In his first elected office, Sen. Keith Kelley, R-Anniston, describes himself as a political outsider.
Kelley won Senate Seat 12 after advancing to the runoff in a crowded GOP primary election. He won the general election with 73.6% of the vote to represent the district that includes all of Calhoun County and eastern Talladega County.
“I went out and talked to people one-on-one and listened to what they had to say — it seemed like a lot of people were talking at voters,” Kelley said. “In those conversations, I found that if you listen more than talk, you’ll learn a lot more about what’s really on people’s minds.”
The seat was previously held by six-term Sen. Del Marsh, who did not seek reelection.
Before running for public office, Kelley was president of the Alabama Association of Realtors and on the National Association of Realtors board of directors. Through these roles, he began learning what he says prepared him for the Legislature.
“I’ve watched how policy has been arrived at over the years, and it was something that I started to keep up with a lot,” Kelley said. “I got involved in political affairs committees with various organizations I was in and wanted to try to make a difference in some things.”
After the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, Kelley said he played a role in negotiations with federal entities to secure a settlement for Alabama Realtors.
As a business owner since age 19, Kelley plans to be an ally for small businesses.
“Starting a business young created my desire to help others and want to see others succeed in small business,” Kelley said. “Smaller businesses are very in tune with the community when there are needs at the local school or district. Big businesses are good, but small businesses are made up of a lot of people trying to fulfill their dreams.”
The senator has been assigned to seven committees: Finance and Taxation General Fund; State Governmental Affairs; County and Municipal Government; Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development; Children and Youth Health; Veterans, Military Affairs; and Public Safety committees.
Q&A with Sen. Keith Kelley:
Q: Early in your campaign, you described yourself as a political outsider. What made you want to run for state Senate?
A: “I’ve been interested in state government for a very long time. I’ve watched how policy has been arrived at over the years, and it was something that I started to keep up with a lot. I got involved in political affairs committees with various organizations I was in and wanted to try to make a difference in some things. So, I put some time into prayer about it and realized that it was something I was supposed to do at this point in my life.”
Q: While it’s not a public position, you have been heavily involved in the state Realtors association, and the national organization. What insights did that activity give you to how the Legislature operates?
A: “Quite a bit. I learned a lot about the tax structure and private property rights. I think whenever you look at businesses trying to expand and grow, the different obstacles they run into, regulatory, those types of things, can prevent areas from growing because of all the barriers to new business coming in. And new business coming in usually creates jobs that can change a lot of people’s lives. So that’s part of it. And then another thing is when you have natural disasters, you often have duplication of services, and different agencies and ways to minimize that make a difference.”
Q: Since you mentioned your experience dealing with natural disasters and the allocation of resources, can you talk about your experience with the BP oil spill?
A: “Whenever I got involved in that, Gov. (Bob) Riley asked me to be heavily involved in that. So when it started, I felt like I was dealing with a natural disaster. It was mainly an economic situation at the time.
As I got into it, I started talking to some folks affected in the real estate industry — most real estate agents are independent contractors, so it’s like they’re self-employed; as a result, they’re not eligible for a lot of government aid when bad things happen…”
Q: You started your first business at 19 and have been a job creator ever since; can you talk to me a little bit about your journey as a business owner and how this will benefit you in the Legislature?
A: “The good thing about starting a business when you’re young is you don’t know you’re not supposed to be successful because you aren’t. I had other people counting on me —I married and started a family young, so I had no choice but to make it and succeed.
It’s something that I had always dreamed of and always wanted to do. The other thing about starting young is that people often think you’re not real savvy because you’re young, so it allows you to see the people you deal with that want to help you along the way and the others that want to take advantage of the situation and try to take advantage of you.
The other thing is that when you help small businesses grow, you help people create jobs. It’s like being part of a much larger organization in your area, and it’s a way to give back to the community. Small businesses are the backbone of what builds and helps the economy.
…So, it also helps you give people opportunities that a larger workforce might not offer those opportunities.”
Q: You had a crowded primary field in May. How did you connect with voters?
“I went out and didn’t just depend on advertising.
…I learned a lot from conversations. Some of it is accurate, and some of it’s not, but once you do, you find out what’s important to voters. And sometimes, it’s not necessarily what you think it might be.
A real good example was when I talked with different teachers individually. It was surprising how many teachers were scared for their safety in the classroom. That’s something I hadn’t heard of before in real life but hearing it from several teachers from different areas that probably don’t even know each other helps you be aware of that. Then you find other issues with different organizations or communities that make you aware.”
Q: What are the biggest issues facing your district and what can you do in Montgomery to address them?
“Well, we definitely have job issues as far as people coming back to work.
There are a lot of jobs available. But, one of the big problems, I think, is that many people graduating high school don’t have some of the skill sets needed to perform those jobs and some of the vocational training.
You’ve got a lot of people now that don’t have a traditional four-year college degree that can make good money because they have technical training. So, I think making that easier to obtain will make a big difference, and making it available for employers to get a break for taking a chance on some of those people that may be younger in training, can pay dividends.”
Q: Your predecessor, Sen. Marsh, was one of the biggest school choice advocates in the Legislature, if not the biggest. You’ve said providing children with high-quality education options is critical. What would you like those options to look like? Do you plan to advocate for more school choice?
“I’m open to seeing what there is out there. One of the things is an education savings account. That’s one option that I’ve heard, seen, and read about, and I’ve seen different descriptions of what that might look like. I think looking at some of those could be a benefit.
I think you’ve got to be careful with a lot of those things; you may not give some choices, but you’ve got to remember that the schools are owned by the taxpayers. So I think parents need a little more say in what they’ve got going on in education.”
Q: You’ve said that federal government overreach is slowing down the work of Alabama farmers. What, on a state level, could Alabama do to help farmers be more productive?
“I think doing as much as we can to protect our farmers from the state authority we have. Farmers are the backbone of Alabama, as it is a major industry in our state.
When you look at the price of food going up and things like that, one of the problems they have right now is supply chain issues. So I think looking at regulations that may prevent them from getting their product to market and loosening some of those might help. It could take a number of different forms — one of those could be reevaluating regulations that make it harder for them to get their product to market that might be state regulated and see if those options are still viable or if there’s something that can do to make it less prohibitive for them.”
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish this session?
“…A couple of things are related to trying to make it easier for businesses to do work, especially the small business side. But right now, we’re still doing some due diligence to see if some of those are feasible or not.
You have these great ideas until you start doing your homework sometimes…”