WASHINGTON — It was 2006, and it was not a good year to be a Republican. President George W. Bush’s approval rating had dropped below 40 percent, where it would remain until he left office in 2009. And the GOP was headed toward losing complete control of Congress, which it had maintained with exception of the U.S. Senate for two years in 1990s, since the 1994 Republican revolution.
Meanwhile in Alabama, at the beginning of 2006, the campaigns for statewide elections were taking shape.
Then-Republican Gov. Bob Riley was cruising toward a second term in a contest that featured some intrigue with Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore running as a Republican and indicted former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman making another run. Ultimately, Riley would wind up facing then-Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who he would defeat handily by a 57-to-42 percent margin.
Down ticket was a contest for the lieutenant governor’s seat, which resulted in a crowded race for the Republican nomination. The eventual GOP nominee, Luther Strange, who currently serves as the state’s attorney general, faced a competitive contest against George Wallace Jr. And Wallace, of course, is the only son of George Wallace and Lurleen Wallace — the husband-wife team who both served as governors of Alabama and will forever be remembered in the state’s history books.
Also in that race was a longshot candidate named Mo Brooks.
Up until then, Brooks bounced around various political offices representing North Alabama’s Madison County. Unlike many politicians around Huntsville, however, Brooks did so as a Republican. No small feat in an area that was one of the last non-Black Belt Democratic holdouts in the state.
During that campaign, Brooks came to speak to the College Republicans at the University of South Alabama — an area at the opposite end of the state where he had no name recognition and his fledgling campaign had very little hope for success. A somewhat younger and much-less seasoned Jeff Poor was at that event, as the editor of the student newspaper, The Vanguard.
Somehow, the USA College Republican group managed to pack out a meeting room with 50 to 60 students and a handful of local political hopefuls. An impressive accomplishment given that nobody knew who Brooks was.
When Brooks began speaking, however, many of the students in attendance began connecting with him. He delivered sort of the standard message about cleaning up Montgomery’s corruption and the shady influences that lurked around the halls of the state legislature. But Brooks’ style was less generic politician and more along the lines of something you would hear from former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who was known for his ability to rally support from very enthusiastic young people in his two last runs for the presidency.
Brooks spoke about state government and how even it is an impediment to one’s liberty and freedoms. That’s the sort of thing that resonated with young and idealistic audience.
The proof it resonated: Two days later, I saw the vice chairman of USA’s College Democrat group putting out a green “Mo Brooks for Lt. Governor” sign in front of the Mitchell Center on campus.
Brooks would go on to finish a distant third behind Strange and Wallace, respectively. Later that year in a very close contest, Strange would lose that race to the Democratic nominee Jim Folsom Jr., who already served as the state’s governor and was making his political comeback as lieutenant governor.
Although it was a bitter loss for Brooks, it may have been for the better. The lieutenant governor’s run got him out of his comfort zone in Madison County. That move better prepared him for his Congressional run against incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith, who he would later soundly defeat on win election for Alabama’s 5th Congressional district seat.
Four years later, Brooks has emerged as one of the more conservative voices in the U.S. House. He has had a few minor missteps along the way. Some behind the scenes will say he might be a little too loose with his outspokenness, but it hasn’t hurt him too terribly much.
Recently, he has become one of the few Republicans in the House willing to take the fight to the Republican leadership in opposing any sort of behind-the-scenes deals on immigration reform, which seems to be a little different than the rest of his Republican colleagues from Alabama. His outspoken ways have earned Brooks respect from many prominent conservatives, much like his fellow member of Congress on the Senate side, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Like Sessions, Brooks will still play the role of federal funding breadwinner for his constituents, especially when it comes to NASA support. But he’s slowly becoming a recognized name, being a regular guest on national conservative talk radio programs. And as I saw first hand during his 2006 lieutenant gubernatorial run, Brooks does seem to be able to connect with a much broader constituency outside just the conservative movement.
It remains to be seen if Brooks will remain a fixture in the House of Representatives, which has been the historic norm for the 5th Congressional District. Or could he make a run at a higher statewide office now that’s earned broader recognition?
For now, Brooks is one to keep an eye on — and that could especially prove true if one of Alabama’s two U.S. Senate seats were to open up in coming years.