Lucy Baxley is the political equivalent of the bumper stickers you often see on fuel-efficient hybrids and Subaru station wagons around the state. After a 32-year transition, she is the only Democrat currently in statewide office. Baxley is the “little blue dot in a big red state.”
A long-time state politician and the first female lieutenant governor, 74-year-old Baxley is currently seeking a second four-year term as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities in the state. For the second time, Republican Twinkle Cavanaugh is looking to unseat Baxley, who defeated Cavanaugh by a narrow margin four years ago.
It’s a race for a leadership position on a commission that, since 2005, has lost some of its power. By 2009 the Legislature had voted to deregulate telephone services. The commission still has the authority to set electric and gas rates, but provisions to state laws have given utility companies more power when it comes to getting a fair return and recovering costs.
In a written statement released earlier this year, Cavanaugh referred to “timid leadership currently at the top of the agency.”
“Twinkle said ‘It’s time to send Miss Lucy home,’ but only the people can send me home,” Baxley says. “I will listen to the people.”
When Baxley was a girl, home was “way out in the country,” a farm tucked in the southeast corner of Alabama. Surrounded by fields of cotton, corn and peanuts, the little girl named Lucy was one of six children in a poor family living off the land.
“We did whatever needed to be done. I think my daddy just mistook me for a farmhand,” Baxley says.
When it was time to go to school, Baxley saw for the first time the kinds of things that other children had.
“I looked around at the girls who had on pretty dresses and I didn’t,” she recalls. “Pretty quickly in elementary school, I decided ‘I can’t wear the prettiest dresses, but I can make the highest grades.’ That was my way of making myself feel better. I knew I could overachieve in that.”
She remembers when Big Jim Folsom, governor of Alabama from 1947 to 1951 and again from 1955 to 1959, came to the area and stood on the end of a flat-bed truck. The crowd that gathered left an impression on Baxley.
“People wanted to see him and hear what he had to say, but it never once entered my mind that I could end up where I did. I didn’t know there was a thing called public service.”
Life with Bill
Baxley says she was probably “overly cautious,” but she quickly developed a reputation in high school and her early work years for knowing “the right thing to do” and for doing it. It wasn’t until she was married to Bill Baxley that she saw politics and public service as an option for herself.
Bill Baxley was attorney general from 1971 to 1979. It was during these years that Lucy became familiar with the inner workings of state office.
“Bill said, ‘I’d like you to come to Montgomery and work for me. I can pay you a real good salary – $15,000 a year.’ There was no way I was going to turn that down,” Lucy Baxley says. “There was a lot of exciting stuff going on. You felt like you were really a part of it.”
During his years as attorney general, Bill Baxley became the target of the Ku Klux Klan’s anger when he reopened the then decade-old case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black girls. When the KKK threatened him with death and invoked a racial slur, Bill Baxley responded on state letterhead with this: “My response to your letter of February 19, 1976 is — kiss my ass.”
Lucy Baxley would often travel the state to speak to crowds on her husband’s behalf. His advice to her: Speak from the heart. She said, in all her years in politics, she hasn’t been able to give a speech that was written beforehand.
“When I’m speaking,” she says, “I want to look people in the eye. I get my facts together and I think about all the angles that go into that topic, and then I give a speech from my heart. Sometimes, still, I will have such a feeling for the people in the audience, I pray, ‘Lord, just let me do a good job and give them a speech they deserve.’”
During Bill Baxley’s campaign for governor in 1986, Lucy Baxley traveled the state and defended him against widely-publicized accusations that he’d had an affair with an Associated Press reporter. But in 1987, the couple divorced. Lucy married Jim Smith in 1996.
Still, Lucy Baxley speaks of Bill with much admiration. And when Lucy ran for lieutenant governor in 2002, Bill Baxley was a strong supporter of her campaign.
“I knew he was probably the most honest person I knew, but the general public didn’t know that. It’s easier to campaign for someone else. I had no qualms saying good things about him, but [when I ran for office myself] it was hard to go out and talk about myself.”
Lucy became Alabama’s first female lieutenant governor, after first being elected state treasurer from 1994 to 2002. “There were many people who didn’t think a woman could do that job only because there had never been a woman in the job. I could hear the senators talking out in the hallway and one day I heard one of them say, ‘She knows that job.’ That made me feel good,” she says.
She laughs as she recalls the atmosphere of the senate. “Those senators are as competitive as little boys. They would be shuffling around the senate floor trying to win over votes on whatever bill they were interested in. One day I wore a bright yellow suit — I usually wore red suits; I look good in red suits — and one of the men said, ‘Now that is a yellow suit!’ and I said, ‘This place is Sesame Street and I am the Big Bird.’”
While obviously serious about her role in the state, Lucy Baxley’s humor is evident after a few minutes of speaking with her. She peppers the conversation with sharp comebacks against her detractors. (“My opponent calls me a career politician and she isn’t one, maybe because she’s lost so many elections.”)
Whether it is the economy or lack of interest, fundraising for both candidates has been lackluster thus far.
“I didn’t even raise enough money in this campaign to have television advertising,” she says. “That is so expensive, but it’s the best medium for getting your message out. You can work and work and work trying to get a newspaper to endorse you and you can be sure that newspaper’s salesperson is working on you to place advertisements.”
Lucy doesn’t speak much about liberal versus conservative agendas. She says her goal is, as always, to serve the people.
“I’m not bragging when I tell you this. I have a good reputation of looking to the people. I didn’t go into office to serve the Democratic party. I did it to speak for the people.”
She worries that citizens don’t see voting as a privilege and a duty. She says emphatically that the state capitol belongs to the people.
“They should visit it. They should know all the people serving them. The public has as much power there as the people sitting at the desks.”
In her own travels, Baxley likes to visit the capitol buildings in other states. She estimates that she has visited 14 so far.
“They reflect the history of the country. The one in Texas is so impressive. And we in Alabama have one of the prettiest capitols that could ever be.”
Away from work and out of her trademark red suits, Lucy Baxley is an avid fisherwoman. Her daughter, Becky, says she once watched as her mother leapt from the boat and into the water to snag a fish that was trying to get away from the hook.
Yellow, red or otherwise, there is no doubt that Baxley is a tough bird who refuses to stay grounded. During her term as lieutenant governor, Baxley suffered a stroke and was admitted to UAB hospital on Thanksgiving Day 2006. She moved to Lakeshore Rehabilitation Center until the end of that year. Afterwards, she underwent outpatient rehabilitation to regain use of her left side, but she continued to have limited use of her left leg and was largely reliant on a wheelchair.
Of the long road to recovery, she told the Birmingham News then, “You either give in, give up, and say I’m disabled now so therefore I can’t go on with life like I would have otherwise. Or you can say thank God my life was spared and I’m going to set about doing the best I can.”
In December of 2008, she fractured her pelvis in a fall and was hospitalized. In the summer of 2009, Lucy fell while getting into her car. She went on to work and attended several meetings before the pain became too much and she sought medical treatment, and, ultimately, surgery. She’d been at work for half a day with a broken hip.
Ask Lucy Baxley about her biggest achievement and she doesn’t give a career-related answer.
“My two children, Becky and Louis. Becky was born when I was very young and I had so much joy in raising her. Girls are just wonderful about loving you. And raising an active boy?” She laughs. “Well, after I got through his third year, I thought ‘Maybe I’m going to make it after all.’”
The woman who has a reputation for knowing the next “right thing to do” says her wish for her personal life is to be a grandmother.
“I’m almost afraid to say this, but I would be a great grandmother. But is it time to send me home? No, I don’t think so. I’m not ready to go home.”