Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is probably a name unfamiliar to most, but the conquering Roman soldier’s retirement more than 2,500 years ago is something U.S. Senator Richard Shelby believes is a perfect example to his own political story that ends next month.
“He won all the battles before Caesar,” Shelby said during his own career retrospective interview with AL.com at his Russell Senate Building Office in Washington, D.C. “Then he went back to farming. They couldn’t believe it.”
Instead of farming, Shelby said he plans to retire from the Capitol Hill battlefield and head home to “mow the lawn.”
The 88-year-old will spend time with his wife of 62 years, Annette, “read a few books,” “give no advice” and “not get involved in other people’s campaigns.”
Indeed, it is a humble retirement plan for Alabama’s longest-ever serving senator who has been praised for his statesman’s demeanor, his ability to broker deals across the aisle, and ability to secure billions of dollars in federal funds that have transformed Alabama’s economic landscape.
“Richard Shelby has been one of the Senate’s most authoritative and formidable members for many years now,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “He is direct. He is confident. He has been remarkably successful at getting results. And Alabama and our entire country have benefitted immeasurably from his remarkable success.”
Shelby’s handpicked successor and former chief of staff, Katie Britt, will take the oath of office Jan. 3. At that point, it will be the official end of 51 consecutive years of elected political service for Shelby. Of those, 44 years were spent in Congress including the past 36 years in the U.S. Senate.
“People have said, ‘Why don’t you run again?’ and I’ve said, ‘I wanted to walk out while I was being responsible and knowing I was being responsible for the people,’” Shelby said. “I said that some people spend too long in certain jobs, and I did not want to do that. I am glad I had the opportunity. Six terms in the Senate is a great honor.”
Shelby also exits political office a perfect 12-0 in political elections.
Alabama Senator Richard Shelby
Shelby’s longevity paid off in the Senate, where seniority looms large over committee assignments and chairmanships. During his tenure, Shelby chaired four committees including the powerful Banking and Appropriations Committees. Few U.S. Senators can boast similar achievements.
“What Richard did was not just a question of seniority,” said former Alabama Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones, who served with Shelby from 2018-2021. “You can be a chairman of a committee and be totally ineffective. There are people in that Senate right now who are absolutely ineffective. Richard had an ability to collaborate with people, reach across the aisle and understand there are other people who have interests. His goal was to work with folks and fully understand there is a different point of view.”
A social conservative, Shelby has never sought the spotlight and was not someone considered as a panderer for the cable TV networks or talk radio. While he has critics, there are enemies who will consistently bash him in public.
If anything, state lawmakers, mayors, and organizations throughout Alabama sing Shelby’s praises for what they say was an unmatched skill of “bringing home the bacon” to his home state.
“He has been instrumental in giving Alabama a seat at the table and has truly been part of transforming our state through the years,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
Path to Senate and GOP
Shelby was an imposing high school defensive end at Hueytown, standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall when he arrived at the University of Alabama and was on the team’s 1954 roster under head coach Harold Drew. The Crimson Tide’s quarterback that year? Future NFL legend Bart Starr.
After college, Shelby became a lawyer and a city prosecutor in Tuscaloosa in the 1960s. At the age of 35, he entered legislative politics when he ran for the Alabama State Senate in 1970 and served in the Alabama Legislature as a pro-union Democrat until 1978.
Later that same year Shelby ran for the open Alabama Congressional District 7 seat, where he handily won a Democratic primary runoff against then-State Rep. Chris McNair, father of one of the girls who was killed during the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Shelby arrived at Capitol Hill in 1979 and was part of a faction of conservative Democrats called “boll weevils.” The group often aligned with President Ronald Reagan on economic and defense matters, such as voting to support tax cuts. Shelby, also at the time, refused to switch political parties, opting to remain loyal to the Democratic Party brand as he headed into a 1986 showdown against incumbent Republican Senator and military hero Jeremiah Denton.
