MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, who is retiring after being a shrewd force in state and national politics for more than four decades, on Wednesday stressed the importance of bipartisanship as he prepares to leave office.
Shelby, in his farewell remarks to colleagues on the U.S. Senate floor, said bipartisanship is important because it is “good for the country.”
“Today, I think we’ve become too polarized,” Shelby, 88, said, adding that, “there are a lot of reasons” for that. “But I can say, we need to get back to the basics and put the country first. We must not put ourselves, or our party first. We must put America first. We have to.”
Shelby said he joined a Senate where it was more common for members to work, eat and socialize together. The Republican senator in his remarks recalled colleagues of both parties, saying while he and the Democratic senators often voted against each other on policy matters, they also worked together to get things done.
In floor remarks, members of both parties said Shelby will be remembered for his intellect, integrity and as a leader who has improved the lives of the Alabama people. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the Senate is losing a “skilled leader and a true senator of his word” with Shelby’s departure. “At a time when this body and nation are as divided as ever, Sen. Richard Shelby’s tenure exemplifies a commitment to cooperation and fairness,” Leahy said.
Shelby said serving in public office has “been the honor of my lifetime.” Shelby, the fourth-most senior member of the Senate, is Alabama’s longest serving senator.
Shelby, a lawyer and former member of the Alabama Legislature, was first elected as a conservative Democrat in 1978 to the U.S. House of Representatives during the party’s waning days of control in the Deep South. In the House of Representatives, he belonged to a caucus of southern conservatives known as the boll weevils. Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986 but switched to the GOP in 1994.
He became known for his measured demeanor and ability to harness his clout and relationships to direct billions of dollars in projects back to his home state of Alabama. He also had the rare accomplishment of chairing four major Senate committees — Appropriations; Intelligence; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; and Rules and Administration.
Shelby told The Associated Press in an earlier interview that he had a “good run,” but he expressed concern about the growing political polarization in the Senate and said he never thought the country would see a day like the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the state’s junior senator, said Shelby helped transform the economic landscape of the state. Money for universities, the Interstate 22 highway connecting Memphis and Birmingham, dredging and other improvement for the ports in Mobile, and the development of the FBI second campus in Huntsville are a few of the projects that will be associated with Shelby’s legacy.
“Those things I’m proud of. Not that it gave people some money, but it created infrastructure for growth and attraction of business and jobs,” Shelby said in an interview.
Shelby said the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a day he “never would’ve envisioned” happening in the country. Shelby said he was sitting in the Senate for the presidential election certification when he saw Vice President Mike Pence leave abruptly. He said seconds later, law enforcement officers flooded the chamber, with one assembling a weapon by his desk.
“It was not a good day for America. I thought we would never see it,” Shelby said in an interview.
He declined to assign blame for the violence. “But maybe we’ll learn something from that. Learn not to ever permit that to happen again, not to create the conditions for that to happen.”
He announced his retirement last year. Shelby said he did not want to become a person who stayed in a position past their point of being effective.
“I’ve seen people in the Senate. I’ve seen them in business. I’ve seen them in academia, too, stay too long, hold on to the last thing. I didn’t want to do that.”
Shelby will be succeeded by his former chief of staff, Katie Britt, who secured the GOP nomination after a bitter and expensive primary and went on to easily win the November race. “I believe she’ll be a force. I know her well. She’s experienced and will hit the ground running.”
Shelby said it will be up to others to determine how he is remembered.
“I’ve had a good run, interesting run in the House, in the Senate, 44 years. And we’ve all had ups and downs, but we’ve had a lot of successes over the years.”