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Politics and small-town charm

FLOWERS HP
Flowers gives a talk about his new book at the Department of Archives and History in June. Photo by Allison Griffin

New book recounts political tales, as told by an insider

By John Brightman Brock

Former state Rep. Steve Flowers still takes afternoon walks along Orange Street in Troy, where he threw The Troy Messenger onto front porches in 1963.

He could throw 115 newspapers from his bicycle — something he was proud of. Then one day he was approached by an Alabama legislator in Troy who encouraged him to aim higher — at politics.

“I was 12 and he was 72, and we became best friends,” Flowers says of state Rep. Gardner Bassett. “He liked that I already loved politics. We would go to see the highway director about roads, and to the agriculture commissioner’s office. During the legislative session, Mr. Gardner Bassett would show me why he was voting.”

So began Bassett’s coaching of young Flowers to become a page in the Legislature. It was the same political route another boy from neighboring Barbour County used to ultimately become the most renowned politician in the history of Alabama — George Wallace. Flowers was happy to follow his lead.

“Finish your paper route. I have a special trip,” Bassett told Flowers one day. “Where we going?” Flowers asked. “Going to see the governor,” said Bassett, who was soon telling Wallace, then in his first term, “This is my little buddy, and he is going to follow me in my House seat.”

And he did.

Politics and the media

After serving as a page through his high school years, Flowers became a member of the Alabama House in 1982, was voted the Most Ethical Member of the House in 1988, and four years later was voted the most Outstanding Member of the House. He kept a perfect attendance record in his 16 years as a legislator, including four as a House leader for Wallace. Yet he opted not to seek re-election in 1998.

Flowers chose instead to combine politics with his love of down-home Alabamians, where his journey began. “The local papers have a niche,” he said in a telephone interview from his Troy home. “I am rural and small town Alabama’s conduit to the capital. They trust me.”

FLOWERS WITH WALLACE
Flowers with Gov. George Wallace. Photo contributed

His perspective, “Inside the Statehouse with Steve Flowers,” is published as a weekly syndicated political column in The Troy Messenger and more than 70 other hometown Alabama newspapers, along with radio and public television programs. In April, he was named the University of Alabama’s TV political analyst.

This month, NewSouth Books in Montgomery is publishing Of Goats & Governors, Flowers’ humorous collection of what it takes to run for Alabama’s top political office. The book, subtitled Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories, recounts the driven personalities and personas of Alabama’s governors, including Wallace and James E. “Big Jim” Folsom Sr., John Patterson, Lurleen Wallace and Albert Brewer, among others. The book is “a gift” to Alabamians, writes historian Ed Bridges in the forward.

‘I just wanted them told’

It took Flowers three years to hand-write this knowledge base for future generations. “We’ve told these stories over the years (in political circles) … and now I just wanted them told. It was 90 percent from memory.” Transcribing his pages was friend Dale Robinson, similar to the continuing task of one of Flowers’ daughters, Virginia, a lawyer in Birmingham, who has deciphered Flowers’ newspaper column since its inception in 2002.

FLOWERS WITH SOMEONE
Gov. James “Big Jim” Folsom with Flowers on the steps of the Alabama State House. Photo contributed

“Alabama and the Deep South, and the whole South, had a unique history,” Flowers says. “Politics was our entertainment. We had no major league sports or big industries. They (politicians) used to come to the courthouse square … like Big Jim Folsom standing 6-foot, 9-inches tall. I wanted to try to paint a picture — like when Big Jim’s band, the Strawberry Pickers, would start singing his election song, ‘Y’all come.’”

Flowers writes in his book: “Back then if you ran for governor, it wasn’t like it is today when you simply get on TV to campaign. There was no TV and the candidate shook hands 12 to 16 hours a day and made 12 strong speeches and met thousands of people. Wallace had done this in 1958 when he ran second to (Gov. John) Patterson and again in 1962 when he won against Big Jim Folsom and Ryan DeGraffenreid. There is no telling how many people Wallace had met and shaken hands with in these two statewide campaigns.”

Alabama’s ultimate politician

Wallace was the ultimate political animal, Flowers says. “Nobody outworked Wallace. He had an amazing memory. It was God-given.”

But not always with children, Flowers says. Working the crowd in his first run for governor, Wallace asked a boy, “How’s your daddy?” The little boy responded, “My daddy’s dead.” Wallace said, “I’m sorry.” Later after shaking many hands, he inadvertently bumped into the boy again, asking, “How’s your daddy?” The boy responded, “Daddy’s still dead.”

In 1982, when Flowers was elected at age 30 to his first term in the Legislature, Wallace asked Flowers, “Steve, how old are you now?”

“I said, ‘Governor, I’m 30 years old, I’m your home county representative. I’m not a page anymore.’ He smiled, took a pull on his ever-present cigar and said, ‘I’ve been governor most all your life.’ I smiled back and said, ‘Governor, you sure have. I guess you’ll always be governor of Alabama.’”

One of Flowers’ favorite stories in his book is about Miss Mittie, who knew where every legislator was at any time. She sat in the Capitol rotunda the entire day, with a black hat and dress. “She was better than a computer,” he said.

“’Miss Mittie, where is So and So?’ people would ask,” Flowers says. “Oh, he’s at the Elite eating supper,” she’d say. Or she would reply, “He’s in the poker game behind the Ways and Means Committee Room.”

In June, more than 300 people crowded into an Architreats program at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery to hear these stories and others from Flowers’ book. “Facts are funnier than fiction,” he told the audience.

Of Goats and Governors, published in August 2015, is available through NewSouth Books online for $29.95 at http://newsouthbooks.com/ofgoatsandgovernors (or call 334-834-3556). His column, “Inside the Statehouse with Steve Flowers,” is published in more than 70 newspapers each week, according to his website. He begins a book tour in September, with a signing scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Johnson Art Center in Troy, followed by a signing at noon Sept. 11 at the Troy Library.