Recently, at a forum I was asked the question, “Which governor made a difference in Alabama politics?” The question caught me off guard because I really had not thought about that obvious inquiry.
My knee-jerk reaction and answer to the insightful questioner was George Wallace and I gave a litany of reasons for my response. Later, after contemplation, I felt that my answer was probably correct. Wallace would be the appropriate choice, simply because he was governor so long. I prefaced my reply to the inquisitor with the caveat,“You know, I’m not as old as you might think.” Therefore, I qualified my answer with,“Let’s talk about the governors since 1954.”
I actually knew Wallace and served as his representative in the Legislature during my first term in the House and his last term as governor. I met Wallace earlier when I was a page and he was a fiery first-term governor in the 1960s. He would often invite me down to his office to talk politics.
One day, he got a whimsical look on his face and asked me how old I was. I replied,“Governor, I’m 32 now. I’m not a page anymore. I’m your representative, you know.” He looked at me and smiled and said,“Huh. Well, I guess I’ve been governor almost all of your life, haven’t I?” I quickly replied,“Yes sir, and I guess you will be governor all the rest of my life. I don’t think anybody else will ever be governor.”
Indeed, George Wallace was elected governor four times and he elected his wife Lurleen one more time. That feat will never be matched again in Alabama politics. If you serve as governor that long, you are bound to leave some sort of legacy. In Wallace’s case the state had to implement a good many “Great Society” social programs. The most profound would be Medicaid. However, Wallace’s premier legacy would be the Alabama Junior College System.
“Big Jim” Folsom was governor two terms. He is known throughout the state as the father of the farm-to-market road program. Most of the rural roads in the state were built by Big Jim’s administration. Besides being the father of the farm-tomarket program, Big Jim was the father of another governor, Jim Folsom, Jr.
Although Little Jim was governor for only a couple of years, he will always be known as the governor who lured Mercedes to Alabama. Jim Folsom, Jr. was born in the Governor’s Mansion while Big Jim was in his first term as governor and he holds the distinction of serving as lieutenant governor longer than anyone in state history.
Many political observers referred to Governor Fob James as “Fumbling Fob.” Old Fob served as governor two terms, although not in succession. Fob also left a legacy.
During his first term, the state got a windfall from selling some of our oil reserves in the gulf to the big oil companies. Being a businessman, Fob felt that the conservative and prudent thing to do would be to save the principal and only spend the interest of the corpus. Thus, he created the Oil and Gas Heritage Fund. That interest has helped bolster the beleaguered General Fund over the years.
In recent years, our governors really have not left any indelible mark. The probable reason is their lack of legislative power.
Bob Riley was powerless, primarily because he was a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature. They treated him with disdain.
Thus far, Robert Bentley has had the same fate as Riley in the legislative arena. This is perplexing given that Bentley is a Republican with a Republican legislature. He and the Legislature have been on the same page with the right-wing social issues that have been front and center. However, the Legislature has shut him out when it comes to the state purse strings. This current session is a perfect example.
The reason for Bentley’s irrelevance is because he is simply too much of a nice guy. That demeanor and persona make him extremely popular with the people of Alabama. However, he does not have the killer instinct or political savvy of Wallace. In politics, and especially in the legislative arena, nice guys finish last.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.