By Gabriel Tynes, Jason Johnson and Dale Liesch
Illustration | Laura Mattei
All 140 seats in the Alabama Legislature are up for grabs in elections this year and with retirements and resignations, the Mobile and Baldwin county delegation is losing at least 90 years of combined experience. Nearly half of that was accumulated by State Rep. James Buskey, who was initially elected to represent Mobile County’s District 99 in 1976. Most recently, the retiring Democrat served on three House committees.
State Sen. Trip Pittman of Baldwin County’s District 32 was first elected in 2007. In the 11 years since, the retiring Republican chaired both the Education Finance Committee and the Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, which controls all state spending.
“People retiring always brings about change, but you sort of have to learn to roll with the punches,” said State Sen. Vivian Figures, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature who is facing a challenge from fellow Democrat Victor Crawford in the primary election June 5. “There will be other people who step up, though we will miss Rep. Buskey and Sen. Pittman.”
Also absent from the chamber next year will be State Rep. Randy Davis and State Sen. Rusty Glover, both of whom were first elected in 2002. State Sen. Bill Hightower, who joined the Legislature in 2013, announced he was stepping down this year to pursue a gubernatorial campaign.
“I’m not in the House, but I’ve always heard much about how Rep. Buskey really knows the rules and was very experienced in the area of how things operated. With Sen. Pittman in his key role as chair of the education trust fund and now general fund, we’re going to miss him, too. I truly believe there will be others who will step up to the plate, but I know we will continue to work hard and work together as we have in the past,” Figures said.
There’s a lot on the line for the local delegation. Some of the area’s largest employers rely on support from the Legislature in the form of job training bills or tax incentives for expansions and other needs. Local legislators can block expensive regulation or contested rule changes.
Baldwin County is the fastest growing in the state, according to the 2017 census. Road and other infrastructure projects depend largely on money allocated in Montgomery. The University of South Alabama, state docks and coastal tourism initiatives are partially bankrolled by the Legislature.
“It absolutely matters to have local delegation members in a leadership position,” said House Speaker Pro-Tem Victor Gaston, who has 36 years’ experience in the Legislature and becomes the most senior member from Mobile and Baldwin counties after Buskey’s departure. “But I believe whoever is in office, we will have local members who will be in positions of responsibility and leadership,” he said, citing Rep. Steve McMillan’s role as chairman of the County and Municipal Government Committee and Rep. David Sessions’ role as chairman on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee.
McMillan has been in the Legislature since 1980, Sessions since 2011.
“We will meet up after the election — members of the House and Senate from Mobile and Baldwin counties, Republicans and Democrats — and discuss our priorities and our interests …,”Gaston said.
Two years ago, a top priority for local legislators was securing a majority of a billion-dollar civil settlement for BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But in spite of the experience of the delegation at the time, only $120 million was ultimately earmarked for Mobile and Baldwin counties, while the remainder was siphoned off to fill holes in the state’s Medicaid budget and Alabama Trust Fund.
“The delegation worked very hard to get all that money,” Gaston recalled, noting a compromise bill sponsored by Hightower that eventually sought just 40 percent of the settlement. “Our original intention was for every dollar to be spent in Mobile and Baldwin county … I personally pleaded with another member who said they were sympathetic, but we would be fine. I think we did the very best that we could but they did what they did. Sometimes in the legislative process you get your way and sometimes you don’t.”
Figures agreed, pointing the finger at other members in the Legislature.
“We all fought very hard to make sure that money was coming here to make us whole first,” she said. “We didn’t have leadership at that time who wanted to step up to find new revenue for a lot of those things we were struggling to fund. So they saw this BP settlement as some free money that was right there for them to get. That’s why we really did fight as hard as we could to make sure that money came here first but were unsuccessful.”
Dr. Sam Fisher, assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, said although the coastal economy disproportionately contributes revenue to state coffers, the legislative scale is still tipped in middle and northern Alabama’s favor.
“Part of the problem — for this part of the state is — I think in terms of the people that are part of of our delegation, from what I can tell, they work together well when it comes to issues important to his part of the state,” Fisher said. “But our dilemma is that the bulk of Alabama’s population is up in the northern part of state — Montgomery or the Birmingham, Huntsville corridor — just because of population size, that part of the state is going to typically dominate.”
State Rep. Chris Pringle of District 101 said leadership for the local delegation is important, as he has been told roughly 26 percent of the state economy is generated in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
“It’s very important,” he said about taking on leadership roles. “You have to step up to the plate.”
To that end, Pringle said he’s spoken with Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon about more active leadership roles. He currently chairs the Fiscal Responsibility Committee and is a member of three others.
Fisher said a leadership vacuum, like the one that could occur after elections this year, could leave the area with even weaker representation in the State House.
“When you lose somebody like Buskey or Pittman who’ve been there along time or who are in influential positions, it can hurt the area in terms of trying to make sure we get legislation that’s helpful for what goes on in this part of Alabama — spending measures for roads and those sorts of issues, which are important — but also when it comes to just protecting our economic or social interests, it’s helpful to have somebody that has knowledge and knows how to work the system to present the best case for lower Alabama.”
