Alabama politics have long been a controversial and mysterious subject. Most of us don’t understand how they work, if indeed they work at all. There are many good reasons for this, especially in recent decades. Steve Flowers served in the Alabama legislature for 14 years from 1986 and has written about this subject for many years. He was a page in the 1960s growing up in Pike County, which he later represented. He got to know the political people and their world over the last 60 years and vividly describes them and their world in “Of Goats & Governors.”
The book focuses on the state’s governors from Big Jim Folsom to Robert Bentley, but it also examines prominent politicians from the State House to the United States Congress. What really sets this book apart is its personal angle. As he knew most of the characters he describes, this is hardly a textbook. It is full of insights that only come from personal experience.
You get to know the people he writes about and the institutions in which they served. Not all were elected officials. Some were very powerful but not elected, such as Paul Hubbert of the Alabama Education Association or Frank Johnson, the powerful federal judge who fought George Wallace over Civil Rights in the 1950s and ‘60s. There are people you never heard of like Miss Mittie. who sat in the Capitol rotunda during legislative sessions and knew where every representative and senator was and their positions on any question. Miss Mittie was very helpful to Flowers when he was a young page sent to find members when important votes loomed. And Shorty Price from Barbour County, who ran for governor every election and never did better than last place, was a stalwart Alabama football fan, rarely sober and a fixture in state politics for nearly half a century.
While there are many colorful characters in this book and jokes people told over the years, the book is a serious effort to describe important politicians and how they operated, from George Wallace to Howell Heflin and many others who have shaped this state since World War II. Flowers, ever a good politician, finds something to like in almost all of them, except Jeremiah Denton who simply did not play the political game at all. Who are his heroes on a statewide basis? Albert Brewer, Heflin and Frank Johnson top the list, while he has many good words about Bill Baxley and George Wallace. He is also willing to point out their shortcomings, so this is not a case of uncritical adulation.
Flowers begins the book by explaining that state politics is about friends and neighbors and local connection, certainly in the rural counties. It is traditionally about personality, not issues. This is largely because the only enduring issue since the 1950s has been race. Since Ronald Reagan’s triumphs, Alabama and the South changed its political allegiance from Democrat to Republican.
As the state’s Republicans gained power, their standard bearers have become more and more conservative, both reflecting people’s attitudes in general and their own leadership. Today the GOP has a super majority in the state legislature and its members fill all the constitutional offices. Flowers does not dwell on the current state of Alabama politics, perhaps because it is a relatively new phenomenon. The book also reflects the author’s rural/small town background. He is from Troy and represented Pike and Barbour counties in the legislature. He does admit that the old small-farmer Alabamian is largely a thing of the past, but feels this characteristic feature is still politically important. Also, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the enfranchisement of African Americans in the 1960s or their being subsequently gerrymandered into political impotence. Blacks have power in Birmingham and Mobile, but large cities have traditionally been underrepresented in state politics. Also, blacks are overwhelmingly Democrats, which also puts them out of power statewide.
The author is conservative and pro-business and, like most Alabama Democrats, has long since switched to the Republican party. But he is not an ideologue and does understand how state politics has worked, certainly since 1946 when Big Jim Folsom was elected governor.
He knows the traditional give and take of personality politics, the roles governors have played and the power that representatives hardly known outside their own districts have in the state legislature. In short, he does know how a bill becomes a law (or, more often, does not), probably far better than members of the current state government do.
This is a book anyone who hopes to understand Alabama and its politics simply must read. It is arranged in sections so that readers may consult it according to their interests. Reading it from cover to cover does find some repetitious identification, but if you consult it section by section that’s not apparent, and the repeating is often helpful as there are many names and places to remember.
This is a book about people and how Alabamians have approached state government. Of course that may change now that the GOP has control, but I doubt it. Alabama is a conservative state, after all, regardless of party labels.
“Of Goats & Governors”
(New South Books, $29.95),
268 pp., ISBN 978-834-3556