Beasley named as one of 12 most influential Alabamians

posted on:
January 26, 2009

author:
Dana Beyerle

jere beasley Beasley named as one of 12 most influential AlabamiansAt a time when the United States is being led by the first black and fifth youngest president, the most influential Alabamians remain largely white, older and male.

The list of the 12 most influential Alabamians, as chosen by a panel of editors at newspapers in Florence, Gadsden and Tuscaloosa, does not include a woman and lists only one black.

The average age among the group of power brokers is 65, with only two on the list being younger than 60.

“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 young people, blacks and women are being 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.

Many longtime Alabamians who have seen influence exerted for decades in the Legislature or in other arenas rate Paul Hubbert, chief executive officer of the Alabama Education Association, as the most influential person in the state.

Hubbert is in his 40th year as the head of 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 organization’s political action money to help elect candidates to the House and Senate, which often increases his influence in the Legislature.

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.”

The subjective list of Alabama’s 12 most influential people involve those in a variety of fields. 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 allow them to guide the financial and physical well being of a significant number of Alabamians.

Lonnie Strickland, professor of strategic management at the University of Alabama 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.”

Retired Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt said influence can be wielded in negative and positive ways, depending on who’s handling the scales.

Flynt said most of the 12 people on the list act in their self-interests or are surrogates acting in the interests of their groups. He added that a true 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.”

The following is an alphabetical listing of those who made the list and describes why each person was chosen:

 

Jere Beasley

Founding shareholder
Beasley Allen Law Firm

Beasley, 73, is a leading partner in Beasley Allen, a national plaintiff’s law firm in Montgomery. He’s a former lieutenant governor who ran unsuccessfully for governor twice and turned to law full time in 1979.

The courtroom is where he made his mark and headlines.

He is chastised as the legal devil who helped make Alabama a “tort hell” because of successful lawsuits and verdicts, often against big business. He also draws praise from injured plaintiffs for helping them get what they believe they deserve.

When Gov. Bob Riley needed a skilled lawyer to sue companies that reportedly harmed the state, he hired a firm that hired Beasley.

Beasley’s wins include an $11.9 billion jury verdict in a dispute over oil royalties, although most of the verdict was overturned on appeal. His firm also won a $4.85 billion settlement over a prescription drug; a $700 million environmental settlement over PCBs in Anniston; and a $581 million predatory lending verdict.

Matt McDonald, a Mobile lawyer and group counsel for the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, said Beasley is the last of the populist “stick-up-for-the-little-guy, going-to-get-those-big-guys” lawyers.

“His closing arguments end with ‘if you don’t deliver a message, if you don’t get those guys, they’re going to be popping corks of champagne,'” McDonald said.

He added that trial lawyer success epitomized by Beasley led to legislative tort reform efforts to neutralize a Supreme Court that was considered pro-plaintiff/pro-lawyer.

Beasley attributes his success to growing up in small-town Barbour County “among rural people.”

“I learned a lot from my momma who ran a country store as I worked there as a kid,” Beasley said. “I learned you have to treat people right.”

 

David Bronner

Chief executive officer
Retirement Systems of Alabama

Bronner, 64, determines investment policies for the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which holds the financial future of thousands of state and local government employees.

Bronner is a former state finance director who took over the RSA in 1973. At the time, RSA had about $500 million but the state owed it $1.5 billion.

By the end of 2007, before the 2008 recession, the RSA had more than $32 billion in assets, making the pension fund the nation’s 13th largest.

Bronner describes himself as a conservative investor who prefers a solid return over flashy numbers. He’s taken losses, once with a $250 million investment in US Airways that didn’t get off the ground.

His philosophy of preferring middling returns to dangerous junk bond investments earns the RSA enough money to keep the fund routinely solvent and prevent catastrophic losses.

He’s also involved in industrial development, once writing a $300 million check as a bridge loan to a steel rail car company for its Colbert County plant. He also has invested RSA money in other endeavors, namely the construction of a half dozen golf courses, including ones in the Shoals and Gadsden area. The investment has pumped tourist money into the state and made Alabama a tourist destination.