State Rep. Barbara Drummond of Mobile County’s House District 103 was mentored by Buskey but is optimistic about the turnover. She is a member of three House committees: Financial Services, Children and Senior Advocacy, and Education Policy.
“The local delegation is not about one person, but about the issues facing [coastal Alabama],” she said. “We’ve all sat on pivotal committees. Any void left behind, we’ll be able to fill it. I think Mobile will be just fine. I think the leadership will be OK.”
Gaston, a member of the Ways and Means General Fund Committee, Rules Committee and Transportation Utilities and Infrastructure Committee, said committee members are appointed by the House speaker.
“You tell him how you are interested in serving and he makes the appointments,” Gaston said. “And I’d be very surprised if the new members of the Mobile and Baldwin county delegation didn’t work very hard to sit on committees and get our needs addressed.”
But Figures noted the commitees can be partisan in nature and are typically chaired by members of the ruling party.
“There’s no way a Democrat will get any kind of chairmanship, and frankly [many] of our Republican members of the delegation will pretty much be freshmen,” she said. “I don’t know what that will mean in the House. As far as charimaships in Senate go, it will definitely be a Republican as well, and I don’t believe our Republican senators have the seniority to go in and become chair on one of the budget committees or something like that.”
Still, she said Mobile County’s delegation is “the best in the state” and “has always been able to put partisan politics aside to work on all of our local issues.”
But Pittman, a Republican who joined the Legislature when it was still dominated by democrats in 2007, said it’s all how you play the game. He said as a member of the minority party, he had to earn respect and wait for the 2010 transition because “there were a lot of new members.” Also as a member of the minority party, he had to learn how to stop bills from progressing.
“I had been a good citizen,” he said. “I was aware of what was going on. I knew what the issues were; the lay of the land.”
He said, generally, he just had to work hard. Show up early in the week, leave later.
“It takes a lot of work,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of practice to get good at it.”
While he acknowledged leadership roles in the Legislature were important, he downplayed the looming loss of local experience.
“It’s going to be the next man, or next woman up,” he said. “I have confidence the people in the delegation will rise to the occasion.”
Fisher elaborated, admitting the vacuum can have negative effects in the short term.
“One of the dilemmas is when people run for office, they say, ‘I’m going to do x, y and z,’ and the fact of the matter is, when you get to any legislative body you have to find enough others who want to do x, y and z — typically that’s not going to be the case,” he said. “You figure out how to rant and rave and push a particular point of view or you figure out a way to try to get part of what you want. That’s a dilemma for many going in with no experience who get there and suddenly realize you can’t do everything you’d like to do or at least not as quickly, and that in a short term can hurt an area. They may be saying all the right things to voters, but they aren’t getting anything done.”
“[Turnover] always hurts, but it’s going to happen at some point,” he continued. “What’ll be interesting is to see who ultimately replaces Pittman and Buskey — do they come out of the delegation? And will the same level of interaction and team playing go on as it has in the past? Anytime you get new people in a group that can change the dynamics. Things will change, I’m just not sure how.”
Meanwhile, Gaston urged voters to stay active in the process, even after the elections.
“We really have to step up our game, there’s not doubt about that,” he said. “It’s always difficult when experience is lost — people that have demonstrated they know how to do the job. But everybody makes their own decision about how long they want to serve, the rest of us have no control over that or how long the voters elect a member.”
House District 97
Adline Clarke (D)
Levi Wright Jr. (D)
Stephen McNair (R)
House District 98
Napoleon Bracy Jr. (D)
House District 99
Gregory Harris (D)
Henry Haseeb (D)
Sam Jones (D)
Burton R. LeFlore (D)
Franklin McMillion (D)
Gregory Parker (D)
Herman Thomas (D)
Rico Washington (D)
Charles W. Talbert (R)
House District 100
Victor Gaston (R)
House District 101
Chris Pringle (R)
House District 102
Willie Gray (R)
Belinda H. Shoub (R)
Shane Stringer (R)
House District 103
Barbara Drummond (D)
House District 104
Margie Wilcox (R)
House District 105
Matthew J. Bentley (R)
Chip Brown (R)
Cody Dockens (R)
Janet Oglesby (R)
Senate District 22
Greg Albritton (R)
Senate District 33
Michael R. Cooley (D)
Victor Tshombe Crawford (D)
Vivian Figures (D)
Senate District 34
Mark Shirey (R)
Jack Williams (R)
Senate District 35
Tom Holmes (D)
David Sessions (R)
Senate District 22
Greg Albritton (R)
Senate District 32
Jeff Boyd (R)
Chris Elliott (R)
David Northcutt (R)
Bill Roberts (R)
Jason Fisher (D)
House District 64
Stephen Sexton (R)
Harry Shiver (R)
Amber Selman-Lynn (D)
House District 66
Alan Baker (R)
House District 68
Thomas Jackson (D)
House District 94
Joe Faust (R)
Danielle Mashburn-Myrick (D)
House District 95
Steve McMillan (R)
House District 96
Maurice Horsey (D)
Web Whiting (D)
Matt Simpson (R)