- Associated Press - Saturday, June 28, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Republican runoff for state auditor on July 15 features two of Alabama’s best known political mavericks who promise to transform the smallest office in the state Capitol into a center for uncovering wrongdoing.

Mobile attorney Jim Zeigler, known as “Mr. 49 Percent” for losing many close races, takes on retired Shelby County businessman Dale Peterson.

Peterson became an Internet sensation in his 2010 race for agriculture commissioner by posting a YouTube video showing him wearing a white cowboy hat, riding a horse, toting a rifle and promising to run the “thugs and criminals” out of Montgomery. His video attracted 2 million hits and some political pundits declared it one of the best campaign ads of the year. But Peterson ran third in the Republican primary behind two candidates who had the support of the Republican establishment.

Even though Peterson lost his 2010 race, his video made him a popular speaker at Republican functions far beyond Alabama. In 2012, he caught the attention of presidential candidate Herman Cain, who made him chairman of his agriculture advisory committee.

Peterson expects his recognition over the last four years to pay off in a special election where there is no race for governor or U.S. senator to attract voters and turnout is expected to be low. “Name recognition is going to be the only thing that matters,” he said.

Zeigler said he doesn’t consider Peterson his opponent July 15. “My real opponent is low voter turnout and low interest in state auditor,” he said.

Peterson is running for auditor while appealing a 2013 shoplifting conviction in Hoover Municipal Court. His case is scheduled to be heard in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Aug. 25, although his attorney is seeking a delay because of a scheduling conflict.

Peterson was convicted of third-degree theft of property, a misdemeanor, after he was accused of opening a large container of Planter’s cashews in Sam’s Club, eating from the container, and returning it to the shelf before leaving the store. A municipal court judge fined him $1,000 and ordered him to pay Sam’s $13.

Peterson, 68, said the arrest caused him to go to doctors for tests because he couldn’t remember opening the nuts. Doctors found he was having short-term memory problems and put him on medication, which helped, he said.

Ziegler said he’s making no mention of the incident and focusing on his platform.

The auditor’s position is a low-key job. It has $943,000 annual budget - the smallest of any elected official in the state Capitol - for keeping up with $2 billion in state property, including cars, heavy equipment, guns and computers.

On the campaign trail, Peterson says the auditor’s office has no real power, and he will encourage the Legislature to fold the state’s financial auditors, the Examiners of Public Accounts, into the auditor’s office. Then he promises to use the new power to speak out on waste.

“Let me let you know what is going on in Montgomery,” he tells voters.

Zeigler said he’s been a political maverick since his student days at the University of Alabama. He ran as an independent for Student Government Association president and pulled off a rare upset of the “The Machine,” a coalition of fraternities and sororities that have controlled campus politics for generations.

After college, he became a critic of Alabama Power’s electric rates and defeated incumbent Public Service Commission member C.C. “Jack” Owens in 1974. He served one four-year term on the utility regulatory board and did not seek re-election.

From 1982 to 2002, Zeigler narrowly lost races for the state Supreme Court, state treasurer, Court of Civil Appeals and auditor. Those races earned him the nickname of “Mr. 49 Percent.”

Looking back over those loses, Zeigler said, “I could get frequent flyer points to Buck’s Pocket.”

Alabama legend has it that’s where losing politicians are supposed to go to lick their wounds.

Peterson said Zeigler has run enough. “He’s run for every office in the state. He’s run for more offices than the Wallaces,” he said.

In the four-candidate primary on June 3, Peterson got 24 percent and Zeigler received 47 percent. “I’m in the normal range of votes,” Zeigler said of his “Mr. 49 Percent” reputation.

When not running for public office, Zeigler has worked independently and through an organization he helped start, the Taxpayers Defense Fund, to file ethics complaints against public officials and file suits over state spending practices. Zeigler said he’s proudest of his suit that resulted in a settlement that kept part-time government officials from participating in the state employees’ pension program.

If elected, he said he will step up the profile of the auditor’s office, including seeking reimbursement from state employees who report equipment missing but don’t file police reports and filing suits to recover money.

“What I’ve done 30 years as a hobby I will do full-time with the authority of the state auditor’s office,” he said.

Peterson said Zeigler is promising something he can’t deliver under the state Constitution. “He has no authority to do that. That’s the attorney general’s job, not his,” he said.

The winner July 15 faces Democrat Miranda Joseph in the general election Nov. 4.

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