Over his two terms in the governor’s mansion, three powerful hurricanes damaged people and property along the Gulf Coast. A 2010 off-shore oil-rig explosion threatened to turn Alabama’s sandy, white beaches into a mucky mess while severely harming the livelihoods of millions of Alabamians. Major wars took a severe toll on members of the Alabama National Guard called to tours of duty in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. Scandals involving Riley’s predecessor, the two-year college system and, most recently, allegations of vote-buying in the state Senate have tarnished Alabama’s reputation. The state’s largest county has flirted with bankruptcy over bad debts. A distraction partly of Riley’s own making, a crisis over electronic bingo, roiled Alabama.
Worst of all has been a sharp economic downturn in the governor’s second term. The Great Recession left the state’s coffers in a tight spot. The state’s tax system is engineered in such a way that a dip in the fiscal road feels like a pothole; and the current once-in-a-generation slump has left a massive crater where our road to prosperity should be. Education budgets have been slashed multiple times. Unemployment hovered near double digits. Bad investments seriously wounded the state’s prepaid college fund.
Through it all, Gov. Riley has consistently handled everything thrown his way with (a.) a sunny, can-do demeanor and (b.) a laser-like focus on curing Alabama’s long-term ills.
Riley’s leadership in economic development is a model to follow. His pursuit of good-paying jobs has made the state a serious global competitor. His consistent call for more accountability and a higher ethical standard for state officials has been a difference-maker. While never divorcing himself from the “R” behind his name, Riley has kept the rank partisanship at a minimum, even as many fellow politicians across the country have done more dividing than uniting.
For these reasons and more, Bob Riley is The Anniston Star’s 2010 Alabamian of the Year. He is the third recipient of the annual award. In 2008, Albert Brewer, a former governor and longtime champion of state government reform, was the first recipient. Last year, Wikipedia developer and Huntsville native Jimmy Wales was Alabamian of the Year.
Each year, The Star’s editorial board considers AOY candidates under the guidelines of “An Alabamian (or Alabamians) who made a significant mark on events over the past year; someone who lived up to the state creed’s dictate ‘to foster her advancement within the statehood of the world.’” While deeds done in 2010 were strongly considered, we acknowledge that no person’s life can be reduced to a single year. So, achievements gathered over a lifetime were in full view.
Riley, 66, is a native of Clay County. Before entering elected office, he was a businessman in Ashland. First elected to Congress in 1996, he served three terms before running for governor in 2002 against incumbent Don Siegelman. An extremely close election gave a narrow advantage to Riley, who thereby took the reins in Montgomery with less than an overwhelming mandate.
“I see an Alabama full of hope,” Riley said during his January 2003 inauguration. “I see an Alabama where the governor is an honest servant of the people. But most importantly, I see an Alabama that is finally worthy of the people that call it home.”
For the most part, and far better than any administration in recent history, the Riley administration has lived up to that vision.
His first year in office saw him establish a committee to examine reforming state government’s antiquated constitution. Eventually, Riley pushed a sweeping amendment to right the state’s upside-down tax code. It was a serious attempt at bringing tax fairness and fiscal sanity to a state that has historically crippled its chances of growing prosperity. The special interests made all the more special by the current system ensured Amendment 1’s reforms never had a chance, slapping it down 2-to-1 at the polls thanks to a disgusting misinformation campaign.
Dusting himself off after the defeat, Riley urged that ethics and accountability should become a top priority for the Legislature in 2004 — as he eventually did every year after. Much of this ethics reform was not delivered until last month, when Republicans took charge of the state Senate and House for the first time in 136 years. The reforms passed during December’s special session of the Legislature are a jewel in Riley’s crown. It’s a wonder how much he could have done if legislators had outlawed their many ethically dicey perks six years earlier.
The administration’s aggressive economic development has paid long-lasting dividends. Riley continued to support the state’s growing auto-manufacturing sector. He was an advocate for the BRAC riches that fell on Huntsville, ushering a transition that will turn the north Alabama city into a high-tech corridor. And he has overseen the selection of Mobile as a location for German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp, a $4 billion plant that is expected to employ 2,700 when operating at capacity.
For these and other achievements, the Riley administration has been recognized nationally and regionally as a leader in economic development and workforce development.
Looking forward to life out of office, Riley recently suggested the creation of a think-tank dedicated to improving public schools in Alabama. We’d also remind him that he once mentioned taking a role in promoting the economic development of the former Fort McClellan, a project that could use Riley’s energy and know-how.
When he took office in 2003, this page wrote, “Alabama needs him, needs him to be a strong leader.”
In his eight years in office, Riley delivered on that wish more than any Alabamian could have expected.