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Riley reflects on time in office, legacy

Governor Bob Riley will be replaced as governor today by Robert Bentley.

By Tim Reeves

The Selma Times-Journal

Legacy. It’s a word most politicians begin to think of regularly as their days in office grow fewer.

How will history remember their public service? From their first day in office to the last, did they make a difference? Did they leave the office better than they had found it?

For outgoing Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, those questions, and more, have been swirling around the Clay County native for months as he prepares to leave office Jan. 17.

Despite years of enduring the grind of Washington, D.C. politics as a Congressman and eight years of braving the turbulent political winds of Montgomery, Riley has maintained his iconic southern genteel. His cowboy boots remained polished, his Reagan-esque hairstyle has rarely been disturbed and devotion to his wife, Patsy, has never been stronger.

With just a few days remaining in his two terms as governor, Riley took time to stop and look at his tenure in office. And while he discussed some of the challenges his administration faced over the past eight years, there is one thing missing from Riley’s vocabulary: regret.

“Am I going to miss it? Yeah,” he said of leaving office. “Tom Ridge (former governor of Pennsylvania) told me, ‘You’ll enjoy this more than anything you’ve ever done.’ And, he was right. I wouldn’t take anything for the eight years I’ve had — good and bad times.”

As for Riley’s opinion on where Alabama is today compared to the day he took office in January 2003, he may not be satisfied, but he is pleased.

“I think Alabama has become the state — whether it is in economic development, education and now in ethics — that every other state looks up to.”

In fact, the one question everyone has asked the governor as he leaves office is what his future holds. What will he do next?

“I’m not sure,” he said, quickly deferring to his wife. “Patsy hasn’t told me yet. But she will.”

Shoring up Alabama’s Black Belt

Some economic leaders might question the success of the Black Belt Action Commission, launched by Riley’s executive order in 2004, but Riley touted the group’s work, so much so that it has been copied in other areas of the state.

“Look at the jobs that were created in the economic development sector; look at what was done in tourism and all of the really innovative things they did; it truly was remarkable,” Riley said. “At one time there was not a place — before the recession hit — in the Black Belt that had double-digit unemployment, which was remarkable in itself.”

Since the recession though, and even now as the economy has appeared to strengthen, many areas of Alabama’s poorest region, are again mired in double-digit unemployment, though not at the levels they were in 2004.

“Had it not been for the recession, we [would have] had two or three big announcements for the Black Belt. But, it wasn’t just the economics; it was what they achieved with education reform as well,” he said. “From where they were eight years ago, they made remarkable progress. Made such remarkable progress, and they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, today we have a similar commission for the Wiregrass for the quad cities, East Alabama.”

And although Riley and Gov.–elect Robert Bentley have spent a tremendous amount of time together in recent weeks leading up to Monday’s inauguration, Riley is not sure if the focus on the Black Belt will continue under Bentley’s leadership.

“I really hope it does. There has been too much effort put into it to let it languish now,” Riley said, adding he’s not sure local leadership would allow the area to step back. “And I really think … the leadership in the Black Belt areas understand how remarkable what they have achieved is. They will be reluctant to let it slip away.”

Highways: Some big projects completed, some remain unfinished

If you drive along U.S. 280 from Auburn through Alexander City toward Birmingham, you find a road that provides a comfortable, four-lane ride through the heart of East Alabama.

The road winds through growing municipalities, cashing in on the increased traffic and development brought with it.

What many forget is the highway had wobbled its way to completion over the better part of a generation before finally being finished a few years ago, under Riley’s administration.

The construction and expansion project didn’t begin under Riley, but he was the one in office who helped see the final appropriation dollars spent.

That highway, along with Highway 157 in Alabama’s Quad Cities, is among the decades-long highway projects that were finished while Riley was governor.

One such project that in its infancy is the proposed Interstate 85 expansion, linking Montgomery to Meridian through Alabama’s Black Belt.

While many agree the project is needed and some preliminary studies are under way, Riley is quick to point out government and economic leaders don’t need to sit around and wait for the project to be completed to get moving.

“They would have missed a heck of a lot of opportunity between now and then,” Riley said. “We’ve set aside $100 million to start it. It’ll probably be a decade or more before any construction is started. Completing it may take 15 years.”

A route for the expansion has been selected and environmental impact studies and archeological work are under way, but the first turn of a construction shovel is not yet planned.

“I hope the area doesn’t wait on that to be a catalyst for what they want to accomplish,” Riley said. “It’s going to take a generation almost to make those lasting infrastructure improvements. In the interim there is a multitude of things that can go in there to improve the quality of life.”

Shaping the debate on gambling

If there were any issue that may shape Riley’s gubernatorial legacy, other than his handling of natural — and some man-made — disasters, it would be the ongoing debate and legal battle over gambling.

From the development of gaming centers in such places as White Hall in Lowndes County to the Governor’s Task Force on Gambling, proponents of gaming have hedged their bets against Riley and to this point, lost big.

“Never once have the gamblers won,” Riley said of any legal case in Alabama questioning the legality of gambling. “There has never, never been a case where the gamblers won in Alabama. Never.”

From slot machines in Walker County to Cullman to state-led raids on dog tracks in Greene County and Macon County, the past two years have seen sweeping enforcement of the state’s anti-gaming laws.

“As of today, as far as I know, there are no illegal slot machines operating in Alabama,” Riley said.

And, it appears the focus on gaming will continue in the next administration, as Gov.-elect Bentley has appointed incoming Attorney General Luther Strange to continue the task force.

But while it appears gaming institutions on state land has, for the most part, been settled thanks to raids, confiscations and indictments, the growing gaming industry by the Porch Creek Indians has persisted. But, Riley said the issue is out of the state’s hands and lies with the federal government.