Hubbert, in addition to his role with the AEA, is chairman of the RSA teacher’s retirement and health insurance board. He said Bronner’s investments in Alabama and the golf courses are powerful economic engines.

“The golf course income may not make a large impact on the infrastructure, but it encourages tourism that does,” Hubbert said.

He said Bronner has taken advantage of tax depreciation laws to ensure that his long-term real estate holdings produce a profit.

“I really think while you can have power without money, you can have power with money,” Hubbert said. “He has power and money and makes decisions. He does a good job of marketing the state and its benefits.”

 

Paul Hubbert

Executive secretary
Alabama Education Association

Hubbert, 73, is a teacher by education and training. He and AEA associate executive secretary Joe Reed merged black and white education organizations in 1969, forming a modern and unified AEA.

Hubbert made his first mark in 1971 when Gov. George Wallace tried to divert state money designated for education to the retirement system. Hubbert had taken on the political giant and won.

After the fight, Hubbert formed a political action committee and began giving millions of dollars in election cycles. Hubbert said he raised about $764,000 for his PAC in 1974, an astronomical sum then.

Not afraid to work with or challenge any governor, Hubbert currently is suing Gov. Bob Riley over the state school board’s double-dipping policy that affects Hubbert’s current and future legislative allies. Riley wants to end the practice of state legislators also working for the two-year college system.

One year after a successful liver transplant, Hubbert won the 1990 Democratic nomination for governor but lost the general election to incumbent Republican Guy Hunt. He never looked back.

Hubbert’s legislative victories in the last two decades include statewide kindergarten, reducing student-teacher ratios, bond issues to improve facilities, health insurance and sick leave, a sound retirement system, employee raises and equalized state funding.

Today, Hubbert’s influence is even greater. He’s vice chairman of the Democratic Party and is chairman of the $12 billion teacher’s retirement system board, which is part of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

Like him or hate him, Hubbert’s influence as the head of the AEA, which acts like a union, coupled with his ability to use members to lobby legislators make interesting politics as he challenges governors and wins.

Just how long Hubbert will remain at the helm of the AEA is anyone’s guess.

“I think about it more now than I have in a long time,” Hubbert said of retirement. “My preference is to leave in time to enjoy some life, but I don’t know when, and I haven’t set a time.”

 

Robert Lowder

Chairman and CEO
Colonial BancGroup Inc.

Lowder, 66, is a successful businessman. He is chairman and chief executive officer of Colonial BancGroup Inc., a $27 billion financial company.

Colonial has 340 bank offices in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Texas.

The bank had been a sound investment but like nearly all bank stocks in the last year, it has seen better days. As of October, Lowder owned 7.7 million shares.

Lowder is trying to protect Colonial with $550 million from the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which was set up by the Bush administration to assist struggling financial institutions.

While successful in the business world, Lowder gets his influence mantle either because of the perception that he calls the shots at Auburn University or because he really does.

He’s been an Auburn board of trustee member for 26 years, defeating gubernatorial efforts to remove him.

Lowder has been praised or blamed for reportedly hiring and firing the last several Auburn football coaches as well as university presidents. In 2003, Lowder’s corporate jet carried four Auburn representatives to court Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino in a failed attempt to replace then-Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville.

Two years ago, ESPN magazine stated Lowder was the most powerful college booster in the nation. ESPN called him “a tiger of a trustee” because of tentacles that reached from his bank to other trustees.

He’s also a major philanthropist, giving $20 million to Auburn University and even giving to the University of Alabama.

Flynt said he believes Lowder still pulls Auburn’s strings but not as much any more since Auburn was cited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for trustees exerting too much influence.

“Lowder runs the university for his narrow self-interest,” Flynt said. “It’s not like he’s interested in the long-term future of the university in terms of its rankings or quality of public education.”

Lowder declined comment.

 

Charles McCrary

President
Alabama Power Co.

McCrary, 57, is much like the guy in the cell phone commercial who stands in front of thousands of back-ups focusing on one customer.

He heads Alabama Power Co., the state’s largest utility which serves nearly 1.4 million customers across the lower three-fourths of the state.

