TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — For Alabamians who can’t stomach voting for an alleged pedophile or a Democrat in the special Senate election, there’s a third option: Lee Busby, a retired Marine colonel who sculpts busts of fallen soldiers as a hobby.
Busby’s running a write-in campaign for the seat vacated when President Donald Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and even he knows his campaign is a long shot.
“We showed up in the polls last Monday at 5 percent by name,” he told VICE News. “That is empowering to people.”
Busby’s an unlikely savior for conflicted Alabama voters. He’s a lifelong Republican and served as vice chief of staff to Gen. John Kelly, now the current White House chief of staff, but he's never run for office before. In his spare time, he sculpts, a hobby he takes seriously enough that he enrolled in art classes at University of Alabama to learn the craft.
And since launching his campaign just 15 days before the election, Busby has raised little money, aired no ads, and done minimal face-to-face campaigning, preferring instead to use earned media to get the word out about his bid.
The Saturday before the election, Busby’s not out shaking hands or delivering speeches — he’s spending his morning at the foundry on AU’s campus, bronzing his latest sculpture, a bust of Jerome Murkerson, a Marine from Alabama who was shot by a sniper during a tour in Iraq.
Scanning the bust for imperfections, Busby points to the medals decorating the soldier’s uniform. “This tells a story to those who are able to read it,” he says.
But with many voters in the deep-red state viewing Republican Roy Moore — who’s faced allegations from multiple women that he sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers and he was twice their age — as an unacceptable option, there seems to be some appetite for an alternative in Alabama.
The state’s senior senator, Republican Richard Shelby, said on CNN over the weekend that he believed the allegations and couldn’t stomach voting for Moore, and instead wrote in another Republican. And the Alabama secretary of state’s office issued guidance last month on how to cast a write-in ballot in the race due to a “large number of requests.”
While the allegations against Moore have upended what should’ve been an easily winnable race for the Republican and given Democrat Doug Jones a shot at a win, Busby insists he’s not running because of that. He danced around the allegations when asked, declining to pass judgment on the GOP candidate.
“I don't believe or disbelieve the women. I find them credible. They've got a side. He's got a side. I don't know what took place there,” he said.
He also cautioned that, as more sexual assault allegations come out against prominent men across American society, the public should avoid jumping to conclusions.
“We’re going to have to walk the balance between not tolerating people who abuse their power and not mob-lynching people before the facts have come out and been adjudicated in the processes that were described,” Busby said.
His issue with Moore is the candidate’s “sense of self-righteousness.”
“Forget the allegations — there's this sort of this air of self-righteousness…that sort of presumes that only they know how to live out our values.
“It’s more, 'I know what represents our Christian values more than everybody else and this is what it is,'” he said. “I admire a man who takes a stand on principle but I don't admire a man that uses his office — where we empowered him with the trust — put his hand on a Bible, vowed to uphold the Constitution for all of us and the laws of Alabama, and then uses his office as a vehicle for his various views.”
Busby’s got a steep hill to climb to even make an impact on the race — Alabama law states that write-in votes won’t be counted unless the total number of write-in ballots exceeds the difference between the two leading candidates, once the other votes are fully tallied.
Wearing mirrored aviators and smoking a cigar on a chilly December day in Tuscaloosa, Busby at least looks like the kind of candidate who could stare down an impossible task and pull it off.
“People think that courage is only the kind that this man exhibited on the battlefield,” he said, referencing the statue. “It's not. People here in Alabama have the chance to exhibit their own personal courage in their own everyday life and take 20 minutes and go out and vote for whoever they feel best represents them.”
And if he doesn’t win this time, there’s a chance he could run again in the future.
“Never say never,” Busby said.