Feb 12 2007
By Al Benn
The hallowed halls of Congress are a long way from Alabama's Black Belt, but U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby is comfortable in both settings.
He's a millionaire who's just as happy munching on barbecue or taking the last bite out of a Moon Pie somewhere in his home state.
His popularity crosses many boundaries, but his empathy for those who struggle to make a living has made him welcome throughout the state.
While many of his wealthy Senate colleagues were at ritzy functions Saturday in Washington, Shelby was on a little boat heading for a tiny peninsula hugging the Alabama River 100 miles south of Montgomery.
It was his first chance to ride the ferry from Camden to Gee's Bend and then back again to the capital of Wilcox County.
Shelby and his Senate colleagues are wined, dined and courted for their political support. What he got in Wilcox County were pleas to keep that little boat running back and forth across the Alabama River.
"We need the ferry," Wilcox County Commissioner John Matthews told Shelby during a stop at the Alabama-Tombigbee Planning Commission office.
Shelby told Matthews and others in the room that he will continue to support the ferry, which is going to need federal and state help because there aren't enough passengers to meet operational expenses.
He also made it clear that help from Washington can go only so far.
"I don't think public officials should do everything," Shelby said. "I do what I can, but people also have to help themselves at times."
An hour before his meeting in Camden, Shelby shivered with others on the ferry during the short trip across the river.
"I've been waiting to ride this since it began," said Shelby, as the sun began to set. "I've done what I could to help make all of this possible."
What got Shelby to the position he's in today is his insistence on visiting as many communities as possible during Congressional recesses.
It wasn't a problem during his decade in the U.S. House, but when he beat Jeremiah Denton for Denton's Senate seat 20 years ago, it meant expanding his visits to include cities from the Tennessee Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.
Denton spent much of his first and only term inside the Beltway and lost touch with the voters who put him in office. It cost him dearly, and Shelby beat him in 1986.
Shelby could feel Alabama's political winds shifting toward a more conservative direction and his decision to become a Republican was a big reason he's still in the Senate.
What endears him to the people he represents is his ability to get down to the grassroots level and listen to complaints and suggestions.
He's never lost his affection for the Black Belt -- developed during his days in the House -- and that's why he helped push through a $100 million study on extending Interstate 85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi line.
If the expensive study shows the project is feasible, it will cost billions to complete, but Shelby is convinced it will help develop the Black Belt, one of the poorest regions in the country.
Mary Godbold listened to Shelby's comment on I-85 and then put in a pitch to bring it through Wilcox County. At this point, the route is likely to go far north of Wilcox, but Shelby said all options are open right now.
The highlight of his trip to Gee's Bend was an opportunity to speak to the women who make quilts in the little isolated community.
One of the quilts cost $5,000, leading to laughs after Shelby said he couldn't afford it. Everyone in the room knew he could probably buy it and most of the other quilts on display.
On the way back to Camden, he let it be known that he's looking forward to his next election in four years.
Shelby would love to pick up some votes in Gee's Bend, but he knows it's solidly Democratic.
That political fact of life didn't stop him from admiring the quilts and the skill of the women who make them.
He didn't get where he is by writing off anyone.