For decades, Paul Hubbert had lorded over Alabama politics the way some sports boosters have domineered college football. He has contributed money to programs in broad daylight and he has moved cash to players under the table. He has called plays from the sidelines, and ended careers with a phone call.
But unlike the meddling of a Logan Young or a Bobby Lowder, the directives from the Alabama Education Association chief were important. In politics, there is no such thing as a spectator, even if all most people ever do is watch. Hubbert didn’t just watch. He exerted influence the way few people in state politics ever learn to do.
So when Hubbert and his chief lieutenant and political partner, Joe Reed, announced their forthcoming retirements last week, it meant more than a passing of the torch. Instead, it signaled that something fundamental about the state’s political culture had changed.
The last time I saw Dr. Hubbert, as everyone in Montgomery calls him (at least to his face), he was sitting in his own kind of sky box — the glassed-in public gallery above the Alabama Senate chambers. It was the last day of the legislative session, and Senators Roger Bedford and Marc Keahey were filibustering a bill to raise retirement costs for state employees.
The two senators traded wisecracks about the bill, which the new Republican majority had already pushed through the Alabama House. Bedford respectfully called those who supported the bill bandits reaching into the pockets of civil servants to lighten their wallets. Keahey played the role of Bedford’s straw man sparring partner, feigning support for the bill and failing to make sense of it. For anyone interested in Alabama politics, it was a great comedy routine, but when the Republican majority moved to cut off debate, it was time to do business. Sen. Rodger Smitherman asked that the bill be read in its entirety into the record by the Senate’s computerized “robo-reader,” but the move was a stalling tactic only. It bought time, but it did not change the result. Everyone there knew the bill would pass.
The robo-reader stumbled over the polysyllabic words as it tried to make long stretches of legalese even more monotonous. The gallery of spectators stood to stretch their legs. A few walked over to Hubbert to say hello.
Hubbert stood up slowly. He looked unsure of his own legs and he seemed to take a moment to make certain they were both working. He wore a small bandage on his face, and his skin had the brittle, crinkled look of old newspapers that had been left in the attic. He smiled as a few other lobbyists said hello to him. He didn’t look angry, only tired. He shook a few more hands, and nodded at a couple of faces he recognized as he walked from the gallery and back to the hall downstairs.
In previous years, the bill being read by the robo-reader never would have made it to the Senate floor. It would have died in the basket or been pigeonholed by the so-called “Goat Hill Committee” (a joke that works only when spoken, as its enunciated as the “Go to Hell Committee”). But things had changed. Power had shifted. Paul Hubbert wasn’t in charge anymore. For years, the super lobbyist and the organization he lead had been doing something similar to what Bedford and the gang were doing on the Senate floor — prolonging the inevitable.
There’s a line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually, then suddenly.” The AEA and Hubbert lost power in a similar fashion. For years, their allies in the legislature had dwindled, but the process had been slow. Some were called home by the voters. Others were called home by the Lord. With the last election cycle, the balance finally tipped.
The suddenly part of the change was easiest to see. The gradually part, not so much.
Hubbert went to work for the Alabama teachers union when he was just 35. At the time, Alabama educators were in pretty sorry shape. Teaching school was a supplemental income for a two-income household, at best. Or worse, a ticket to the poor house. Teachers today don’t get rich, by any means, but their lot is improved because of the work Hubbert and AEA has done.
In an act of racial detente and deal-making, Hubbert convinced Reed, then the head of the black teachers union, to combine the two organizations. Over the next two decades, they turned the AEA from a professional club into one of the state’s most potent political forces.
When Gov. George Wallace retired from Alabama politics, he left a political vacuum, which Hubbert and AEA came to fill, along with other special interest groups, chief among them, the trial lawyers. In essence, those special interest groups, became the Alabama Democratic Party. In the shift from the boss-style politics of Wallace, to the special interest politics that runs both parties today, Hubbert was an intermediate step for Alabama Democrats. He was a boss and the head of a special interest group.
But the inevitable shift had already begun. Lots of political observers blame the election of 1986 for the fall of the Alabama Democratic Party, but putting the blame on the Baxley-Graddick debacle ignores that the exact same political tide swept over every other state in the Solid South (including Louisiana, where last month the Democratic party failed to field a candidate in any statewide race).
If there was an opportunity to turn back the Republican’s fortunes, it was in 1990, when the retired Amway salesman from Holly Pond, Guy Hunt, faced his first reelection. Hubbert won the Democratic nomination for governor, but he couldn’t beat Hunt. It should have been clear then where Alabama was headed.
Hubbert went back to the AEA and maintained its dominance over state politics for two more decades. At times, he seemed like the banana republic dictator who forsakes the principles of the revolution that put him in power.
In particular, I remember the dismay a liberal friend of mine had last year, when the AEA funded a battery of campaign ads against the Republican GOP favorite Bradley Byrne. One of the ads blasted Byrne for believing in evolution and thinking it should be taught in schools.
“That’s the kind of crap Republicans are supposed to say about us,” my Dem friend said.
Hubbert covertly supported Byrne’s opponent in the Republican primary, then- Rep. Robert Bentley. A double-cross by Tuscaloosa developer and political firebrand Stan Pate, exposed the alliance. After the election, campaign finance disclosures proved AEA had been Bentley’s strongest supporter.
Hubbert had won his last battle, but he had lost his decades-long war. Both houses of the Alabama Legislature went Republican. Without his party, Hubbert was without his power.
AEA is not alone among teachers unions in decline. Across the country, many have fallen out of favor with the public, politicians and even the sitting president. The conventional wisdom, right or wrong, is that groups like the AEA have made charter schools the path of least resistance for meaningful education reform.
Regardless of the organization’s future, Hubbert’s career had run its course. Like his pets on the Alabama Senate floor, Hubbert filibustered as long as he could, until the Republicans finally cut him off.