With former Speaker Mike Hubbard’s conviction on a dozen felony ethics violations, the Alabama House of Representatives has been left without a permanent leader. Now, although Acting Speaker of the House Victor Gaston, a Mobilian, has said he won’t seek the position long-term, four Republicans and one Democrat have thrown their hats in the ring to become what many consider the most powerful politician in the state.
First thoughts on who’d succeed Hubbard seemed to indicate Gaston would have an edge in the race, particularly after he had Rachel Adams, communications director for the speaker’s office (originally hired by Hubbard), issue a statement emphasizing Gaston’s disdain for pretension and his resulting decision not to accept the security detail associated with the top job.
“Allowing law enforcement officers to dedicate their time to more important duties than chauffeuring me between Mobile and Montgomery will save scarce taxpayer dollars and conserve valuable state resources,” Gaston said in the statement.
“I have always worked to be an unpretentious man, and walking around with a security detail in tow would draw attention that is simply unnecessary. As a legislator, I am well aware that our state law enforcement agency has too few officers and too many responsibilities. The officers that would have been assigned to my protective detail may now devote their attention to more pressing concerns and priorities.”
While many considered that move one of a simply humble man, many Montgomery politicos considered it one meant to leverage political capital by garnering public support. Several top House Republicans even refrained from announcing their bids for the post while Gaston mulled a run. Last week, though, Gaston announced his heart and head were leading him in another direction.
“After careful thought and much prayerful consideration, I have decided that I will not be a candidate for Speaker of the House when the Alabama Legislature convenes again,” Gaston posted on social media.
“While I am deeply grateful to the constituents, colleagues, friends and family who have encouraged me to seek the job, I do not feel God calling me in that direction. I will continue serving as Speaker Pro Tem and will dedicate my time, efforts and energies to fulfilling the duties of that position and to representing the citizens of House District 100. In my remaining time as acting speaker, I will work to ensure that the daily administrative functions of the House operate smoothly and that the body continues to have a steady hand guiding its course through sometimes turbulent waters.”
So, with Gaston out, five candidates remain.
Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Steve Clouse, a Republican, announced he will run for the position just after Gaston said he wouldn’t pursue it. In his announcement, Clouse emphasized the importance of experience in choosing a leader for the House of Representatives.
“We need to have an experienced hand to keep the train on the track,” Clouse told AL.com in an interview. “We have to change the focus to decentralize [the House], and put less emphasis on caucus agendas, and put more emphasis on the rules committee to let that committee operate the way it’s supposed to.”
Clouse has been a centrist leader in the House since his election in 1994. In his position as Ways and Means chair, Clouse negotiated through various tax increases in previous sessions, some of which passed, but others of which failed spectacularly. Clouse also gained attention before the last election cycle when he suggested “cooler heads will prevail” in regard to expanding Medicaid in Alabama, a proposal all other Republican leaders have scoffed at.
Chairman of the House Rules Committee Mac McCutcheon has also announced his candidacy.
“Due to to the fact we had issues with the governor and the speaker, I think it’s so important we try to come together as a House body, and work together to regain the people’s trust,” McCutcheon said of his bid for the leadership position.
While many representatives respect McCutcheon, some on Goat Hill told Lagniappe on background his health is somewhat of a concern. McCutcheon underwent heart bypass surgery in 2014.
The final Republican seeking the office has been doing so longer than any other. Rep. Phil Williams — who is much younger than the other Republican candidates — previously challenged then-Speaker Hubbard for power when the Auburn Republican was indicted on the ethics charges of which he would ultimately be convicted.
Aside from the Republicans running for speaker, though, there is a single Democratic candidate. Rep. Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first and only openly gay public official, has announced she’ll seek the office.
“Time for new leadership with the people of Alabama as a priority,” Todd posted on social media following Hubbard’s felony conviction and removal from office. “I am thinking of throwing my hat in the ring. Time for accountability and transparency in state government … It would be nice to have someone who is not the traditional white male Republican. Let’s do something different.”
If Rep. Todd were elected and followed through with proposals she’s made, the House would be truly different indeed. She posted a list of changes she’d make as speaker, a list that rebuffed, not reflected, Hubbard’s actions as speaker.
“If I am elected speaker I would:
• Allow members to submit revisions to the rules of the House.
• Lobbyists MUST acknowledge who they represent when talking with a House member. Maybe they should wear a list of clients on their name tags!
• Committee members will decide bills to consider, not the speaker.
• Post my meeting schedule on the website.
• Meet with representatives from both sides of an issue at the same time.
• Have weekly lunch meeting with all members to discuss issues before the House. Now each party hosts a weekly lunch meeting separately.
• Provide a live video stream of House deliberations and archive each day.
• Link the Statement of Economic Interest forms to the House member web page.
• Rules committee would advertise bills on the calendar at least five business days prior to consideration on website.
• Designate a space for constituents to meet with their representatives just outside the chamber.
• Require fiscal accountability for all revenue bills.
• Review best practices from other states on policy and share information with all members.”
The House will elect a new speaker at the start of its next session, which will begin in early 2017, unless an earlier, special session is called by the governor.