Sen. Richard Shelby (R)
Elected: 1986, term expires 2010, 4th term.
Born: May 6, 1934, Birmingham .
Education: U. of AL, B.A. 1957, LL.B. 1963.
Family: Married (Annette Nevin); 2 children.
Elected office: AL Senate, 1970–78; U.S. House of Reps., 1979–87.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1963–78; City prosecutor, Tuscaloosa, 1963-71; U.S. magistrate 1966-70; Spec. asst. to Alabama atty. gen., 1969-71.
Alabama senior Sen. Richard Shelby’s political career spans nearly 40 years. He grew up in Birmingham, the son of a steelworker. After earning two degrees from the University of Alabama, he stayed in Tuscaloosa and practiced law with Walter Flowers, who was later a conservative Democratic representative. Shelby, also a Democrat at that time, was elected to the state Senate in 1970 at age 36. When Flowers ran, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate in 1978, Shelby ran for his House seat. The critical contest was the Democratic runoff against Chris McNair, an African-American state legislator whose daughter Denise was one of the four young girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Although the district had the highest black percentage in Alabama at the time, Shelby won 59%-41%. In the House, Shelby had a conservative voting record, opposing the Voting Rights Act extension and the Martin Luther King Holiday. He ran for the Senate in 1986 and won the Democratic primary with 51% of the vote after Alabama’s then-Secretary of State (and later governor) Don Siegelman withdrew. In the general election, he ran ads against incumbent Republican Jeremiah Denton, a retired admiral who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam, for voting to cut Social Security and for owning two Mercedes-Benz cars (not a likely negative now, with the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa). Shelby won by 7,000 votes.
|Richard Shelby (R)||1,242,200||(68%)||($1,922,646)|
|Wayne Sowell (D)||595,018||(32%)||($4,869)|
|Richard Shelby (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (63%), 1992 (65%), 1986 (50%), 1984 House (97%), 1982 House (97%), 1980 House (73%), 1978 House (94%)
As one of a half-dozen or so conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate in the mid-1980s, Shelby at first attracted little notice. He voted for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in the wake of sexual-harassment claims against Thomas by a former colleague. And Shelby voted for the 1991 resolution to go to war in the Persian Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait. In 1992, he was re-elected 65%-33%, breaking a jinx on a seat that, before Shelby’s election in 1986, had had four different occupants in 10 years.
Soon after President Clinton took office in 1993, Shelby broke ranks with the Democratic Party. At a meeting with Vice President Gore, he turned to the assembled Alabama television cameras and opposed the Clinton program as “high on taxes, low on spending cuts.” In response, the administration announced that a multimillion-dollar space facility would be built not in Alabama but in Texas (although it eventually was built in Alabama). The more he defied Clinton, the better Shelby’s favorable ratings were at home. He lined up with the Republicans and against the administration on vote after vote on almost every partisan issue. The day after Republicans regained control of the Senate in 1994, Shelby announced he was switching parties, increasing the GOP majority to 53-47. Republicans happily allowed him to keep his seniority on the Banking Committee and gave him seats on Appropriations and its Defense Subcommittee. He got a seat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee as well, putting him on a course to assume the chairmanship of Intelligence in 1997.
By the time of the September 11 attacks, the Senate was back in Democratic hands, but Shelby, as the ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel, was an important player in the ensuing weeks and months. He had adopted an adversarial posture toward the intelligence agencies during the Clinton years and in the Bush years as well. Soon after September 11, Shelby stopped just short of calling for the resignation of Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, who was appointed by Clinton and retained by Bush. He was negatively impressed when, after India conducted three underground nuclear tests in 1998, Tenet told him, “We didn’t have a clue.” He also was critical of the lack of information about the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. In June 2004, when Tenet announced his resignation, Shelby said, “What was a surprise was that he held on to the job as long as he did.”
Shelby was mostly supportive of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war on terrorism. In December 2001, he was one of 10 senators to sign a letter saying, “It is imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq.” But he clashed with the two Intelligence Committee chairmen, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., in the joint investigations of the intelligence community. He helped push aside their choice as staff director and install his own candidate. At first, he opposed the appointment of an independent September 11 commission as unnecessary, but relented in 2002. He was out front in calling for the creation of a director of National Intelligence after the intelligence agencies, in his view, were unable to work together and to share information. That position was later upheld by the 9/11 commission and adopted in the intelligence reorganization bill approved by Congress in 2004. That bill included a Shelby proposal to give the DNI ombudsman access to all intelligence for analytical reviews, but he was displeased that the new director would not be a Cabinet member.
On domestic issues, Shelby has compiled a conservative record. But he is not a free-market purist. Despite his party switch, he has remained friendly with trial lawyers, who usually support Democrats in Alabama. He opposed Alabama colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions’s amendment to cap lawyers’ fees in tobacco cases, and insisted tort reform was a state issue. He voted against a 2004 bill to protect gun manufacturers from liability for actions of users of their products. He was the only Senate Republican to vote against financial services deregulation in 1999, and he opposed allowing federally insured banks to sell real estate or insurance.
