The Bigger They Are The Harder They Fall

Opinion

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All good things eventually come to an end. Sometimes the end is pleasant and other times the end is very contentious. Such is the situation at the Business Council of Alabama (BCA). The original, and founding, Members included the leaders of the business community in Alabama and the companies they represented. The new organization represented a consolidation of the Alabama Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Alabama. It was thought that by combining resources the business community could have a more effective voice in shaping public policy in Alabama.

The first CEO of this new organization was Clark Richardson. Richardson had enjoyed a fine career with Alabama Power Company and immediately recruited an outstanding team of government affairs professional. BCA’s success with the Alabama Legislature was incredible and all was well for a number of years. The first major hiccup for BCA came in the form of legislation designed to address an issue that would result in a major membership divide. The legislation that dealt with “stranded costs” split the major manufacturers in Alabama and Alabama Power Company. As a result of this disagreement a group of manufacturers broke off and formed Manufacture Alabama, a group that is still in existence and a strong voice for the business community. In addition to the loss of Members, Richardson left BCA as its CEO. George Clark, the head of government affairs at BCA, also left and became the CEO of Manufacture Alabama.

After a detailed search process BCA hired Bill O’Conner as its CEO. O’Conner had a long tenure with the Alabama Press Association and was well respected in the Alabama Legislature. O’Conner assembled a team that included Toby Roth, Jim Gray, Carol Brown, Tim Brown and others. BCA became far more active in court races and ramped up efforts to build ProgressPAC, the political action committee for BCA. O’Conner remained at BCA as its CEO until the General Election victory of Bob Riley as Governor in 2002. O’Conner left BCA to head up efforts on behalf of Riley to pass what was to become known as Amendment 1. Further decimating the ranks of BCA’s government Affairs staff Riley hired Roth as his Chief of Staff. The interest in succeeding O’Conner was fierce and heated. Those who worked the Alabama Legislature as lobbyists wanted BCA to hire someone who was familiar with the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama political process. The newly elected Riley had other thoughts.

Riley, and then State Representative Mike Hubbard had forged a close relationship. Hubbard was then the House Minority Leader. Riley enlisted Hubbard’s help in pushing Washington based lobbyist (American Trucking Association CEO) Billy Canary for the job to replace O’Conner. Ironically, in the initial push to get Canary hired, Canary reportedly had the support of Senator Richard Shelby. (Shelby is now at the epicenter of the controversy at BCA.) Hubbard was so invested in getting Canary hired he sheparded Canary around the President’s Suite at the 2002 Auburn vs. Georgia football game introducing Canary to numerous Members of the BCA Board of Directors. The day before Riley’s inauguration the decision was made to hire Canary. So strong was Riley’s influence on the process that several very qualified people who were interested in the job never were given an opportunity to even talk to the Search Committee. It is important to remember that after the 2002 elections both the State Senate and State House of Representatives were controlled by Democrats. Canary was a very partisan New York Republican. It was suggested to one Member of the Search Committee, and former BCA Chairman, that the hiring of Canary would only serve to make BCA an arm of the Alabama Republican Party. The response from this individual was “so, what is wrong with that?”

Over the next eight years Riley, Hubbard and Canary set out to use BCA as the launching pad for a Republican takeover of the Alabama Legislature. In 2010 that goal was accomplished. During that eight year period Canary was fond of using terms such as “scorched earth” and “shock and awe” to describe how he was going to change things and make those that did not “get on board” pay. Not a good recipe for how to win friends and influence people but the three were successful in accomplishing their goal of Republican domination.

With the relationship Canary, and by extension BCA, had with Hubbard and Riley the BCA agenda proved to be very successful albeit the result of intimidation and fear mongering. A wise man once said that you can get anybody to do what you want when you hold a gun to their head. But you need to realize the day will eventually come when that same person is now holding the gun to your head, and that person will have a long memory. Bullies do not retain their power for ever and with the conviction of Speaker Mike Hubbard in June 2016, the tables turned on Canary and BCA. Their protector was gone and BCA had to fend for itself. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Canary, and BCA, had lost the protection they had enjoyed and now could not bully legislators into submission.

Fast forward from 2010 elections to June 2016. Hubbard is convicted, Luther Strange is blamed for his prosecution by Hubbard and BCA (Canary). Together they want to destroy Luther and his political future. Hubbard, having been convicted, is no longer a player or threat. BCA makes it their mission to destroy Luther. Therein they either 1) forgot about the close relationship between Strange and Senator Richard Shelby or 2) disregarded the relationship believing that BCA can triumph. Both were egregious mistakes on the part of BCA. Considering the major Committees Shelby is on in DC and now as Chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee he is one of the top three or four Members of the U. S. Senate with respect to power. In DC, as in Montgomery, access is sacred. Without access it is virtually impossible to get your message or agenda across. Shelby declared that Canary was persona non grata in his office and further stated that any company that remained a Member of BCA as long as Canary was there would suffer the same fate. Heavily regulated industries such as power generation, banking and insurance need that access and the urgency of dealing with Canary accelerated.

There are a number of theories about where the support for Canary is coming from and who is behind the support. Time will likely tell but it is clearly an issue that has become more urgent with each passing hour. The BCA Executive Committee is meeting today, Thursday, June 21 and the BCA Board is currently scheduled to meet on Monday, June 25. The immediate fate of both BCA and Canary could be decided as soon as Monday afternoon. The question no longer seems to be will Canary survive but when he will depart the premises and on what terms that departure will happen.

Several questions seem to be in order:

  • How many more departures will there be from the Membership of BCA before the bleeding is stopped?
  • The CEOs of the major companies that have resigned their memberships rarely, if ever, make major, public moves without an endgame plan. What is the planned endgame?
  • If BCA survives who will become the next CEO? Several names have surfaced but all have connections to some who might have questionable motives. Also, will those who have resigned reengage with BCA after Canary’s departure?
  • If the major companies decide not to rejoin BCA will they start a new organization or will they utilize an existing organization and expand its mission?

Time will tell but as is always the case when dealing with Alabama politics things are never boring.

Editor’s Note

The observations made in this issue of the Strategy Report are based on firsthand knowledge of the editor. The editor served from 1996-2005 on the Board of Directors of ProgressPAC and served as the Chairman of the BCA Government Affairs Committee from 1996-2002.

The views and opinions contained in this report do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the clients of Public Strategies, LLC.

 

The Alabama House will reconvene at Noon on Tuesday, January 8, 2019

 The Alabama Senate will reconvene at Noon on Tuesday, January 8, 2019