U.S. Senator Howell Heflin had way with words

Published 9:26 am Wednesday, February 23, 2011

One of the most humorous and entertaining political orators we have witnessed in Alabama political lore was our former U.S. Senator Howell Heflin. Judge Heflin, as he was affectionately known throughout the state, was a pure political wit. He had the ability to spin a story or tell a joke with the aplomb of Jay Leno. His candid off the cuff wit has actually been captured in statements he made in the congressional record. He had a repertoire of jokes that was priceless and boundless.

Heflin was the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated from Birmingham Southern and then the University of Alabama School of Law. He won a purple heart in combat as a marine officer in World War II. Afterwards, he settled in Tuscumbia and practiced law successfully for 25 years before entering politics. Even then it was an entrance into the judiciary as a judge. In 1970 Heflin ran for and was elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He served one six-year term and changed the state’s judicial branch of government by implementing a constitutional amendment that streamlined the state court system.

In 1978 Heflin was elected to the U.S. Senate. By 1980 he had become our senior U.S. Senator, a capacity he served in until he retired in 1996. His 18 years in the Senate were very beneficial to Alabama. His greatest accomplishments were centered around his service on the Agricultural and Judiciary Committees.

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In 1990 Heflin had been in the Senate for 12 years and was running for a third six-year term. He drew as his Republican opponent State Senator Bill Cabaniss of Birmingham. Bill was one of the finest men I ever served with in the Legislature. He was honest, forthright, smart and his word was as good as gold. He was a successful businessman who owned a manufacturing business. He served on several prominent bank and insurance boards in Birmingham and was a well-respected gentleman.

Bill Cabaniss was Republican when it wasn’t cool. He was born a Republican. Although old money families in Mobile and Montgomery would argue that Birmingham is too new of a city to have any old money, if there are any old money families in Birmingham the Cabaniss family would be on the top of the list.

Bill Cabaniss was born in Mountain Brook, the richest suburb in Alabama and second only to a suburb of Dallas as the richest Republican enclave in the South. In addition to their Mountain Brook residence, the Cabaniss family had homes all over the world including a summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine where they were next door neighbors to another old Republican Connecticut family known as the Bush’s. So Bill Cabaniss and George Bush are lifetime and boyhood friends. Cabaniss served as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic during the second Bush administration.

Alabamians have always resented the wealth and privilege enjoyed by Mountain Brook residents. Due to our archaic constitution local measures must be placed on the statewide ballot and in past years when Mountain Brook has attempted to enact tax increases on themselves to raise funds for their own schools the rest of the state has voted them down just because the name Mountain Brook was on the ballot.

Well, in 1990, Senator Heflin had access to the best media consultants in Washington. He had plenty of campaign money as the incumbent and had a tremendous head start on the wealthy Cabaniss in name identification and campaign funds.

Given that advantage, Heflin’s consultants decided that they needed to define Cabaniss to Alabama voters in a negative way before he could define himself because he was completely unknown to over 90 percent of Alabamians.

Heflin’s consultants were studying sophisticated methods to stop Cabaniss before he could get out of the gate but Heflin guffawed at them and said I’ll tell you how we’ll define him. Off the top of his head, Heflin said, we’ll just tell folks all over Alabama that Cabaniss is one of those Gucci shoe wearing, Rolex watch wearing, Grey Poupon mustard dipping, Kennebunkport, Maine vacationing, Mercedes driving Mountain Brook Republicans.

Heflin coined the phrase and used it all during the fall campaign and it worked. He won reelection overwhelmingly.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.