Gov. Bob Riley (R)
Elected: 2002, term expires Jan. 2011, 2nd term.
Born: Oct. 3, 1944, Ashland .
Education: U. of AL, B.A. 1965.
Family: Married (Patsy); 5 children (1 deceased).
Elected office: Ashland City Cncl., 1972–76; U.S. House of Reps., 1996-2002.
Professional Career: Owner, egg & poultry co.; Rancher; Owner, Midway Transit, 1965–present.
Republican Bob Riley was elected governor of Alabama in 2002. He grew up in Clay County, east of Birmingham, where his family had lived for seven generations. Riley attended the University of Alabama while it was being desegregated in 1963 and earned a business degree. He and his brother started selling eggs door-to-door, a business they ultimately grew into a large egg-and-poultry company. He also ran a grocery store, owned an airport and a pharmacy and sold real estate. He ended up with a car dealership (Midway Ford and Chrysler), a trucking company (Midway Transit), half a shopping center and a cattle farm. He got into politics as a member of the Ashland City Council.
|Bob Riley (R)||718,327||(57%)|
|Lucy Baxley (D)||519,827||(42%)|
|Bob Riley (R)||306,665||(67%)|
|Roy Moore (R)||153,354||(33%)|
In 1996, when the 3rd District’s Democratic incumbent ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, Riley ran for the House. He started off little known outside Clay County, but he was a strong and energetic campaigner and an ardent conservative. He supported school prayer, term limits, tax cuts, and a balanced-budget amendment. He opposed abortion rights, gun control, and racial quotas. Riley won 50%-47%, a key victory in keeping the House Republican that year. In the House, Riley had a solidly conservative voting record and a reputation as a fierce Republican partisan. He attracted serious competition in 1998 from former Democratic state Chairman Joe Turnham, but he spent $845,000 of his own money and won 58%-42%. In 2002, he ran for governor.
The incumbent was Don Siegelman, a Democrat elected by 58%-42% in 1998 over embattled incumbent Republican Fob James. Siegelman’s main proposal was a lottery to fund education, but in 1999 referendum voters rejected the idea. Siegelman had success in attracting automakers Honda and Hyundai to the state and persuaded voters to approve a ballot proposition for $425 million in bonds to fund road and bridge building. But his administration was marred by scandal, including a joint state-federal investigation of his personal finances.
In the June primary, Riley beat Lt. Gov. Steve Windom 74%-18%. In the general election, one of the main issues was financing education. Having failed to sell his lottery plan, Siegelman called for a special session of the Legislature to consider raising taxes on businesses. Riley opposed tax increases and called for limiting spending to the prior year’s level. He also focused on ethics, charging that under Siegelman state government was “sinking into a quicksand of corruption and fraud.” In late summer, Riley was running ahead in polls, but in September, he made a few blunders and his standing fell. In one instance, Riley stumped with National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston, but the following day it was revealed that the NRA had endorsed Siegelman based on his opposition to gun control. This turned out to be the closest gubernatorial race in the nation in 2002. Riley won by a 3,120-vote margin. Siegelman won overwhelmingly among African-American voters, and his denunciations of corporations that opposed his business tax increase probably helped him carry heavily white rural counties in northwestern Alabama. Riley won big victories in fast-growing suburban counties. On Election Night, a clerical error in heavily Republican Baldwin County credited Siegelman with 7,000 more votes than he actually received, which put him ahead statewide. Both Riley and Siegelman proclaimed themselves winners. Siegelman refused to recognize the error and called for a recount, but conceded two weeks later.
Facing a $675 million budget shortfall and a Democratic legislature, Riley came up with a broad-based proposal to transform state finances. He called for cutting spending but also raising state and local taxes by $1.2 billion. In return for support from the Alabama Education Association’s head Paul Hubbert—a candidate for governor in 1990 and a key player in Alabama politics before and since—Riley agreed to maintain spending on teacher pay and to put the increased revenue into an Alabama Excellence Initiative. Why did a politician who was elected on a no-tax-increase program back such a plan? Riley said he was influenced by North Carolina, which had increased education spending in the 1960s and was experiencing much higher test scores than Alabama. And Riley said he considered it a matter of Christian obligation. “When I read the New Testament, there are three things we’re asked to do: That’s love God, love each other and take care of the least among us,” he said.
Supporting him were Hubbert and the AEA, the state Democratic party, and some leaders of the insurance, banking, utility and consumer-products industries. Opposing hims were the state Republican party, timber companies, the state Christian Coalition and national organizations like Americans for Tax Reform. As state Republican Chairman Marty Connors described the situation, “We’ve got a conservative, evangelical Christian Republican governor, trying to get a massive turnout of black voters to pass a tax increase so he can raise taxes on Republican constituents.” Turnout for the September 2003 referendum was high—only 6% below that in the November 2002 general election. The result was unambiguous. Riley’s proposal was rejected 67%-33%. It was approved in only 12 Black Belt counties and lost by more than 3-to-1 in most small counties in north Alabama.
For 2004, Riley proposed more spending cuts and forswore broad-based tax increases. Instead, he increased the cigarette tax, some fees and oil and gas severance taxes. As revenues increased, the state ended the fiscal year with a $150 million surplus. Riley called a special session of the Legislature, and with Hubbert’s support, got a bill he signed into law. In 2005, Riley responded to Hurricane Katrina by scouring the state’s public resources—state parks, closed mental hospitals and dormitories at closed military bases—to find accommodations for 10,000 evacuees. He was criticized for requiring criminal background checks on hurricane evacuees and blocking those with records of sexual and drug crimes, but he stuck to his decision.