Since January 2003, Shelby has been either the chairman or the ranking minority member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, and from that perch, he has been at the center of congressional attempts to stem problems in the mortgage and insurance industries. On a hotly lobbied issue in 2003, he supported defining stock options as expenses, a measure opposed by the high-technology industry. The same year, he presciently quizzed Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about the increasing number of home loans to borrowers with weak credit histories, a trend that sent the home mortgage market into a tailspin by 2008.
In July 2005, the committee voted along party lines for Shelby’s legislation to impose tighter limits on Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s portfolios, but it contained no affordable-housing fund and was killed by Senate Democrats. In 2008, Democratic Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut pushed a compromise housing bill that would allow bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgages and another proposal to refinance mortgages for millions of homeowners at risk of defaulting. Consumer groups pushed for both, but could not get by Shelby. The government, he said, should not engage in a “taxpayer-funded bailout of investors or homeowners.” He later reached agreement with Dodd on a bill to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to fund the refinancing of home mortgages, but he also got a provision increasing capital requirements for the two quasi-public mortgage giants.
Shelby opposed the $700 billion bailout of the financial markets in September 2008, though President Bush was pushing the package. “What troubles me most is that we have been given no credible assurances that this plan will work. We could very well spend $700 billion and not resolve the crisis,” Shelby said. Two months later, he opposed a massive government loan for the Big Three domestic automakers as well, which he called “dinosaurs.” He said, “These companies are going to have to downsize. They’re going to have to be innovative. They’re going to have to change their whole model, and the government at the end of the day . . . should not choose which companies are going to survive or not survive. We should let the market work.” After the automakers presented their plan for recovery in December 2008, he said, “I wouldn’t loan them any money. They’re either failed or failing.” He threatened a filibuster, and the bill did not pass the Senate. When he was criticized on the grounds he was defending foreign automakers with plants in Alabama, he pointed out that he had voted against an earlier bailout of Chrysler long before the plants were built.
In 2006, Shelby pushed through to enactment a bill to direct the Securities and Exchange Commission to designate ratings agencies as Nationally Recognized Statistical Ratings Organizations if they meet certain standards over three years. The SEC had been enforcing a 1975 rule that prevented many ratings agencies from qualifying, and that left 80% of the business in the hands of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. “The dominant rating agencies failed millions of investors by neglecting to lower their ratings on Enron, WorldCom, and other companies headed for bankruptcy. The absence of timely downgrades in these cases was the product of an industry that was beset by conflicts of interest and a lack of competition,” Shelby said.
Shelby looks out for Alabama’s interests on the Appropriations Committee. When the sock industry in DeKalb County—which calls itself the “sock capital of the world”—stood to be hurt by a 2002 free-trade bill, he held up the bill to get protection from socks mended in the Caribbean, and in 2004 he got country-of-origin labeling for imported and domestic socks. He has obtained some $70 million for buildings at the University of Alabama at Birmingham medical campus, one of which is named for him, and funds for refurbishing the Vulcan statue on Birmingham’s Red Mountain—a favorite target of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and 2008 presidential candidate who crusades against earmarks, the special provisions tucked into spending bills by individual lawmakers.
In 2007, Shelby voted for a measure to force senators to disclose their earmarks, but he was the only Republican senator to oppose a bill to allow the president to send back individual spending items for up-or-down votes in Congress. Shelby sponsored earmarks totaling $203 million in 2006 and $191 million in 2007. In 2008, he sponsored $940,000 for the Southern Research Institute, $235,000 for McWane Science Center, and $392,000 for the Birmingham Intermodal Transit Facility. He registers near the top of the annual list of wasteful-spending earmarks compiled by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. That’s a stark contrast to his Republican colleague in the Senate, Sessions, who was lauded by CAGW in 2007 for his work on the budget to reduce earmarks.
Shelby strongly supported the bid of Airbus and Northrop Grumman to assemble a new Air Force tanker in a plant to be built at Mobile’s Brookley Field Industrial Complex. He demanded an apology when an executive at rival company Boeing said that there was a higher risk in Mobile than in Seattle, where Boeing has significant operations, because the region lacked experience in aircraft manufacturing. Airbus was awarded the contract in February 2008, but the Government Accountability Office then sustained Boeing’s challenge to the award in July. Shelby lobbied Defense Secretary Robert Gates to award the contract to Airbus.
Shelby’s party switch caused him no trouble in increasingly Republican Alabama. In 1998, he was re-elected 63%-37% over a retired ironworker who mortgaged his pickup truck to pay the $2,672 filing fee. For the 2004 election, he accumulated some $11 million, more than any incumbent other than New York’s Charles Schumer, a Democrat. His Democratic opponent was Wayne Sowell, Alabama’s first black Senate nominee and a telephone claims representative for the Social Security Administration in Birmingham. Shelby spent only $2.3 million of his money, and won 68%-32%, running behind in only nine black-majority counties in the Black Belt. In 2009, he was a heavy favorite to win re-election in 2010.