Conservatives looking for successful reformers and rising stars in recent years have had good reason to watch Alabama, where federal Judge Bill Pryor, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, and Gov. Bob Riley, among others, have shown how solid conservative governance can work. Now Alabamans have another candidate in that same reformist-conservative mold.
Bradley Byrne, at age 54 already a veteran of 15 years in the front lines of battling the bad-old-boys of state politics, is polished and savvy. By most accounts he is the early frontrunner in next year’s six-person field for the Republican nomination to replace the term-limited Riley as governor. (The likely Democratic opponent is U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated, otherwise relatively moderate black Democrat who may be hampered in Obama-unfriendly Alabama by his status as having been the very first congressman outside of Obama’s home-state Illinois to have endorsed Obama for president well over two years ago.) With the mien of a perfect southern gentleman but with the energy of a distance runner combined with a native toughness, Byrne has particularly bedeviled the Alabama Education Association — one of the most powerful and regressive school-worker unions in the country.
And with 2010 shaping up to be a good Republican year in Alabama, a Gov. Byrne might enjoy a far friendlier state Senate than the one that has stymied a number of Gov. Riley’s initiatives. The opportunity to create a national model for conservative government is real, and it’s exciting.
Byrne is no back-slapping, honey-tongued populist. He has all the smarts one would expect from a Duke graduate, and fashioned a highly successful legal career after getting his J.D. from the University of Alabama. His style is analytical, incisive, and erudite in a way that is impressive and engaging rather than off-putting. In short, there is none of the bogus folksiness of some Arkansas governors or Cajun demagogues. Instead, Byrne comes across as the guy you immediately trust because he so clearly knows what he is talking about — but also as a guy you like because he is so palpably sincere.
After crusading for school reform as part of a task force of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, Byrne started his political career in southern Alabama by winning one of eight elected seats on the nine-member state board of education (the governor is the ninth), where he repeatedly clashed with the AEA. So powerful is the union that the state Legislature wouldn’t even pass a criminal background check for teachers when the union opposed it, and some legislators have been known literally to run across the street to the AEA headquarters to get instructions while floor votes are held open for them. Yet by the end of Byrne’s second term it was the union that was on the run on several big issues. Byrne cast the deciding vote (in a 5-4 tally) to hire respected reformer Ed Richardson as state superintendent over a candidate pushed by powerful AEA leader Paul Hubbert — the first time Hubbert ever lost a big vote. Byrne then led the way in strengthening the state’s graduation requirements, buttressing the math and science requirements and instituting a serious graduation exam.
Byrne then got elected to the state Senate, where he immediately became a de facto floor leader for new Gov. Riley.
Riley, who said he does not think it appropriate to make an intra-party primary endorsement for his successor, nevertheless told me last week that Byrne “a great guy and solid as a rock. He helped manage all the legislation we were interested in.”
Byrne is a bit more self-deprecating. “Facing a very liberal majority of the Senate, I learned fairly quickly that one of the best things I could do was to block bad bills. I was on the judiciary committee, and I was the speed bump there that alerted everybody there was a bad bill. We either kept it from coming up on the floor of the Senate at all or we beat it once it came up.”
He blocked an attempt to weaken the state’s ethics commission. He blocked a serious attempt to raise taxes. (“If we’ll stay in that room and work harder, we can find solutions that don’t require those taxes,” Byrne told the Birmingham News at the time. “We need to look in every corner. We need to turn over every rock.”) And again and again he blocked AEA’s agenda of weakening school accountability while garnering more benefits for administrative paper pushers.
Even with a conservative governor available to veto bad bills, blocking them in the Legislature in the first place is absolutely crucial in Alabama. The governor’s veto power in that state amounts to little more than a formal protest; by law, the veto can be overridden by the same simple majority vote that passed the bill in the first place.
Senate Republican Leader Jabbo Waggoner, a veteran of 17 years in the state House and now 20 in the state Senate, described Byrne thusly: “I don’t want anything I say to be construed that I am getting involved in the Republican primary. I have my own race to run. But I have seen a lot of state senators in my time, and Bradley stands in my opinion right at the top in terms of intelligence and willingness to debate an issue…. He had a vast amount of legal knowledge about any issue. He was not bashful about expressing it. It was usually the right opinion.”