After the unpopularity of his 2003 tax increase plan, Riley focused on economic development and education. Improving state revenues also helped, allowing him to propose tax cuts and more spending. He reduced taxes on lower- and middle-income people, gave state employees a 5% pay raise, increased pensions for retired state employees and boosted spending for many state services. Riley also signed a bill that increased the income thresholds at which families began paying state income taxes. And he signed the Rosa Parks Act, which allowed people convicted under Jim Crow laws to apply for a pardon.
In his 2006 bid for re-election, he faced Republican primary opposition from former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won national attention by defying courts and keeping a monument of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building; he was removed from office in 2003 as a result. Riley invoked his own religious faith. “Some say they can no longer acknowledge God in government. I think that’s sad, because I acknowledge him every day, in speeches, in the office, in meetings, schools and churches,” he said. In the June primary, Riley defeated Moore by a 2-to-1 margin. In the general election, Riley faced Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley. Riley ran an ad calling Baxley “just too liberal,” and he picked up a string of 18 newspaper endorsements around the state that praised his effectiveness and clean administration. He outspent Baxley $13 million to $4 million and won a second term 57%-42%.
In his second term, Riley worked with the Legislature on two major incentive packages, including one for $400 million, to lure German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp to the state. The company chose a site near Mobile, over a competing site in Louisiana, for a $3.7 billion steel-processing facility that is slated to employ 2,700 workers at an average salary of $42,000 a year. Riley then proposed $850 million for school construction and technology spending, a 7% teacher pay raise, another middle-class tax cut, and tax credits for worker training. The AEA opposed his tax-relief proposals, fearing a loss in revenues dedicated to education spending. Riley wound up with an accord with the Legislature that jettisoned the tax cuts but approved a $1 billion bond for general school construction and the teacher pay raise.
After the 2007 legislative session ended, Riley demonstrated political ingenuity in challenging Hubbert and the AEA on an issue that cut to the heart of the group’s traditionally strong influence on state politics. Riley sought to ban state legislators from simultaneously working for two-year state colleges. Critics argued that the double-dipping encouraged corruption, a contention supported in 2006, when former State Rep. Bryant Melton pleaded guilty to abusing his position at Shelton State Community College. Ending double-dipping would also affect Democratic power in the Legislature, since more Democratic legislators held jobs in the state school system than Republicans. Hubbert and the AEA strongly opposed the ban, and it had little chance of getting through the Democratic Legislature. So Riley appointed fellow Republican Bradley Byrne as chancellor of the two-year college system, and Byrne introduced a ban on double-dipping to the state board of education, which ratified it on a 6-to-1 vote. The AEA sued to stop implementation, and the group and Riley fought the issue all the way to the state Supreme Court, which was expected to hear the case in 2009.
As the economy worsened in 2008, Riley touted a plan to expand pre-kindergarten programs while urging legislators to eliminate $400 million from the education budget, with four-year colleges bearing the brunt of the cuts. The Legislature reduced the size of the budget cuts, but largely went along. Riley also sought to raise taxes on oil companies after ExxonMobil figured out how to legally deduct enough expenses to offset virtually all of its gas taxes. Riley responded by proposing to change the state severance tax on natural gas wells in a way that would result in doubling the taxes that companies paid on their wells. When that idea was rejected in committee in the Legislature, Riley proposed levying a temporary 6% tax on the companies’ gross proceeds. The House Appropriations Committee approved the tax, but the bill bogged down in the full House. As state funds continued to dry up, Riley threw his support behind a state constitutional amendment to increase the Rainy Day fund for education and establish a second reserve fund for other state operations, both of which were ratified by voters on Nov. 4, 2008.
Riley’s string of successes suffered a setback with the 2008 election. In developing a new statewide voter-registration system, Riley’s legal team had classified more than 400 of Alabama’s 575 felony crimes—including relatively minor offenses such as disrupting a funeral and shoplifting—as grounds to disqualify offenders from voting until their rights were formally restored. Previously, just 70 felonies, including rape and murder, had resulted in a suspension of voting rights. Many voters in 2008 were deemed ineligible, including former Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, whose felony conviction on ethics violation for the misuse of inauguration funds temporarily revoked his right to vote. Alabama Democrats worried that thousands of eligible voters would be denied the right to vote, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of three ex-felons who wanted to vote that November. The lawsuit went nowhere, but the issue continued to draw negative attention to the Riley administration.
For a time, Riley was included among possible Republican vice presidential candidates in 2008. He is prohibited by term limits from running again for governor in 2010 and said in December that he would retire from politics when his term expires. Former Phoenix Suns basketball player Charles Barkley, who had considered running for governor in 1998 as a Republican, said in 2006 he was considering a 2010 gubernatorial bid as a Democrat, but a 2009 drunk-driving conviction probably ended his chances. Democratic Rep. Artur Davis announced his bid to become Alabama’s first black governor. Greenville businessman Tim James, a Republican and the son of former Alabama Gov. Fob James, was investing $2 million in personal funds in his quest for the GOP nomination.