While he was in the House, Republicans tried to get him to change parties, Shelby recalled. “Timing is everything. I thought about it. But then you don’t want to change sometimes. It’s like moving out of your house where you grew up.”
Shelby, by all accounts, outhustled Denton and pulled off what was considered an upset at the time, winning the 1986 Senate election by fewer than 7,000 votes. Denton initially refused to concede and appointed a special committee to study more than 900 allegations of voter fraud at the time. Denton conceded two weeks after the election.
The 1986 race was Shelby’s only close election contest.
“Denton, a Vietnam (veteran and prisoner of war) lost, in part, because he didn’t spend enough time visiting with constituents when they were in Washington or speaking to groups in Alabama – a mistake Shelby never made in his long political career,” said Phillip Rawls, a former longtime Alabama political journalist with the Associated Press.
Shelby continued on as a Democrat.
But increasing policy disputes with the Clinton Administration, and a notable football game snub might have offered a preview of the partisan switcheroo that occurred after the 1994 midterm elections.
“Shelby even labeled Clinton ‘the taxman,’” said Rawls. “Clinton retaliated when the University of Alabama’s 1992 championship football team came to the White House in 1993. Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, a Democrat supportive of Clinton, got 15 tickets to the event. Shelby got one.”
Rawls said, “Getting snubbed by Clinton did Shelby more good in his home state than any amount of tickets to the White House ever would.”
The emerging Clinton-Shelby feud animated 1993. Clinton, according to media reports at the time, transferred 90 top NASA jobs out of Alabama after Shelby opposed his budget. Two months before he switched parties, Shelby was the lone Democratic vote in support of a Republican bid to derail Clinton’s crime bill.
Shelby officially became Republican one day after the so-called “Gingrich Revolution” that saw the GOP gain 54 seats in the House, eight in the Senate.
“I think a lot of people in the Democratic Party saw it coming,” said Jones. “It really started a trend in Alabama where the Republican Party was able to gain a lot of strength going forward that still exists today. He followed his conscious, and I can’t blame someone from doing that at all.”
Said Rawls, “Shelby’s conservative voting record meant he never faced GOP backlash that greeted some party switches who were viewed as political opportunists. He won re-election in 1998, and never faced serious opposition after that.”
Bringing the bacon
Shelby’s rise and seniority defined his Senate stature, and so did his reputation in securing federal money to support higher education, military defense, and economic development projects like the deepening and widening of the Mobile ship channel.
“Wouldn’t you love to be able, when you are dead and gone, to be able to go back and (have people) say there is one thing that you had your fingerprints on that was successful?” said U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Mobile. “He has thousands of things he can look at.”
Shelby said his goal is to secure federal appropriations and utilize the money as an “investment” into large-scale projects that can offer a long-lasting impact to Alabama. Redstone Arsenal Huntsville, the Alabama State Port Authority, and the state’s public universities have benefitted from the senator’s ability to secure federal funds.
“It’s not just giving them a one-time deal, giving them a handout,” said Shelby. “This is investment.”
Not everyone agrees, and Shelby is labeled by national groups that oppose congressional earmarks as the “Prince of Pork.”
According to research by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), Shelby is the No. 1 benefactor of earmarking, securing over $646 million during the previous fiscal budget year. The next closest lawmaker secured $377 million in earmarks.
Steve Flowers, a longtime Shelby friend and distant cousin of former U.S. Rep. Walter Flowers – who preceded Shelby in the U.S. House – said there are few equals when it comes to securing earmarks for his home state in U.S. Senate history.
“He has a legacy that you can’t fathom when it comes to the amount of money he’s brought home,” Flowers said. “What he’s done for Huntsville is unimaginable. He moved the FBI headquarters to Huntsville, rebuilt the docks in Mobile. Having followed politics my entire life, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Shelby said his proudest accomplishments include securing federal money to advance scientific research and higher education at the state’s universities.
“Education is the key to it all,” he said. “It’s the key to opportunity, the key to business success and the key to economic growth. I put a lot of effort in funding for science and engineering schools starting with our universities.”
