JM 1-3 Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

If you’re a teacher in Alabama, what group represents you in Montgomery? If you’re a farmer or a landowner, who fights for your interests? What about the state employees out there? Anybody screaming when you don’t get a pay raise?

I know those are dumb questions to ask so early in the year. We’ve all heard of the Alabama Education Association, ALFA and the Alabama State Employees Association. For that matter, most of us know Paul Hubbert, Jerry Newby and Mac McArthur head those associations.

Now, if you live in West Alabama, what group represents you in Montgomery? On a broader scope, what group represents you in Washington, D.C.? Let’s see if we can’t come up with a few answers, starting right here in Demopolis.

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Well, there’s the mayor, the city council, the county commission, the chamber of commerce, the industrial board, the state senators who never show up, the state representatives who never show up, the U.S. Representative who does show up, and our U.S. Senators who show up every once in a while.

What about in Eutaw, Greensboro, Livingston or Marion? When you need something done at the decision-making level, where do you turn? The mayor? The city council? The county commission?

Don’t take anything away from our local political leaders. They serve an important purpose of making sure the roads get paved, the water is turned on and the trash gets emptied a couple of times a week. They balance our local budgets and allocate money when the Blue Boys want to build a gondola for the elementary school.

Unfortunately, the job description of local politicians doesn’t include making trips to Montgomery or Washington, D.C.

So, let’s get back to the question of representation for West Alabama. Where do we turn when we have an idea about social and economic improvement? For the past few decades, as citizens in the area have cried out for help, who has listened and acted on those cries?

Here’s the harsh, but honest, answer: No one.

There will be many who take exception to that opinion. Only U.S. Rep. Artur Davis will have any legitimacy in his complaint. Over the past year, Davis has listened to us. He has created task forces, held town meetings and hosted rural summits. He’s accomplished the easy, but vital, part. What happens next, we’ll have to see.

As much as I admire his work in our region, Davis probably won’t be the person who helps four-lane U.S. Highway 80. He’s probably not the person who will four-lane Highway 43. Sure, one day he may vote for a bill that provides money to complete those projects — and he may swing a few votes with him — but his job is to legislate, not lobby.

And there it is, folks. As rancid as the word may sound in this day of election finance reform, having a lobbyist is the key to success for any organization (translated: Group of people with the same interest.)

When teachers in Alabama want something done, they don’t call Bob Riley. They call Paul Hubbert.

When farmers and landowners want to kill a tax bill, they don’t call the state treasurer. They call Jerry Newby.

When state employees dispute a cut in their personal benefits, they don’t call the state finance director. They call Mac McArthur.

When people in West Alabama want a road paved, we don’t call anybody. Remember that harsh answer? Who helps us when we ask?

The reason no one listens is because we’ve never figured out who to ask, and we still haven’t. As kind and sweet as our chamber directors and industrial developers and mayors and county commissioners are, they are not the ones who will help our area develop. Yes, they have great networking tools, but they have to pave our county roads and city streets. They have to figure out why John Q. Messy didn’t get his garbage emptied last Thursday.

Earlier this week, I began interviewing some officials about the proposed Alabama-Mississippi economic alliance. I wanted to know the status of the project. I wanted to know if any money had been allocated yet.

I talked to a new spokesperson for Sen. Shelby, and in the course of our conversation (which could have gone on for days), I told her about the needs of our region. Want to know what she asked?

“So do you all have any sort of lobbyist?”

“That’s something you should consider,” she said.

She’s right.

In West Alabama and the Black Belt, we’ve got hundreds of little organizations that try to change the region. So far, they’re all still trying.