“We have no authority over the reservations or what they do there. It’ll be up to the federal government with what they do there,” Riley said. “But again, what we’ve been told is they can’t do anything that is disallowed in our state. But they can do everything that is allowed. The law has to be the same for all people.”

A more ethical state government

In one of the more sweeping moves by Riley during his eight years in office, he quickly took advantage of a historic election — and sizeable Republican mandate — in November 2008 to finally push through ethics legislation.

“We needed a government that was as honest as the people we served and that was kind of like closing the circle of everything we had hoped we could do when we first came into office eight years ago,” Riley said of the seven bills the Legislature approved in a special session in December 2010.

While the legislation itself drew little criticism, it was Riley’s persistence of holding a special session of the Alabama Legislature — and the costs associated with such a move — that drew fire.

“There were a lot of things in our call that I wanted to make sure were in the call,” Riley said of the items he placed before the Legislature in their special session. “The only way that I could guarantee that everything was in going to be in there is if I called the special [session] myself.”

For eight years, Riley had sent the legislation — much of which went to controlling the power and influence lobbyists, such as the Alabama Education Association, had over legislators in Montgomery — to the Legislature, only to see it turned away by the Democratic majority. That wasn’t the case in December, where Riley found a welcome environment, with the Republicans now in charge in both the House and Senate.

“There was also a momentum, an enthusiasm with this new legislature that they wanted to do something fundamentally different; they wanted to draw a line in the sand on how they wanted to govern,” Riley said of the GOP-led Legislature. “You had a group of people elected, primarily because of what they said they would do with ethics reform. I’m not too sure that if you had allowed it to go to April, May, maybe there would be that level of passion, intensity of doing, but it might not have been.”

Riley added the new ethics laws passed by the Legislature, gives Alabama among the strongest ethics laws in the country, and sets a standard of governing for some time.

“I think you have something that will be in place for the next 30 to 40 years,” Riley said. “It was hard to pass. But once you pass it, it is even more difficult to go back to the old ways.”

Lasting effects of disasters

When asked about how his administration dealt with disasters, whether it was hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms or ice storms — or even those man-made such as this past summer’s BP oil spill — Riley is quick to point to the systems in place; the responders on the ground and the structured response the state now enjoys.

During his administration, he has faced storms by the name of Ivan and Katrina, tornadoes that ripped through high schools and tar balls washing up on sugar-white beaches.

“Jeb Bush (former governor of Florida) told me ‘you’ll be judged more how you handle catastrophes, how you handle hurricanes than anything you do,’” Riley recalled. “And, there’s a lot of truth to that.”

And Riley credits the work of his cabinet — a cabinet that he once bragged about to then President George W. Bush, saying “I’ll put my cabinet up against yours anytime” — for the effective response to disasters under his administration.

“Blessed with in this administration, we’ve probably had the best cabinet Alabama has ever had,” Riley said. “And because of that, we got through some difficult times because we had great people running the organizations.”

But the one disaster that has led to near economic disaster in the southern part of the state, political unrest in the state capitol and uneasiness among those fishing the waters just off the coast, was the summer’s oil spill.

“Absolutely not,” Riley said when asked if the state was prepared to meet the challenges of the oil spill. “Everyone assumed that if there was a leak, it would be small and you could mitigate the damage.

“And then you see that 49 million barrels were released. I don’t think anyone anticipated that.”

As oil from the ruptured well made its way on shore in Louisiana and Mississippi, Riley was frustrated with the directed response from Washington, D.C., that he felt hindered his own efforts in protecting Alabama’s coast.

“I want to make sure Alabama is never in the position that we were in this time, where people in Washington, D.C., were making a fundamental decision where resources were necessary,” Riley said. “Each one of the coastal states had an emergency plan in case this happened. But then when they started to take all of our resources, the boom away from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and shipping to Louisiana. No. What was ours should have stayed here.”

Now that the beaches are nearly back to their pre-oil spill condition, Riley is looking to the state’s future.

Unsure of whether or not tourists, who had to shift their travel plans to others parts of the country, will come back to the Gulf Coast this summer, Riley said all he and other leaders can do is work to reassure everyone things are better.

“I don’t think any of us know what is going to happen next year, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Riley said. “We’ve been spending millions and millions of dollars talking about the quality of seafood that comes out of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Everyone out there began to think that ‘it must be OK, because of all the tests show us it’s OK’ until suddenly one shrimper, pulls one load of shrimp that’s contaminated,” Riley said. “And then everything we have done up to that point to ensure everyone what the quality of the shrimp was going to be harvested was gone.”

Riley said time is the only answer to how the Gulf Coast and the rest of the state will recover.

Passing the torch

Riley will see his term in office end Monday. He is set to return home to Clay County or will spend a little time at his place on Lake Martin.

But, in the meantime, he has been working to ensure all of the projects his administration has worked — and all the fires that are still requiring his attention — are handled seamlessly.

“We just start talking,” Riley says of his meetings with Bentley. “A 15 minute meeting turns into an hour and a half. A one hour scheduled meeting turns into two and half hours and we just talk about everything that’s going on.”

With 22 cabinet agencies and the financial struggles still facing the state, the oil spill response and other items facing the next administration, Riley said he hopes he can help smooth over the transition.

“What I hope those talks do is give (Bentley) a flavor of how government operates and how this office needs to operate — and in at least my opinion — to address all the problems that you face on a daily basis,” Riley said.

As for how he looks back on the efforts in office and those the new administration is about to face, Riley falls back on a saying from his grandfather.

“You know, granddad was right,” Riley said. “We plan and God chuckles.”