People ask me how I got into it, and I don’t know, I retired, I had some time on my hands, I started playing with clay, eventually that clay started looking like people, and eventually it even started looking like the people I was trying to sculpt, and I found myself drawn to service members who’d been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So that’s what I do, and working with their families has been the most meaningful part of that. I won’t talk about much because I’ll tear up.