Jan 25 2009
Alabama’s 12 most influential people
By Dana Beyerle
At a time when the United States is led by the first black and fifth youngest president, the most influential Alabamians remain largely white, older and male.
When a panel of editors at New York Times Regional Newspapers in Florence, Gadsden and Tuscaloosa selected the 12 most influential people in Alabama, one black and no women made the list. The average age among the group of power brokers is 65, with only two on the list younger than 60.
The editors attempted to choose people based on their ability to protect and promote their interests, taking into account factors such as the positions they hold, competence and experience, including accomplishments to date. The editors also relied, in part, on input from state leaders and experts in various fields, including some on the list.
“It’s discouraging that our state doesn’t have more younger people, more minorities and more women in positions of leadership and influence,” said Bill Stewart, a retired University of Alabama political science professor. “It shows we have a long way to go because blacks and women are still not in the inner circle as far as leadership cliques are concerned.”
Stewart said it’s easy to become pessimistic about the state’s future when those demographics are cut out of
decision-making processes that affect Alabama residents.
“The nation has inaugurated our first black president, but our state is clearly not showing enough progress,” Stewart said.
The list of the state’s most influential people is subjective, of course, and editors did not attempt to rank the 12, but many longtime Alabamians who for decades have seen influence exerted in the Legislature and other arenas rate Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, as the most influential person in the state.
Hubbert is in his 40th year as the head of the AEA, a membership organization of K-12 teachers, support personnel, administrators, two-year-college employees, retirees and college students.
Hubbert uses his influence in the Legislature to get state dollars for education and to kill measures he perceives as harmful to his members. He also uses the union’s political action money to help elect candidates to the House and Senate, which is often successful, thus perpetuating, if not increasing, his influence in the Legislature.
The AEA is recognized as one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the nation. That reputation is largely because of Hubbert’s ability to channel the weight of its 103,000 members. His members live in districts of legislators who write the education budget and related school bills. They also go into House and Senate hallways when crucial bills are being debated, serving as a powerful lobbying force.
“We have a strong membership base,” Hubbert said in a recent interview. “Without the organization behind me, I’m just another lobbyist on the Hill.”
A variety of fields are represented on the list of Alabama’s 12 most influential people. Their positions at the helms of banks, universities, the state employees’ retirement fund, the teachers’ union, an energy company, a college football team and a land ownership organization give them influence that, directly and indirectly, affects the welfare of Alabama’s citizens.
Lonnie Strickland, professor of strategic management at the UA graduate school of business, said a powerful leader is one who has a “deep-seated commitment, a wish to achieve and a vision.”
“They focus all of their energy on their unique strategies,” Strickland said. “They don’t do it like everyone else, and they’re willing to take large risks.”
Wayne Flynt, a social commentator and retired Auburn University history professor, said influence can be wielded for good or ill.
Flynt said most of the 12 people on the list act in their self-interests or are surrogates acting in the interests of the groups they represent. He added that a truly influential person is able to “transcend their self-interest into a greater interest of the whole state” and “even act opposite his own self-interest.”
Richard Shelby -U.S. senator
Shelby, 74, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1987. As Alabama’s senior senator, he has secured billions of dollars in federal appropriations for a state that is still below the poverty line in many areas.
Shelby was first elected as a Democrat, but switched parties in the mid-1990s after Washington Democrats shunned him for his conservatism.
He is the ranking Republican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees the banking industry, and on the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee, which oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration center in Huntsville, the Economic Development Authority, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice.
He also is a member of the Appropriations Committee, the Special Committee on Aging and numerous subcommittees, and as a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he is a sought-after voice on national intelligence matters.
Shelby’s influence comes from his ability to secure federal funding for Alabama and protect agencies that are important to the state.
Stewart has watched Shelby’s entire political career — including his eight years in the state Legislature and eight years in the U.S. House before he was elected to the U.S. Senate — and said Shelby’s experience, ability, and seniority in the Senate translates into money for Alabama.
“Alabama’s contribution to the federal treasury is more than matched by the money we get back in grants,” Stewart said. “In terms of the federal programs, we do as well or better because we are a poor state. If we can get discretionary money, we can overcome our lingering poverty.”
Stewart said Shelby may not have as much influence under a Democratic president, but that he and the state have survived well under a Democratic Congress over the past two years.
“He’d ride herd on the CIA, and the CIA director wouldn’t want to get on his bad side,” Stewart said.