State Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia) has been in the Alabama House and Senate for over 40 years, a record in Alabama history and definitely a record of longevity for any Jefferson County legislator.
Waggoner has had a significant impact on behalf of the folks in Jefferson County over his stellar career. He has been instrumental in the growth of UAB. In the 1970s Waggoner sponsored legislation which spearheaded the purchase of 45 blocks in downtown Birmingham for UAB’s expansion. UAB purchased this property for $8.5 million; that equates to $40 million in today’s dollars and has been invaluable toward the growth of UAB.
Waggoner currently chairs the State Senate Rules Committee, a very powerful post. He also likes to honor history, protocol and precedent. Waggoner essentially has his own Civitan Club, the Vestavia Civitan Club that meets every third Friday at the Vestavia Country Club. It has about 40 to 50 members and attendees and is a select group of civic leaders, legislators, lobbyists and Jefferson County power brokers. They attend and belong at Waggoner’s invitation.
He brings only the most elite speakers to his Civitan Club. Waggoner has been on the board of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame for decades and has unparalleled Alabama sports connections. In recent years he has had Eli Gold, Bobby Humphrey, Charles Barkley and Gene Hallman to name a few. He also has the top governmental leaders from Washington and Montgomery visit the club as they are reluctant to say no to the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. Many cabinet members and department heads come to speak. Recently, Tom Albritton, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, spoke to the club and his appearance reminded me of the origins of our first Alabama ethics law.
Campaign finance laws and ethics disclosure forms for political campaigns and office holders were enacted throughout the country in the 1970s, mostly in reaction to public outcry for ethics reform after the Watergate scandal. Practically every state passed an ethics law.
In the 1970s, Alabama had a lot of veteran crafty and crusty legislators and the craftiest of all was legendary legislator and house speaker Rankin Fite, who did pretty well financially as a lawyer and legislator without any ethics laws. Fite and his colleagues were not about to succumb to the national trend of passing any ethic laws although it did not stop the Alabama media from consistently harping on the need for such legislation.
Gov. George Wallace had pretty much dismissed ethics reform as an issue because he did not want to put his friends in the legislature on the spot. However, one day late in the legislative session, Wallace decided to get a little good press. He called his legislative buddies in and said there were only a few more legislative days left in the session and it’s too late for anything to pass, much less an ethics bill, so let’s throw the press a bone by introducing one.
The plan was for the House to pass an ethics bill, giving all of the representatives credit for it while knowing the Senate would kill it. The senators would then do the same so they could get credit knowing the House would kill their bill.
They gleefully went ahead with their plan and they and Wallace enjoyed their day in the sun.
The press put a spotlight on the measures like never before and focused on the need for final passage. Things got out of hand and the House succumbed to public opinion. It got to the floor and once it got to a vote, the representatives were hard-pressed to vote no.
Only a handful of House members had the nerve to vote against the ethics law but Fite was one of them. A horde of House members and reporters gathered around the crusty old speaker and asked why he voted against it. He looked them squarely in the eye and said, “It wasn’t tough enough for me.”