The Rock at 60

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 3, 2002

Sanders look back at accomplishments

By Dale James / Selma Times – Journal

His step has slowed since he first traveled to Montgomery 19 years ago as the fresh-faced state senator for District 23. The arthritic knees grow more troublesome each day. Just recently, he celebrated his 60th birthday.

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But while his step may have slowed, Hank Sanders remains a formidable political opponent by any yardstick. His grip on his Black Belt constituency appears more certain today than ever before. By all accounts, Tuesday’s election is little more than a formality before the Democratic incumbent stakes his claim to a sixth term.

His only opponent is Libertarian Party candidate Richard Motes, who is making his first run for political office. Republicans apparently deemed it a futile expenditure of resources even to challenge &uot;The Rock,&uot; opting not to field a candidate.

Sanders has come a long way since the days when he was one of 13 children growing up in a three-room shack with no indoor plumbing. He watched as the grinding poverty and the racial prejudice of his childhood wore down the hopes and dreams of many of the black families around him. His ears still ring with the taunts of the other black children who laughed when he dared to give voice to his dream of one day becoming a lawyer.

Sanders has always dreamed big, but not even he could have imagined that he would one day chair the powerful Senate Taxation and Finance Committee Education or that he would be on the governor’s short list of legislators whose calls always get put through.

It has, of course, all come at a price. As the senior member of the Black Belt legislative delegation, Sanders makes an inviting target. Critics contend that change is needed, that the Black Belt &045;&045; derided in some quarters as &uot;Alabama’s Third World nation&uot; &045;&045; has been mired in poverty for too long, that someone must be to blame.

Increasingly, they single out Sanders as that someone. Nineteen years, his critics insist, should have been enough time for anyone to undo the legacy of generations of poverty and prejudice.

Sanders has learned to take such criticism in stride.

Sanders insists he does not read any article written about him, does not bother to listen to any of the countless radio and television interviews he grants, does not concern himself with what others think of him.

He tells the story of former NBA star Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite

often being booed by fans early on, Chamberlain seldom responded to the goading. When the boos began to turn to cheers in the twilight of a storied career, Chamberlain continued to remain aloof, seldom acknowledging the crowds.

Sanders says his seniority represents an important asset in the legislative arena. &uot;In politics,&uot; he says, &uot;experience and position make it much easier to get things done. You can pick up a telephone and get something done that might take someone just starting out two years to accomplish.

He has also developed a close relationship with Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. Sanders has publicly credited this governor with showing far more interest in and commitment to the Black Belt as a whole than any governor before him.

While much undeniably still remains to be done, Sanders points out that much has been accomplished since he has been in office. Things are better now, he says, than they were when he came on the political scene. He points to education as just one area in which great strides have been made.

In the area of economic development, he helped to sponsor the bill that provided $118 million for workforce training that is part of the incentives package which lured the giant South Korean automaker Hyundai to locate in Alabama.

He has worked to improve health care by helping to extend Medicaid health insurance to children of lower income families and by securing funding for free health screenings.

And, although it has often been marked by contention, Sanders argues that much progress has been made on the political front, as well. The at large elections that once skewed the political makeup of many elected bodies are now a thing of the past. Throughout the Black Belt, he says, those who serve in elected offices now more closely reflect the people they represent.

Sanders knows that undoing the vestiges of racism and economic deprivation that have been as much a part of life in the Black Belt as the cotton that grows from its rich black soil won’t come overnight. Nor will it come in 19 years.

But he believes it will come one day. And Hank Sanders remains confident that he has done his best to make that day a reality. He has, he insists, been part of the solution, not the problem.

He recalls one of his mother’s favorite expressions. &uot;She said, ‘Son, experience is a hard teacher, because it gives the test first and the lesson afterward.’&uot;

Hank Sanders throws back his head and laughs heartily at the memory of those childhood days.