As a result – and thanks – for the funding came the naming of educational centers after Shelby. The University of Alabama has a Shelby Hall research center that combines mathematics, chemistry, and biology research within one building. The senator snagged $30 million in federal funding about 20 years ago to support the project.
Another “Shelby Hall” is located at the entrance to the University of South Alabama in Mobile. It houses the College of Engineering and School of Computer and Information Sciences, which Shelby was able to secure $40 million in federal funding to support more than a decade ago.
The University of Alabama in Huntsville has a science and technology center named after the senator. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, there is a biomedical research center named after Shelby and his wife. The couple also have their name on a center for engineering and technology at Auburn University, which Shelby was able to secure $30 million to assist in its construction.
From 1996-2000, Alabama colleges got $91.8 million in direct appropriations and shared in another $105 million, ranking the state behind only California and Florida.
“Richard, particularly as the years went by, began to focus a great deal on his efforts in engineering and university support,” said former Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, who served alongside Shelby from 1997-2017, before he became U.S. Attorney General.
Sessions said that Shelby was a master negotiator. “He was very effective in dealing with other members of the (Appropriation) Committee to accommodate their needs while taking care of Alabama’s needs.”
Jo Bonner, president at the University of South Alabama who served as a member of the U.S. House from 2003-2013, recalled meetings with Shelby and the rest of the Alabama delegation when the discussion focused solely on “what can we do for Alabama?”
“He didn’t go out ahead of time and tell people what he would do,” said Bonner. “But he certainly knew how to play the right card at the right time to have the biggest impact. There will be children born in this state for decades to come who will benefit from the investment that Senator Shelby brought to the state of Alabama.”
Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said he believes Shelby was among the most influential senators for higher education during his time in the Senate.
“You can tell that certainly by the naming of buildings on campus, but there are many other initiatives that occurred on campus that did not have his name influenced by it,” said Purcell. “The expansion of engineering in the new programs at the University of Alabama, all of the efforts at UAB in health care. It’s almost ubiquitous the level of influence he’s had on expanding research and access to higher education.”
Shelby was a staunch conservative during his time in office. He had an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and voted in 2016 against the Feinstein Amendment that would have stopped the sale of firearms to known or suspected terrorists. He opposed taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood and called Roe vs. Wade a “terribly flawed” ruling on both a “constitutional and moral basis.”
More recently, he opposed the Respect for Marriage Act that called for codifying same-sex and interracial marriage into federal law. Shelby’s office said the senator maintains a “traditional view of marriage” between “one man and one woman.”
Critics also note that federal judicial appointments are not advancing through the Senate, where partisan politics is increasingly overtaking the process. Alabama has two federal judicial vacancies that have gone unfilled by President Joe Biden because of opposition from the GOP-dominated congressional delegation.
Shelby was also a “No” vote on the Ketanji Brown nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.
“He represented us well as it relates to the business and the economy,” said Ronald Ali, the first vice-president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. “Socially, I would think there would be a different (opinion from us) because of his conservatism and because of his support for candidates within the more recent Republican Party and the support for (conservative) programs. Alabama is very conservative.”
Derryn Moten, acting chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University, called Shelby’s political odyssey a “mix-bag.”
Black Alabamians might remember that Senator Shelby voted for the Civil Rights Act in the early 1990s and that he voted against Judge Robert Bork, a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States who questioned the fairness of the 14th Amendment to white business owners who did not want to serve Blacks, Moten said in an email to AL.com.
And while Shelby also praised Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King upon their deaths, he didn’t say anything about the “dark days” of Alabama’s civil rights era, Moten said. He stated, “one cannot find a single quote where Senator Richard Shelby criticizes Alabama’s legacy of segregation and white supremacy, the once motto of the Alabama Democratic Party.”
Special Senate election
Shelby’s bipartisanship is also noted, even among Democrats, who credit him for deal making within the Senate and the powerful Appropriations Committee where he is a ranking member.
Shelby has also offered a few recent surprises during the recent era of hyper partisanship, and the GOP’s allegiance to former President Donald Trump’s movement.
