Birmingham’s Political Inside Man
By Steve Flowers
Historically, political power in the state has rested in the rural counties. Birmingham has been the home of the “Big Mules,” where the money that fueled the gubernatorial campaigns came from, but very few Birmingham politicians have ascended to governor or U.S. senator. Counties like Barbour and Cullman have been where governors are bred, not imperial Jefferson. Indeed, the small-town boys that ran for governor would demagogue and make fun of and run against the “Big Mules” of the Magic City, especially the village of Mountain Brook. Therefore, the legendary king makers in the state were the probate judges in the rural counties throughout the Heart of Dixie.
The giants of Alabama political lore, Big Jim Folsom, and George Wallace won their races in the rural counties. They would run against the “got rocks,” “Big Mules” and silk-stocking Mountain Brook and Over the Mountain elite, so it was not surprising that Wallace nor Big Jim ever carried Jefferson County.
Business, not politics, prevailed in Jefferson County. Therefore, Birmingham did not yield as many inside political men as might be expected of the major city of the state. However, there has been one go to political kingmaker in Birmingham in my generation. Joe Fuller has been the go-to man to see in the Magic City, especially in Republican primaries.
Fuller was proudly born and raised in Birmingham and knows the city like the back of his hand. Fuller has been a successful, independent insurance agent his entire career, and has led the Alabama Independent Insurance Agents Association for decades.
He began his civic political involvement in his 20’s through the legendary Birmingham Jaycees. He, like a good many of Birmingham’s civic and political leaders, cut their teeth in the Birmingham Jaycees. This group were the original founders of Birmingham’s Legion Field. The Birmingham Jaycees were the training ground for the leaders of the city. Some of Fuller’s contemporaries in the 1960s and early ‘70s were Fox DeFuniak, J. Mason Davis, David Wheeler, Julian Smith, George McMillan, and George Siebels.
The Birmingham Jaycees became the springboard for Siebels to be elected mayor of Birmingham in 1965. Fuller was instrumental in helping to orchestrate Siebel’s victory. Thus, began Fuller’s reign as the kingmaker of Birmingham politics.
Fuller would start candidates off in his stately home on top of a hill in the historic Redmont neighborhood in Birmingham. He would have a gathering of 20 to 30 at an elegant meal, which he primarily prepared.
His first major horse he bet on was McMillan. He helped McMillan get elected to the legislature and then helped mastermind McMillan’s historical upset of State Senator George Lewis Bailes. He then helped manage his successful run for Lt. Governor and then saw him almost beat George Wallace for governor in 1974.
It has been my honor and privilege to have known Fuller for almost 40 years and have had the opportunity to be invited to his great political gatherings over those years. I have watched him as he helped launch the career of Birmingham Congressman Spencer Bachus, who served in the legislature before serving in Congress 20 years. Fuller was extremely close to legendary State Representative John Hawkins. He has been a loyal supporter of iconic State Senator John Waggoner over all of his almost five decades in the state legislature.
Fuller has been and was one of early supporters of my great friend and legislative colleague, Mike Hill. Hill served three decades in the House from Shelby County and is now the State Banking Commissioner.
Fuller has been close-to another longtime veteran state legislator, Jim Carnes. Carnes has been at almost all of Fuller’s political dinner parties as he helped launch the political careers of legislators Paul DeMarco, David Wheeler and Dan Roberts. Fuller was instrumental in the election of State Senator Steve Windom as Lt. Governor. Fuller’s house was Windom’s first stop.
Fuller was one of the founders of the renowned Mid-Alabama Republican Club, which meets monthly in Vestavia. It is a sought-after invitation to speak for all aspiring statewide Republican candidates, as are his dinner parties.
The first place that Jeff Sessions came to when he first began his political career as attorney general of Alabama was Fuller’s home. Fuller supported Sessions during his entire 20-year career in the U. S. Senate. Sessions will never forget it.
A good many of Alabama’s political leaders have found their way to the home of “ole” Joe Fuller atop Red Mountain over the last 40 to 50 years.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.