From the Statehouse
As the 2012 Legislative Session evolves, I am reminded of my days as a legislative page during the early 1960s. George Wallace was governor and the Capitol Press Corps was remarkable.
Television had not yet become the premier medium. Newspapers were still King of the Hill.
The capitol reporters who covered Goat Hill were legends. The most legendary was Bob Ingram of The Montgomery Advertiser.
Others included the likes of Al Fox of The Birmingham News, Hugh Sparrow of The Birmingham News, Rex Thomas of the Associated Press, Don Martin of UPI and Clarke Stallworth of The Birmingham Post Herald.
A young cub reporter named Jim Bennett joined Stallworth in 1961.
With the passing of the Mobile Press Register’s Bill Sellers in February 2011, Jim Bennett may be the last surviving member of the famous 1964 Capitol Press Corps.
Bennett parlayed his newspaper career into a political career in 1978. He ran for and was elected to the legislature from Homewood.
He was reelected to the House in 1982. After eight years in the State House he moved to the State Senate in 1983 and was elected three times to the Senate from Jefferson County.
As the 1994 election cycle approached, Bennett was planning to run for Alabama Secretary of State.
Jim Folsom suddenly succeeded Guy Hunt as governor and appointed Bennett to the Secretary of State post in 1993. Bennett went on to win on his own in the 1994 election.
He was elected first in 1994 as a Democrat and then was elected to a second term in 1998 as a Republican. In the 1998 race he became the first Republican to be elected Secretary of State since Reconstruction.
Bennett and Fob James are the only two people in state history to have been elected to statewide office as a Democrat and as a Republican.
Fob James was elected governor in 1978 as a Democrat and then as a Republican in 1994.
In 2003 Gov. Bob Riley appointed Jim Bennett Commissioner of Labor. Gov. Bentley asked Bennett to stay on as Alabama Labor Commissioner with his administration.
Bennett is enjoying his days a Labor Commissioner. He has a majestic view of the Capitol he covered as a young reporter in the 1960s.
Bennett is 71 years old. If you assume that you are an adult at 21, then Bennett has had a 50-year span as an adult.
Over the past 50 years he has spent 15 years in the legislature, 10 years as Secretary of State, 10 years as Labor Commissioner, five years as a public relations executive and 10 years as a reporter.
That means he has spent over 35 years in the political arena and only 10 years covering that arena.
However, when you visit with Bennett he harkens back to his days as a young capitol political reporter for the now defunct Birmingham Post Herald.
One of Bennett’s first assignments in Montgomery was covering George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address known as the “Gauntlet in the Dust Speech.”
When Wallace proclaimed his famous quote, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Bennett would cover Wallace’s forays into the presidential primaries throughout the nation. He also covered the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.
He was in Tuscaloosa on a hot June day in 1963 when Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama.
Bennett covered Wallace throughout the tumultuous 1963-1972 decade from the schoolhouse door, Madison Square Garden, his 1968 presidential run and even at Wallace’s assassination attempt, when he was gunned down at a Maryland campaign rally during his 1972 presidential run.
During the Civil Rights era it was not uncommon for Bennett to interview George Wallace, Martin Luther King and Bull Connor all in the same day.
When asked why he made the jump from covering Alabama politics to becoming a participant, Bennett reminisces that one day while covering the Senate some particularly silly childlike antics were underway and it dawned on him, “Heck I can do this.”
Now, 35 years later he can look back on an illustrious career in public office in Alabama and say, “Heck, I guess I did it and more.”
Bennett can look out his office in the RSA building on Union Street across from the Capitol and reflect on his four decades watching the happenings on Goat Hill.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 75 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.