Inside the Statehouse Richard Shelby – Alabama’s Greatest U.S. Senator

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Steve Flowers

By Steve Flowers

OPINION —

Our iconic senior United States Sen., Richard Shelby, turns 88 this week. Shelby is in the waning months of his monumental career in the Senate. He will end his tenure at the end of this year after 36 years in the U.S. Senate.

Shelby is one of the most influential senators in Washington. His prowess at bringing federal dollars to our state from Washington is unparalleled in the annals of Alabama history. Indeed, Shelby may go down in American history as one of the greatest procurers of federal dollars funded to their state from the U.S. Treasury. He may only be surpassed by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

There is not a city or county in Alabama that has not benefitted from Shelby’s seniority and power. Every major university has received additional federal dollars for development and new buildings. He has literally transformed the University of Alabama. An entire section of the massive campus has a cadre of buildings, mostly science, technology and engineering that are or should be named for him because he brought the money from Washington to pay for them.  

UAB is one of the premier research and medical institutions in America because of Shelby. Huntsville is one of the fastest-growing and most prosperous high-technology cities in America due to the influence of Shelby. The largest FBI facility in America has been moved from Washington D.C. to Huntsville, Alabama, under the direction of Shelby. In his last hurrah, Shelby essentially has brought immense federal funding to completely rebuild and deepen Alabama’s port in Mobile.

His last years have been spent chairing the United States Senate Appropriations Committee.  However, during his illustrious career, he has also been chairman of the Banking Committee, the Intelligence Committee and the Rules Committee.

There has never been, nor will there probably ever be, an Alabama U.S. Senator to reach the pinnacle of power of Shelby. It should be noted that Shelby served with distinction and effectiveness in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years prior to being first elected to the Senate in 1986.

In my 2015 book “Of Goats and Governors, Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories,” I have a chapter entitled “Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators.” The chapter includes Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Shelby. If I were writing that book today, Shelby would be alone as the greatest. Folks, that is saying a lot.  

Hill and Sparkman were giants in Washington and tremendous ambassadors for Alabama. Both Sparkman and Hill served for 32 and 30 years, respectively, in the Senate with austere distinction. They served in tandem for more than 20 years and were respected giants on Capitol Hill. Our Hill-Sparkman team was unsurpassed in power and prestige from 1946 to 1970. They were admired not only in Alabama but throughout the nation.

Hill was considered one of the greatest U.S. Senators. He was a statesman and the ultimate southern gentleman. He was chairman of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, as well as a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. He was known as the father of most of America’s rural hospitals through his authorship and stewardship of the Hill-Burton Act. He also was the father of our crown jewel, UAB Medical Center.

Sparkman was a U.S. Senator from Alabama for 32 years. He, like Hill, served a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to his Senate career. Sparkman was chairman of the Banking Committee, which also oversaw housing. He was the author of all housing legislation, including creating HUD.  Sparkman is also the father of the space and rocket development in Huntsville. In fact, Huntsville would probably be more appropriately named “Sparkmanville”. Sparkman was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1952.

Shelby has continued Sparkman’s and Hill’s legacy by sustaining our crown jewels of Huntsville Space and Rocket Center and the UAB Medical Complex in Birmingham.

Shelby has left an indelible mark on our state that will be felt by Alabamians for generations.

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. Flowers may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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