Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 19, 2002

Despite defeat, Siegelman says Black Belt can succeed

By Jonathan McElvy Special to The Times – Journal

Don Siegelman stood atop his career in Alabama’s twisted world of politics, jokingly looking for a grave from which to crawl.

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On Sunday afternoon, outgoing Gov. Don Siegelman sat uncomfortably in a podium chair in Selma &045;&045; the soul of Alabama’s Black Belt. In an ironic sense, Sunday marked one of the last days Siegelman would sit perched on his Alabama throne.

The purpose of Sunday’s event was to honor Siegelman for his work in this region of Alabama &045; including Marengo County and Demopolis. That’s why people like newly elected U.S. Rep. Artur Davis attended the event to honor the governor.

Siegelman spoke at length with The Times-Journal after the ceremony. Through every question and answer, he gazed back over his attempt to make this part of Alabama better.

Political historians may say something else when the chapter on Siegelman’s administration is written.

The governor’s monthly trips across the state always included stops along U.S. Highway 80 and Highway 43. He opened job training centers in Selma, expanded catfish plants in Uniontown, rebuilt a bridge in Demopolis, opened childcare centers in Sumter and Greene counties.

In political-speak, Siegelman didn’t exactly rummage through enormous voting blocs when he traveled these parts. Sure, he made stops in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, but his deep affection for the Black Belt may have cost him valuable campaign time in the urban centers of the state.

During his abbreviated speech in Selma, Siegelman sounded like a polished candidate seeking a new office. In reality, he assured his close-knit group of supporters that he didn’t regret a moment in the Black Belt.

And then the campaign talking points hit like a gravel truck on U.S. 80.

What that means now

All of those accomplishments make for good memories, but they don’t make assurances for the years to come. Siegelman, himself, was hesitant to offer hope for the Black Belt over the next four years.

According to the Riley camp, there are plans for this area of the state. David Azbell, spokesman for Riley, attempted to ease the worries of citizens in the Black Belt in an Associated Press report last week.

One look at Riley’s &uot;Plan for Change&uot; booklet shares a different light. The book takes up 102 pages. In one count, used by Siegelman’s campaign during the election, the book has 22,000 words. While Riley spends numerous pages dealing with the bio-tech industry in Birmingham and the marketability of ports in Mobile, the section on the Black Belt is brief, at best.

The 170-word paragraph penned by Riley and his staff offers no specific plans for the Black Belt.

While specifics lack from Riley’s plan, one thing the new governor wants to do is have state workers help recruit industries to this part of Alabama.

Siegelman doesn’t know that having state help is enough.

The best source for help

If there’s one person who knows what it will take to get into the governor’s office, it’s Siegelman, himself.

The Times-Journal asked Siegelman how residents from the Black Belt could become active in decisions made about this area, and the governor said having every citizen in this region writing letters won’t do much.

Those needs, Siegelman said, must be spelled out clearly.

According to representatives across the Black Belt, Riley has made some attempt at contacting local leaders. Uniontown Mayor Phillip White said he has been contacted, as have other mayors around the area.

The sunset

Don Siegelman began his career at the University of Alabama where he served as SGA president. He moved up the state ranks where he served as Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and finally Governor.

What lies ahead is for Siegelman to know. He’s talked about family time, camping and rest. He hasn’t talked much of a political future, though many speculate that he’s not finished with public office yet.

As for his tenure in Alabama’s twisted world of politics, the Mobile native has no regrets leaving office. In fact, there isn’t any project he didn’t complete or at least begin.

For Alabama and Siegelman &045; for now &045; that’s pretty much it.

Editor’s note: Riley spokesman David Azbell did not return calls for this story.