Alabama Power has 6,900 employees and listed operating revenues of $5.36 billion in 2007.

McCrary, like his predecessors, is a significant player in Alabama’s industrial recruiting efforts. Unlike former Alabama Power Co. President Elmer Harris, he doesn’t seem to be as overtly or as visibly involved in politics.

“It’s a powerful organization and he’s got a lot of tools in his toolbox,” Tuscaloosa developer Stan Pate said of McCrary. “He walks into that job with the credibility that goes with it. You put with it his credentials and the relationships, and like it or not, when they want to weigh in on something, they do.”

McCrary, who is chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, has been involved in recruiting major industries, including the state’s latest megaproject -‘ the ThyssenKrupp steelmaker in southwest Alabama.

“People of Alabama don’t understand the tremendous input in economic development Alabama Power has,” Riley said. “Charles’ greatest asset is he can take a complex problem and simplify it down.”

McCrary has been with Alabama Power since 1970 and has had several senior management positions with Alabama Power’s parent, the Southern Co.

He is chairman of Children’s Hospital and serves on numerous boards, including Regions Financial Corp., Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., Protective Life Corp., the Business Council of Alabama and others.

“He walks softly and carries a big stick of his organization behind him,” Pate said. “He is right up in the middle of every significant issue that involves the state.”

 

Jerry Newby

President
Alabama Farmers Federation

Newby, 61, a farmer in Limestone County, was elected president of the Alabama Farmers Federation in 1998.

He holds a dual position as president of the Alfa Insurance Co. and related companies that have more than 1 million customers in 12 states.

Through a network of Alabama Farmers Federation offices in each county, Alfa, as it’s commonly called, can alert and mobilize a significant number of influential farmers and property owners much like Hubbert can mobilize his school teachers.

Alfa is either praised or blamed for the property tax rates in Alabama, which are among the country’s lowest. Alfa says it’s a bottom-up organization that only gets involved in issues when called on by its members.

Newby was elected president of Alfa after Goodwin Myrick retired. He changed the organization’s political style from one of using blunt political force to defeat opponents to one of staying on the sidelines and choosing its battles. Few people, however, doubt the organization’s influence.

Alfa is an affiliate of the powerful American Farm Bureau organization. He realigned Alfa with the American Farm Bureau Federation, healing a split that occurred over insurance issues during Myrick’s tenure.

Newby also negotiated with trial lawyers when the state sought to increase vehicle minimum liability requirements. He earlier negotiated to require mandatory vehicle insurance, something Myrick resisted.

Alfa spokesman Dave Rickey said it’s no secret that Alfa is publicly different now in its approach to politics. “We’re more issue driven as defined by our members,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that Alfa, unlike other organizations, has its own money from the insurance side. Customers become members, helping contribute to Alfa’s political arm.

“We’re conservative on tax issues and we’ve long been known to oppose gambling,” Rickey said. “We’re watching issues. We know taxes will be a volatile issue this (legislative) year.”

Newby declined a request for an interview.

 

Malcolm Portera

Chancellor
University of Alabama System

Portera, 62, is chief executive officer of the three-campus University of Alabama System, the state’s largest.

The system has doctoral research universities in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville and the internationally known UAB Health System, which includes UAB Hospital and about 10 more significant health operations.

In 2007, the UA System budget was $4.3 billion and had 25,051 employees. The 2008 fall enrollment was 50,632, continuing significant growth posted in recent years, according to university officials.

Portera has an earned doctorate degree in political science from the University of Alabama. He is a former president of Mississippi State University who returned to Alabama as the system chancellor.

He’s involved in regional education circles, serving as a chairman of the Council of Presidents of the Southeastern Universities Research Association and as vice chairman of the Alabama Research Alliance, based on his biography.

He’s also on several public and private boards of directors and has been an integral player in Alabama’s industrial recruiting.

Carl Ferguson, retired director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, said Portera is heavily involved in all aspects of education and economic development.

“He has the capacity to identify critical issues facing whatever organization he’s working with and he is very perceptive,” Ferguson said. “He finds talent to solve problems and works with them.”

