Alabama People: Ernestine Crowell
If you visit the House of Representatives in the Alabama State House in Montgomery, you can’t get very far without encountering a petite bundle of energy named Ernestine Crowell. Below her name on her business cards is a simple title: “Information Desk,” and no one who does business at the statehouse would dispute that. At 68, she is the go-to person for new and old legislators, their staffs and anyone else who steps off the fifth-floor elevator, dispensing advice and the quick retort, usually with a smile. A native of Russell County, she and her husband Gen. Ed Crowell, a retired Air Force general and top executive with VT Miltope, live in Montgomery.
“Ernestine is the sprocket that makes the legislative machine continue to run,” says Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs at the Alabama Rural Electric Association. “She is the first person you see when you come to the House. She knows who the players are and who can answer questions and solve problems. Without her, countless would have left the House with unanswered questions instead of solutions.” Alabama Living caught up with her last month, before the Alabama Legislature’s 2017 session convenes on Feb. 7.
– Lenore Vickrey
How long have you worked at the State House?
Too long (laughs). Twenty-five years, through the tenures of seven governors. I started in 1985 part-time only when the Legislature was in session. I was in bills and duplicating when we were in the Capitol. Those were the days! Eventually I went fulltime and we moved to the State House, and they needed someone to handle mail and answer the phones at the Information Desk.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
When a stranger walks onto the 5th floor, I say, “Excuse me, stranger, what are doing and why are you loitering in my hallways?” They look at me like, “What?” And then they relax. My favorite thing to do is harass people. And I don’t discriminate. Once when (current Attorney General) Luther Strange came up here, I showed him my hammer (a hand-carved wooden mallet given to her by former Rep. DuWayne Bridges of Valley). I said, “You know Troy King?” He said, “Yes ma’am.” I told him, “When Troy King started he was your height.”
When the Republicans swept the legislative elections in 2010, (then House Speaker) Mike Hubbard told the incoming legislators, “Don’t leave here until you see Miss Ernestine.” And I told them all, ‘I need your cell number and your spouse’s name and cell number. So if you get out of line, I will beat your b— and I will call your spouses. I’d call the legislator up and say, “What were you thinking?” They become like your family members, and I’m like their grandmother. Sometimes I have to take care of legislators who are sick. I adore every one of them.
What are some of your favorite memories?
I’ve been here when we had the big crowds for famous folks like (former New York mayor) Rudy Giuliani, (former Alabama coach) Dennis Franchione and (country singer) George Jones. When George died, I told Gov. Bentley I needed the state plane to go to Possum’s funeral. I didn’t get it.
You don’t have a problem giving advice to legislators and state officials, do you?
No, I have nothing to lose. They’re really a good group of people, but like I told (former Governor) Bob Riley when he started out, ‘You need to get out of your ivory tower and don’t have all those ‘yes’ people surrounding you.’ He listened to me because he came back and started going up and down the halls talking to people. He works for you and me. He puts his pants on like everybody else.
You are the first person people reach when they call their representative.
Yes, and I get calls from people, many times senior citizens who are having a hard time. Many are veterans. When I talk to a person and they need help with their power bill or need some help, I call on two people I rely on and they help. That’s why I’m here. I work for the citizens of Alabama.