Re-elected easily, Byrne suddenly found himself called on for a completely different job. Alabama’s two-year (community and junior) college system was wracked with scandal, with more than three dozen indictments and multiple convictions eventually stemming from a raft of violations including a fraudulent student-aid scheme, rampant misuse of funds, and a host of other problems. A former chancellor of the system was found guilty, as were several state legislators.
At Riley’s urging, the state school board hired Byrne away from the legislature to become Chancellor of the system and clean its almost Augean-like stables. One of Byrne’s strongest allies in the effort, oddly enough, was the man he had beaten in the Republican primary for his state Senate seat six years earlier. That defeated candidate, Randy McKinney, was in turn appointed by Riley to fill the state school board seat Byrne vacated upon his legislative election.
“Bradley won the Republican runoff,” McKinney told me, “but during the campaign we met and our families met and I saw his compassion and desire to be a public servant…. I’m not a good loser, but it wasn’t hard feelings.” When the board six years later accepted Riley’s recommendation to hire Byrne as the new chancellor of the two-year college system, McKinney and Byrne led the effort to clean up the mess. They fired the malefactors. They put all the system’s financial transactions online for all to see. They reworked the system’s entire policy manual. They cut $70 million from an $800 million budget without major layoffs. And after another epic battle against the AEA, they ended the practice of state legislators working (or at least taking salaries) from the two-year system — a clear conflict of interest, as they also control the system’s budget and thus their own paychecks and benefits.
“Bradley is a problem solver,” said McKinney, who is enthusiastically backing Byrne for governor. “He looks for the way things should be rather than the way they have always been.”
“The reason I put Bradley over there is he is very bright and he is tough as nails,” Gov. Riley told me. “He went through a barrage of criticism and he never wavered.”
When Byrne succeeded, by virtually all accounts, in cleaning up the community colleges after such a high-profile series of scandals, his statewide profile rose accordingly. Hence, “the door opened” for a run for governor, according to his dynamo wife Rebecca, currently head of the United Way of Baldwin County, farm-heavy in its northern parts and a tourist mecca on its gorgeous white-sand Gulf beaches. The counties of Baldwin and neighboring Mobile — where Byrne grew up and where his grandfather was a reformist sheriff back in 1926 — are among the most Republican in the state, giving Byrne a solid base for the party primary.
Byrne’s campaign focus is on ethics, education, and economic development. Most of the details of his platform are state-specific, but he is aware that states can serve as laboratories for reform nationwide.
“I believe I am the candidate in the race who can bring the conservative style of government to office that is a clear alternative to the liberal democrats in Washington,” he told me. “I am talking about all these reforms in a no-new-taxes environment. We need state examples of that to show the federal government how it needs to do it.”
Of most interest to national audiences are Byrne’s stresses on charter schools and on lawsuit reform.
“Our law does not allow for charter schools,” he explained. “That is something that has been consistently opposed by the teachers union, but it’s a big part of my platform…. I talk about the need for charters in every stump speech I give, and it is received very favorably by all audiences. I’ve had a number of conversations with former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and his staff. I think what they have done is a good model and they have offered to help us implement it in Alabama and I welcome their help.”
Meanwhile, on lawsuits, Byrne explained: “We have no limit on damages for pain or emotional distress… and for the most part no limit on punitive damages. There is a limit but it is not the limit you see in other states; it is not a hard and fast one. It only applies in a few cases and there are still cases in which a jury can put whatever they want in there. We still get verdicts out of Alabama that are way too high. Even though there have been notable state supreme court cases that overturn those verdict sizes, the expense to the litigant has been so high … that you have greater pressure to settle or to settle for a higher amount than you would have otherwise. While we have made a lot of progress in Alabama on tort reform we still aren’t where we need to be yet.”
Those who have watched Byrne’s whole career are convinced he can get his reforms through if he’s elected. One of them is Howard Bronson, who retired last month after 18 years as the unabashedly Reaganite-conservative publisher of the Mobile Press-Register, where he first encountered Byrne during Byrne’s work on the Mobile Chamber’s education task force.
“He showed a lot of management skill as well as a lot of intestinal fortitude standing up to the AEA both in the Legislature and with managing the junior college situation,” Bronson told me. “He acted decisively and effectively…. From the first time I met Bradley he impressed me not only as a very intelligent fellow but a guy with a lot of integrity. I was delighted when he decided to go into politics. Intelligence and integrity are rare commodities. He has proven that my assessment of him was 100% correct.”