He said Portera can bring forces together, even if they are unaware that they’re on the same team, and have them work on the same problem.

Former Gov. Jim Folsom, who lured Mercedes-Benz to Alabama in 1993, setting the stage for the state’s automobile assembly plant bonanza, said Portera worked tirelessly on the Mercedes project, calling him the “university’s point man on Mercedes.”

“Probably, his outstanding characteristic is he’s a real people person,” said Folsom, now the lieutenant governor. “He communicates well and works well with a broad spectrum of people, not only academicians but also with the business community, lawmakers, local leaders.”

 

Joe Reed

Associate executive secretary
Alabama Education Association

It’s not necessarily Reed’s affiliation with the AEA that earns him a spot on the list. Instead, his chairmanship of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the predominantly black political wing of the Democratic Party, puts him in a position of influence.

Reed, 70, uses his group’s base, the court systems and legislative reapportionment apparatus to draw legislative, state school board and congressional district lines.

His reapportionment efforts keep Alabama’s Legislature majority Democrat even though Alabama votes Republican in statewide and national races.

Reed drafted legislative district plans in 1982 and 1992, which increased black representation in the House from 13 to 27 and from three to eight in the state Senate.

Since then, he has drawn and successfully helped pass reapportionment and redistricting plans that favor blacks and Democrats.

Reed’s efforts have resulted in Alabama’s Legislature reflecting the state’s black population percentage. As a result of Reed’s efforts, Alabama also has a congressional district that has elected two blacks since 1992 and two blacks to the state school board.

“We’re the only state in the nation that has black elected legislative representation equal to black population,” he said.

Reed and others formed the Alabama Democratic Conference in 1960 to get blacks to support the presidential ticket of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

“After Kennedy got elected, most state (Democratic parties) abandoned that minority wing,” said state Rep. James Buskey, D-Mobile. “The state of Alabama (along with) Joe Reed and those people who initially founded it, all those people stayed together. Joe Reed was sort of like the glue that kept them together that period of time.”

 

Bob Riley

Governor
State of Alabama

Riley, 64, by virtue of his office, wields tremendous influence because of his constitutional authority. He can appoint hundreds of people to administration positions, and he also has legislative veto authority and the ability to use the governor’s office to influence public opinion, although not always successfully.

When he took office in 2003, he got the Legislature to send a $1.2 billion tax constitutional amendment to voters. They soundly defeated the measure at the polls.

Flynt said Riley “did the right thing” with the tax proposal despite overwhelming opposition, giving voters an opportunity to have their say.

Governors can use the office to greatly influence public and legislative opinion, which Riley has done.

The governor submits annual spending budgets to the Legislature and then determines whether to sign or reject them. The governor also decides state lawsuits to file and can appoint U.S. senators, state judges and district attorneys, if vacancies occur. Governors appoint most university board of trustee members and preside over the state school board, giving the governor the chance to influence its direction, as evidenced by Riley’s backing of Bradley Byrne as chancellor of the two-year college system.

“On top of the appointment powers listed is his ability to present a budget before the Legislature,” said Carl Grafton, retired professor of political science at Auburn-Montgomery. He and his wife, Anne Permaloff, have written two books about gubernatorial power in Alabama.

“Whenever you have control of the agenda with the budget, not to mention like he does other bills, everyone is working off your agenda.”

A former congressman, Riley has used his power and public relations skills to secure jobs for Alabama. In the process, he has diversified the state’s economy in an attempt to spread the wealth and protect it as much as possible from downturns in the national economy.

“On top of everything, (Riley) is competent,” Grafton said. “That’s evidenced by the results (in industrial recruiting).”

But gubernatorial power is temporary as Riley, like others, is prohibited by the constitution from staying in office more than two consecutive terms. He is in his second term.

 

Dowd Ritter

Chairman and CEO
Regions Financial Corp.

Ritter, 61, is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, the state’s largest bank.

Three years ago, the Birmingham Business Journal named Ritter its Business Person of the Year. In 1998, he was named CEO of the Year by the Birmingham News.

