Lew Burdette can speak of the horror he experienced on Dec. 27, 1974 in an almost matter-of-fact way.
He was 15 years old and leaving his father’s grocery store in Roanoke for a date when two teenagers, who planned to hold him for ransom, grabbed him at gunpoint and forced him into a car. They drove him to a field where Burdette was pistol-whipped, beaten and stabbed. The two teenagers then threw Burdette into well. One fired a pistol into the well four times; a bullet struck the back of his head.
Burdette somehow survived, and slowly climbed out of the well, praying the whole way. Bleeding from his wounds, he made it to a nearby house, where he got help, and saw his attackers come through the door; it was the home of one of their grandparents.
Almost 50 years later, the bullet from that night remains lodged in his chin.
“It’s been some interesting dental conversations along the way, when they take X-rays and say ‘Uh, do you know you’ve got something?’, ” he said during an interview on Tuesday.
But Burdette, seeking the Republican nomination for governor, did not speak of his attackers with any vindictiveness. He said they served their time and avoided further brushes with the law, “so that’s a great testimony to those guys.”
“God just showed me that they were young and did something in really poor judgment,” he said. “And you know, they got caught up in the moment, they got really scared, and that’s what they testified.”
That attitude could suggest the reasons for some of the notable elements of his platform.
No one would mistake it as anything but Republican. It is anti-abortion rights and pro-gun rights, and talks about cutting taxes and regulations. In an hourlong interview, Burdette criticized Gov. Kay Ivey’s support of a gas tax increase in 2019 and suggested she engaged in “vaccine shaming” in addressing the COVID-19 epidemic in Alabama, which has killed nearly 20,000 Alabamians over the past two years.
But Burdette’s platform also includes lengthy sections on improving mental health care, and improving educational and rehabilitation opportunities in state prisons.
“I want to see everybody succeed in life, you know, and I don’t want people to lose hope,” he said. “So often in prison, let’s just say, they’re left there to rot.
In a campaign season where Ivey, businessman Tim James and former Slovenian ambassador Lindy Blanchard appear to be running against President Joe Biden instead of each other, Burdette is trying to mount a campaign centered on state issues.
“Yes, we’re frustrated with Washington,” he said. “Yes, I’m going to stand up against all that stuff. But we got to talk about Alabama issues and moving this state forward.”
Getting heard could be a challenge. Burdette finished March with just $125,000 on hand, compared to $1.6 million for Ivey; $1.4 million for Blanchard and $627,000 for James, and Ivey to date has dominated polling of the race. Burdette thinks with a little over a month before the May 24th primary, he can reach voters only starting to tune into the race.
“The other three candidates have been spending millions and the biggest voter block is still undecided,” he said. “Why? Because they hadn’t found me yet.”
Roanoke to Books-A-Million
Burdette grew up in Roanoke in Randolph County, near the Georgia state line, one of four children. His mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father ran a grocery store in the town. Burdette – whose father named him for the Braves pitcher of the 1950s and ’60s – worked in his father’s store with his whole family. His mother came in on Saturdays to help with the register, and all the children helped out in the store.
“I was so little I could take the groceries and put them in the sacks, and the big boys would take them out,” he said.
Burdette studied finance at the University of Alabama, where he finished short of a degree, and met members of the Anderson family, who owned what was then known as Bookland. Through the family, Burdette got a job with the company as a district manager. He stayed there for 13 years, watching the firm become Books-A-Million and eventually becoming chief operating officer. Burdette said his chief accomplishment there was “managing the growth” of the firm.
“You know, we’re in our early 30s and growing a big chain and growing from 250 jobs to over 3,000 and managing that kind of growth and yeah, it took 100 hours a week,” he said. “We entered an area of growth that was really unprecedented and superstores were just coming on the horizon.”
Burdette left Books-A-Million in 1998 to form Kindred, a Christian bookstore. The company’s original store in Birmingham did well, but an expansion into Nashville that Burdette said was funded “on 100% debt,” combined with the economic downturn after 9/11, led to the business closing in 2002. Burdette went to work at King’s Home that October, a Christian nonprofit that provides services to victims of domestic violence, abuse and homelessness. Burdette said his own experiences as a victim of crime have informed his work there.
“It’s countless accounts like that of folks just being survivors and finding a way to overcome obstacles in life,” he said. “I do have the kindred spirit with our residents in that way. Because we want to help them be overcomers, too. That God really does have a plan and a hope and future for your life.”
An Alabama-centered approach
Like many first-time (and 10th-time) office-seekers in Alabama, Burdette says he is a political outsider who can take a new approach to addressing the state’s problems.
“We really can move the state forward,” he said. “It’s got to be a political outsider that owes no favors and doesn’t have influence because I’m not beholden to anybody.”
While Burdette is pushing a more Alabama-centered approach than some of his rivals, he is vague on details. In an interview, he called for more school choice programs as a way to improve educational outcomes and cited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as an example. But he said it would be one approach out of many.
“Where I grew up in Randolph County, choice doesn’t work because parents can’t afford to drive to the next county over,” he said. “You know there’s just not a lot of choice. So school choice is not the end all be all for every art of Alabama but it can be part, just part of the solution.”
And while condemning the gas tax increase in 2019, the first since 1992, he says less about how to support the road and bridge infrastructure that was the impetus for the increase, apart from suggesting that “better planning” might have addressed some of the issues. Burdette said he wants to explore “public/private partnerships” to aid in the expansion of infrastructure and health care in rural areas. (He would neither commit to nor reject expansion of Medicaid, which the state’s hospitals have pushed for years.)
But Burdette insists that his focus would be on moving the state forward, and that he is willing to listen to all individuals and all parties to come up with solutions.
“You’re not going to hear a divisive message from me,” he said. “I’m going to call out policy. You know, I’m going to call out things I think are wrong.”
- Name: Robert Lew Burdette
- Age: 63
- Profession: President, King’s Home Inc.
- Education: Attended University of Alabama, 1977-81
- Offices held/offices sought: First run for public office
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.