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Exit Interviews

August and September brought a flurry of resignations of Alabama Republicans who cut short their terms for lobbying or governmental relations jobs in the private or institutional sector. We caught up with them to see what lured them away.

Jim Barton addresses the State House of Representatives during his term representing Mobile.

Jim Barton addresses the State House of Representatives during his term representing Mobile.

Job hopping is no longer career suicide in today’s business world. In fact, labor mobility is considered an indicator of a strengthening economy and high achieving people are believed to be job hoppers by nature. But what about elected officials who resign before their term has expired to take private sector jobs?

This year in Alabama, several elected officials quit before their terms ended to take jobs as lobbyists and consultants. After serving 13 years, State Rep. Jim Barton (R-Mobile) resigned Aug. 7 to accept a lobbying position with Montgomery-based governmental affairs Kinney Capital Group (now Barton & Kinney). A power in the House, Barton, 45, served as chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, responsible for writing and passing the general fund budget.

“The stars were in alignment,” Barton recalls, “and I couldn’t see a better time to leave.”  He says he’s proud of his accomplishments in office, particularly helping, Republicans gain control of the Alabama Legislature in 2010.

“We worked hard to take control, so you have four or five people who leave to go work in the system now that the Republican Party is driving the train. My new job offers me the best of both worlds. I can make good money and still be part of the process.” As a principle at Barton & Kinney, he represents a range of clients including the Poarch Creek Indians, the only federally recognized tribe of Native Americans in Alabama.

A self-described political junkie, Barton says he’s politically astute yet was surprised by the time it takes to get things done in Montgomery. And helping to write three state budgets was more challenging than expected. “When the Legislature was in session, I was away for four months and my business suffered. I would not have taken the offer if I wasn’t going to make more money.”

While visiting a voter station after his resignation, Barton overheard an elderly woman say to her companion, “I’m mad at him.”

“I told her, ‘You have every right to be mad, but I did what was best for my family.’ She said she still liked me. I thought, ‘Here’s someone who likes me who’s mad; I can imagine how others feel.’”

Republican Margie Wilcox will face Democrat Stephen Carr in a special election for Barton’s seat on January 28.

Beth Chapman left her post as secretary of state for private practice after the death of her husband. 

Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman stepped down Aug. 1 to enter the private sector as a political consultant for the Alabama Farmers Federation. Gov. Robert Bentley appointed former state senator and secretary of state Jim Bennett for the last 17 months of her term.

“Leaving office was not easy for me,” Chapman explains, “but it was in the best interest of my family. Shortly after I was elected to my second term, my husband, James, suddenly passed away. I have two sons at home, and with the loss of their father, I needed to reprioritize my life.”

Chapman says ALFA is one of the clients in her company, Beth Chapman & Associates. As a political consultant for ALFA, she works with their endorsed candidates, finding candidates who best represent pro-business and pro-agriculture stances. “[ALFA] wants like-minded individuals who share their same values to represent them in elective office. I advise and consult them in this endeavor but do not lobby. I do quite a bit of public speaking for them, some writing and work in the development of FarmPAC.”

Chapman, 51, says owning her own business and working in the private sector allows her the freedom and flexibility she needs for her family, allowing her to better cope with the responsibilities of being a single parent. “Being widowed at age 48 was a life-changing experience for me, and it changed how I view my future.”

Reflecting on her work in the public and private sectors, Chapman says, “There are jobs you do to make a living and jobs you do to make a difference. I have been blessed and fortunate in my career to do both.”

U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Mobile), 54, resigned from Congress Aug. 2 to become vice chancellor of economic development and government relations in the University of Alabama System.

“The fact that I ran unopposed last November, coupled with my seniority on the Hill, made it an intensely difficult decision to leave,” notes Bonner, whose sister Judy Bonner is president of the University of Alabama. “That said, sometimes opportunities come along that are so rare that even the best-made plans have to be reevaluated. I would not have left Congress, mid-term, for any other job.”