Regions has $144 billion in assets, nearly 2,000 bank offices and 400 other financial offices through subsidiary Morgan Keegan & Co. It employs about 31,000 and netted $1.3 billion last year, the company said.

Ritter is the former president and CEO of AmSouth Bancorporation, which was absorbed by Regions.

Ritter’s influence extends beyond heading the state’s largest bank. He serves on boards of directors of Alabama Power Co., Protective Life Corporation, UAB Health Services Foundation, the Business Council of Alabama, Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and McWane Inc., and is chairman of the board of trustees of Birmingham Southern College.

“Most of us don’t have the focus or commitment to do what it takes, and that’s where Dowd Ritter is uncompromising for his vision of Regions,” Strickland said.

State Banking Superintendent John Harrison knows Ritter on a professional basis.

“Certainly history has proven he’s a dynamic leader, certainly in the financial circles in the Southeast,” Harrison said.

Ritter, Lowder and Bronner, since they control assets that are at the mercy of the economy and fickle investors, face challenges in guiding their organizations through tumultuous times.

Harrison said Ritter’s influence will be tested again as he faces the challenge of putting out “a positive message to all of his customers in light of all the negative publicity” generated by banks across the country.

Ritter declined an interview request, but Regions released comments he made during a recent conference call that reflect his philosophy.

“We expect recently enacted legislation will provide some broad industry relief, but Regions is not waiting for the storm to blow over,” Ritter said. “We have identified and are aggressively dealing with credit issues, and we’re focused on building profitable relationships with our customers.”

 

Nick Saban

Head football coach
University of Alabama

Saban, 57, in only his second year at the University of Alabama, took a 7-6 football team in 2007 to this year’s Southeastern Conference championship game.

Alabama lost to Florida and then fell to Utah in the Sugar Bowl, to finish 12-2 and No. 5 in the Associated Press college poll.

His team was No. 1 for at least five weeks and he was recognized as the coach of the year by numerous organizations.

Last year, Forbes magazine named Saban the most powerful person in college sports for his record $4 million salary and his complete control of the football program that Forbes said was worth $72 million the previous year.

“I believe that’s still true; he gets what he wants and needs,” said former University of Alabama System board of trustee member Joe Fine.

He has immeasurable influence on his team, the university and the Crimson Tide’s massive fan base statewide.

Strickland said Saban is powerful because he’s focused on results and has the ability to get his players to buy into his vision.

“People flock around Saban on the basis that he’s absolutely committed to producing national championships and won’t tolerate anything less than that,” Strickland said.

Almost as soon as Saban got off the plane as Alabama’s new coach two years ago, his hiring sparked hope within the Alabama football community that he could resurrect a football program that had just endured years of NCAA probation.

“It’s my observation that Saban is the most disciplined person I’ve ever witnessed,” Fine said.

“Look at the effect he has had on the state and the university,” Fine added. “Winning football games does an amazing thing to a university as far as enrollment and fundraising. That’s important here.”

Saban, like Lowder, is a benefactor. In June, he and his wife said they’d give $1 million for first-generation scholarships at the University of Alabama.

 

Richard Shelby

U.S. Senator

Shelby, 74, elected to Congress in 1986, is Alabama’s senior senator. He is able to secure 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.

Shelby is the senior Republican, or ranking party member, on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee that oversees the banking industry. In his position, he opposed the bank industry bailout.

Shelby is also a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Shelby’s influence comes from his ability to secure federal funding for Alabama and protect agencies that are important to the state.

His subcommittee oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration center in Huntsville, the Economic Development Authority, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice.

As senior Republican on the Transportation, Treasury and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, Shelby secures federal highway funds.

Stewart has watched Shelby’s entire political career that began in the Alabama State House in the 1970s. He said Shelby’s experience, ability and seniority in the U.S. 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 he and the state have survived well under a Democratic Congress during the past two years.

Shelby is a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and remains a sought-after voice on the nation’s intelligence.

“He’d ride herd on the CIA, and the CIA director wouldn’t want to get on his bad side,” Stewart said.

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