By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Few would blame Sen. Richard Shelby for slowing down a bit as his 60-year career in public service comes to a close this term. Quoting Ecclesiastes, Shelby himself says that the “season” of his government and politics life is ending after his sixth term in the U.S. Senate expires in January.
Even so, the longtime appropriator has his eye on one last opportunity coming this December in which he hopes to deliver more projects and funding for Alabama.
“The focus right now is to try and get those appropriations bills done between now and Christmas,” Shelby said Monday at the Business Council of Alabama’s “Evening of Progress” event.
“I think we can get it done. I hope we can.”
Shelby’s comments were indicative of a career spent working to steer hundreds of billions in funding, game-changing government projects and medical research grants back to his home state. It’s why hundreds of Alabama’s top business and political leaders gathered in Birmingham at the special event to honor Alabama’s longest serving senator and thank him for his service.
BCA Chairman Mike Kemp called Shelby Alabama’s “greatest statesman,” honoring him with the group’s “Distinguished Service Award.”
“No leader has done more for Alabama’s progress than Sen. Shelby,” Kemp said, specifically mentioning Shelby’s work to expand Alabama’s port, bring the FBI to Huntsville and grow medical research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “He has been a visionary leader in forging a 21st century economy with a focus on progress.”
That concept of focus was a recurring one throughout the evening. It was the word used by special guest Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to describe Shelby’s work in the Senate from an inside perspective.
“When you’re a United States senator like Richard and I have been for so long, you have a lot coming at you. It’s easy to get distracted, and many do. What sets Richard apart is his ability over the years to decide what he needs and what his state needs and maintain that focus no matter what comes up and no matter how long it takes to get it.”
McConnell and Shelby sat down with Kemp for a conversation recalling their many years serving together in the Senate. When Republicans last controlled the Senate, McConnell was Majority Leader while Shelby chaired the Appropriations Committee.
“Senators come and senators go, but Richard Shelby has been one of the most outstanding members of the Senate, certainly during my 38 years there, and you all have been fortunate to have him,”McConnell said.
In attendance were Gov. Kay Ivey, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, most of the state’s congressional delegation and dozens of other elected officials, as well as top business leaders from around the state.
Shelby himself wasn’t especially verbose, choosing instead to thank members of the audience, including his many staff, for their role in his legislative success.
“I’ve tried to make a difference,” Shelby said. “I think we have made a difference, and that’s what it’s all about. But I owe so much to the people in this room.”
Asked to recall a specific project or two that stuck out in his mind, Shelby recalled one from the early 2000s regarding higher education.
“I had folks from the University of Alabama come and tell me they needed funding to build up their engineering school. It was a big sum of money and the Legislature didn’t have it. I said, ‘I bet I can get the money’ and we did. And we rebuilt the program at the University of Alabama, with the help of a lot of people in this room.
“And then 30 days later Auburn came calling,” Shelby said to laughter. “So we were able to make both Auburn and Alabama happy, and that’s a feat.”
Shelby will have one last chance to make folks happy as the Appropriations Committee attempts to take up appropriations legislation by the end of the year. Congress last week passed a stop-gap measure to fund the government through December attempting to give lawmakers time to negotiate and pass appropriations titles in regular order by the end of the year.
Shelby acknowledged that, with the Senate so sharply divided, passing good legislation will be a challenge. And yet, with 95 days left in his career, Shelby is focused.
“With the 50-50 split in the Senate, and the vice president breaking the tie, you’re trying to interface with people on both sides and it’s a challenge,” he said.
“You’ve got to have leadership, that’s key. But then you also have to work at it everyday.”
Republican Katie Britt and Democrat Will Boyd are on the Nov. 8 ballot to replace Shelby.