The most notable moment occurred in 2017, when Shelby upended the Alabama special Senate election after he said he would not be voting for Republican nominee Roy Moore, the former state Supreme Court judge who was embroiled in a scandal involving allegations he sexually harassed underage girls decades ago while serving as an Etowah County prosecutor.
Shelby, instead, said he would write in a distinguished Republican.
To this day, he has never named that person.
The move made a difference. There were 22,700 write-in votes, which were slightly more than the margin of difference in Doug Jones winning the election by 21,311 votes to become the first Democratic senator to win an Alabama Senate race since Shelby back in 1992.
“I knew I would not vote for Doug Jones, although I like Doug Jones,” Shelby recalled. “He’s a friend and I’ve known him a long time and I worked with him up here. I think that rightfully so, Roy Moore was just too much. He would not have been good for the Republican Party up here and he would not have been good for Alabama in the long run. So, I did what I did. I think it made a difference.”
Jones agrees. “I never expected him to endorse a Democrat. I never asked him anything like that. But for him to come out and acknowledge (that Moore) is a flawed candidate and not good for Alabama or the U.S. Senate, I think, was courageous and it did give people cover to either write in someone or cross over and vote. Either way, it was a good thing for me.”
Moore, in the years since the special election, blamed Shelby for the loss. Shelby’s decision also became political fodder during this year’s Senate campaign.
The Moore loss, and the Jones win, helped pave the way for former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville to win the Senate seat in 2020.
“If a Republican would’ve won (in 2017), I would not have been there,” said Tuberville, who handily defeated Jones during the November 2020 general election. “I would not have run.”
Apart from that election, Shelby’s reputation to display bipartisanship has played out on Capitol Hill.
Former Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said Shelby offered him crucial support during his confirmation hearings in 2013 for U.S. Secretary of Defense under Democratic President Barack Obama.
GOP senators, at the time, opposed Hagel’s appointment. Shelby, though, backed his former congressional colleague who served with him for 12 years on the Banking Committee. Shelby was one of only four Republicans to do so.
“The Republicans wanted to punish me because I didn’t support John McCain in 2008,” said Hagel. “I didn’t support Obama, either. I didn’t support anyone in 2008. But the Republicans never forgave me for going to the Middle East in 2008 with Obama. I told the (Republican) Caucus that this guy, Obama, has at least a 50/50 chance to be president. Why wouldn’t we want to have some Republican influence?”
Hagel continued, “They didn’t buy that. It was a political deal and they wanted to teach me a lesson. Dick Shelby wasn’t having any of that and I appreciated his support.”
Shelby has also touted his independence from former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great” movement, which he said he did not need to get re-elected six years ago.
“I always ran my own race,” Shelby said. “I never ran on the Trump ticket. I didn’t run against the Trump ticket.”
Shelby voted twice to acquit Trump during separate impeachment hearings. He voted last year to acquit Trump, following the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Shelby said the reason for his vote was because he felt the Constitution only spoke to removing a sitting president and not a private citizen.
Shelby was also one of 11 senators who did not vote on a bill to create an independent inquiry to investigate the Capitol riot. The lack of votes made a difference: The bill received 54 “Yes” votes but needed 60 to pass.
“His longevity was due, in part, to being able to work with people on both sides of the aisle and running his own races without getting tied up with other politicians,” said Rawls, the retired journalist. “He worked with President Donald Trump, but he didn’t become tied to Trump.”
Shelby said he believes the Republicans have a “good shot at the presidency” in 2024, whether it’s with Trump or with someone else like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But Shelby will be nestled at home in Tuscaloosa, watching a presidential election as a private citizen for the first time since 1968, when former Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president as an Independent.
“I’ve said several times there is a season in our lives, and that comes out of scripture,” Shelby said. “That comes for all of us. We’re young, kind of youthful. We are still relatively young and then middle age and then mature. And then we’re real mature and perhaps, we’re gone. So, I look forward to coming home. It’s time to go home.”