Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - State ethics law not tough enough for ole Rankin Fite

  Alabama Senator Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia) has been in the Alabama House and Alabama Senate for over 40 years. That is a record in Alabama history and definitely a record of longevity for any Jefferson County legislator. Senator Waggoner has had a significant impact on behalf of the folks in Jefferson County over his stellar career.

  He has been instrumental in the growth of UAB. In the 1970s, Waggoner sponsored legislation that spearheaded the purchase of 45 blocks in downtown Birmingham for UAB’s expansion. UAB purchased this property for $8.5 million. That would equate to $40 million in today’s dollars and has been invaluable to the growth of UAB.

  Waggoner currently chairs the Senate Rules Committee, a very powerful post. He also likes to honor history, protocol, and precedent. He essentially has his own Civitan Club. It is the Vestavia Civitan Club that meets every third Friday at the Vestavia Country Club. It has about 40 - 50 members. It is a pretty select group of civic leaders, legislators, lobbyists, and Jefferson County power brokers. They attend and belong at Waggoner's invitation.

  He brings only the most elite speakers to his Civitan Club. Waggoner has been on the board of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame for decades and has unparalleled Alabama sports connections. In recent years, he has had Eli Gold, Bobby Humphrey, Charles Barkley, and Gene Hallman to name a few. He also has the top governmental leaders from Washington and Montgomery to the club. They are reluctant to say 'no' to the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. A good many Cabinet members and department heads come to speak. Recently Tom Albritton, the executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, spoke to the Club. Albritton’s appearance reminded me of the origins of our first Alabama Ethics Law.

  Campaign finance laws and ethics disclosure forms for political campaigns and officeholders were enacted throughout the country in the 1970s, mostly in reaction to public outcry for ethics reform after the Watergate corruption. Practically every state passed an ethics law.

  In the 1970s, Alabama had a lot of crafty and crusty veteran legislators. The craftiest of all was the legendary lawmaker and Speaker of the House, Rankin Fite. Fite had done pretty well financially as a lawyer and legislator without any ethics laws. He and his colleagues were not about to succumb to the national trend of passing ethics laws. That did not help the Alabama media from consistently harping on the need for such legislation.

  George Wallace was governor and he had pretty much dismissed ethics reform as an issue. He did not want to put his friends in the legislature on the spot. Wallace had a very harmonious working relationship with the legislature and did not want to step on toes and create a hornet’s nest.

  However, one day late in the legislative session, Wallace decided to get a little good press. He called his legislative buddies in and noted that there were only a few more legislative days left in the session. He said it was too late for anything to pass, much less an ethics bill, so they should throw the press a bone by introducing one.

  The plan was that the House would pass an ethics bill and all of the representatives would get credit for voting for an ethics bill, knowing full well that the Senate would kill it. The senators would then do the same so they could get credit, knowing the House would kill their bill.

  They gleefully went ahead with their plan, and they and Wallace enjoyed their day in the sun.

  Well, the press put a spotlight on the measures like never before and focused on the need for final passage. Things got out of hand and the House succumbed to public opinion. It got to the floor, and once it got to a vote, the representatives were hard-pressed to vote against it.

  Only a handful of House members had the nerve to vote against the ethics measure. One of the few who did was Rankin Fite. A horde of House members and reporters gathered around the legendary crusty ole Speaker and asked why he voted against it. He looked them squarely in the eye and said, “It wasn’t tough enough for me.”

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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