Jo Bonner, Congressman from Alabama’s 1st District, before taking a job with the University of Alabama System.

Bonner says being away from his family — spending close to 45 weeks a year flying back and forth to Washington — also played a role in his decision to resign from Congress. He says his new position gives him more time with his two children before they leave for college.

“While I never complained about the work — I still consider it one of life’s highest honors to have been only the fifth person elected to represent south Alabama in Congress during the past 95 years — I couldn’t begin to count the number of ball games, school programs, piano recitals and family events I missed out on as our children, who were ages 7 and 4 when I was first elected, were literally growing up before our eyes.”

On the government side of Bonner’s new $350,000 university system post, he works with the governor and Legislature to ensure open dialogue among Alabama’s political, educational and business leaders. On the economic development front, he’s involved with recruiting new industry and helping existing businesses expand.

When elected officials leave office in mid-term, taxpayers foot the bill for a special election. In 2011, the state reimbursed a total of $221,000 to counties for a portion of the cost to hold special elections, according to Gov. Robert Bentley’s press secretary Jennifer Ardis. Election costs and reimbursement to counties vary depending on district population and voter turnout, she says. Another factor determining cost is whether there will be a primary, runoff and general election or a primary and general election only. 

Bonner is concerned about the cost for a special election but even more concerned about the voter apathy toward special elections, saying that in the race to replace him, only 12 percent of registered voters turned out for the initial nine-candidate election in September and only 15 percent in the Republican runoff in November.

An election for Bonner’s Congressional seat was slated for Dec. 17 between Republican Bradley Byrne and Democrat Burton LeFlore.

Two other state legislators resigned in mid-term, Jay Love (R-Montgomery) and Barry Mask (R-Wetumpka). Love has taken a new post leading the Business Education Alliance, an education reform organization affiliated with the Business Council of Alabama. Mask stepped down to devote more time to his position as chief executive of the Alabama Association of Realtors.

Love’s successor is Dimitri Polizos, a former Montgomery County commissioner who won a special election Nov. 19.  Voters in Mask’s District 31 will choose between Mike Holmes and Jimmy Collier in a January 28 Republican runoff. The primary winner will take the seat since there isn’t an opposition candidate.

Love and Mask declined to comment for this article.

Del Marsh, president pro tem of the Alabama Senate, has introduced a bill to limit lobbying by former lawmakers.

Photo by Robert Fouts

Coming Round: Revolving Door Loophole Plug

Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) has prefiled a bill for consideration in 2014 that would prohibit lawmakers from leaving the Legislature and coming right back to lobby.

Current Alabama law prevents a legislator from lobbying members of the chamber he or she served in, a prohibition that lasts two years. But a House member can quit and come right back to lobby the Senate or vice versa.

Marsh’s bill would prevent any lobbying for at least two years, or longer if the individual’s term would have run beyond that two-year limit.

And he’s confident the bill will pass.

“The law is vague, and we intend to clean it up,” says Marsh. “I don’t think you’ll see many legislators who have the appetite not to support it. If someone leaves early, especially for a lobby-type position, there’s a conflict and it’s not serving the taxpayers. I’ve heard of no good reason why someone leaves early, and it’s costly to the taxpayers.”

Alabama Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner, who helped draft Marsh’s bill, says when the law was revised in 1995 it “allowed the situation where someone could lobby the body they did not serve in, and that’s the technical glitch we are trying to fix.”

Sumner, however, says revolving door provisions are difficult to pass.

“You aren’t telling [lawmakers] what they can’t do while in office, but what they can’t do after they leave office,” says Sumner.

“As a citizen of Alabama and a taxpayer, I don’t have a problem with the intention behind Sen. Marsh’s bill,” says former U.S. Rep. Bonner, “with this one caveat — the U.S. House of Representatives already prohibits former members who are registered lobbyists from lobbying their former colleagues for one year.”

While in Congress, Bonner says the requests he received were “endless” to increase funding for various causes. “While these people might not have been registered lobbyists, they were exercising their Constitutional right to petition the government.” 

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

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