Manley’s quiet confidence has created action

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 9, 2004

On one wall of the lobby of the offices of ManleyTraeger Perry and Stapp hangs a framed portrait of the Alabama State Capitol. In one corner of that painting is the logo “From the Private Collection of Governor George C. Wallace.”

Among the few magazines available for clients of that law office to peruse are these two: Inside the Auburn University Tigers and Bama Magazine.

Taken together, those two facts say much about Rick Manley’s lengthy political and professional career. The magazines attest to his ability to work with widely opposing viewpoints. The portrait of the Capitol is a reminder that he once walked the halls of power with some of the most legendary names in Alabama politics.

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Last week the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce presented Manley with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his years of service to the city and to the Black Belt as a whole. In addition to his years in the Legislature, it honors his years of service on the Demopolis City School Board, as city attorney, and as a board member and president of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce.

Manley mounted his first bid for public office in 1966; he left the field a quarter-century later in 1990. During that time he served in both houses of the Alabama Legislature and even made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress.

In all he ran for office nine times, winning seven of those times. Not a bad record, he allows — which is about as close as Rick Manley ever comes to bragging about his accomplishments.

“Campaigning is tough,” says Manley, 71. “It’s a lot of work. The cost is unbelievable and getting worse all the time. I probably spent about $1,500 the first time I ran in three counties, and I spent multiple times that the last time I ran.”

Over the years Manley’s interest in politics has presented him with numerous opportunities he likely would never have experienced otherwise, including an invitation to the Carter White House, and attending events as the personal guest of President Reagan.

It also has afforded him friendships with some of the most powerful people in recent Alabama history.

“As far as charisma and the ability to arouse the support of his constituency I’d have to say George Wallace had it,” Manley says. “Nobody excelled him. But for sheer political leadership I’d have to say (longtime Alabama House Speaker) Joe McCorquodale was the best I ever worked with.”

He also cited his friendship with the late Earl Goodwin as one of his most rewarding. Goodwin served in the Alabama Senate and was a crony of George Wallace. Together Goodwin and Manley led efforts to four-lane U.S. Highway 80 from Montgomery to the Mississippi border.

“We sort of split it into two projects,” Manley recalls. “Earl started in Selma and worked west and I started around Demopolis and worked east. The plan was to meet somewhere in the middle. If we could have gotten Uniontown to agree on things we might have finished it.”

That Manley found himself in politics at all would have to be considered something of a longshot. Adopted when he was 1 year old, he was raised in the town of Epes by parents who had just recently had triplets and lost them all. “This was before they had incubators,” Manley points out.

What had been a comfortable life became much tougher after his adoptive father, Richard S. Manley, died when Manley was just 6 years old.

“Epes was a very small town, still is,” Manley says. “Back then it had maybe 250 people and two doctors. That was back when money was tight. I remember when my dad died my mother got chickens and eggs for years from people trying to pay off their doctor bill.”

To make ends meet his mother took a job in a grocery store. When Manley was big enough he began to help out around the store, too. Summers he worked in a nearby sawmill.

Manley attended school in a one-room schoolhouse. But there was nothing second-class about the education he received there. When the family moved to California for a year, Manley found himself far more advanced than his fellow students.

“I was so far ahead of the rest of the class, I was double-promoted to the sixth grade,” he recalls. “Obviously I had gotten a pretty good education in that one-room schoolhouse in Epes.”

Following a stint in the Marines, Manley attended the University of Alabama and eventually received his law degree. After checking out all the possible locations to open a legal practice in Alabama, he narrowed his choices to Demopolis and the tri-cities area around Florence, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals. He chose Demopolis.

He opened his law practice on Sept. 1, 1958, taking “pretty much anything that came along.” As his practice prospered Manley increasingly began to turn his attention toward the political arena.

In addition to his efforts toward four-laning U.S. Highway 80, Manley is proudest of his role in championing the state’s reliance on current use tax for real estate. That statute has been criticized in some quarters as giving an unfair tax break to large land-holding companies, such as large farms and timber companies.

But for Manley it was simply a case of representing his constituents. “My district was heavily agricultural,” he explains.

If Manley has a lingering frustration from his days in the Legislature it is that at a time when the state’s economic base has been expanding its education system continues to suffer from inadequate funding. He blames the disproportional influence of the Alabama Education Association and its chief lobbyist, Paul Hubbert.

“An overwhelming majority of the money was put into salaries when it should have went for things like textbooks and transportation,” Manley insists. “I mean, in some cases we had school buses that were 25 years old and still being used. But we just never could get the votes to change things.”

Manley is proud, too, that he left the Legislature with his reputation for honesty and integrity intact.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to know where you stood on an issue you could take a count and be within two or three votes of the final tally. People stood by what they told you,” Manley says. “Today, you can take a count and it could be totally different 10 minutes later.”

Amongst all the memorabilia Manley has accumulated in his years in political office is a letter from former Gov. Fob James. In it James says of Manley, “His word was his bond.”

Rick Manley is silent for a long moment. “I’ve always appreciated that,” he says at last.

Not a bad legacy.