#039;That#039;s pretty much it#039;

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Siegelman looks back at his stint as Governor

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

"I don't see a coffin down there. But I was going to get out of it if I was in it," he said.

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Earlier this week, outgoing Gov. Don Siegelman sat uncomfortably perched atop a podium chair in Selma for an event in his honor.

In an ironic sense, this week marks one of the last Siegelman will spend perched on his Alabama throne.

"I've known every governor since Big Jim Folsom… and you're shoulders above the others when it comes to knowing the needs of this area," said nationally renowned attorney J.L. Chestnut Jr.

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

"Do I regret the time I spent here?" he asked. "Absolutely not."

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 231.

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 this area may have cost him valuable campaign time in the urban centers of the state.

"I have enjoyed every single movement of the political challenges we faced," he said. "I get up every morning wondering who I'm going to fight for, and when it comes to working for people, I want to work for the least of these."

During his abbreviated speech, 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 he spent in the rural centers of Alabama.

"Those that have got it don't need it," he said in reference to urban parts of Alabama. "They've got somebody to look after them. We need to look after those people who need the help."

And then the campaign talking points hit like a gravel truck on U.S. 231.

"That's why we started a thousand new construction projects," he deliberately said. "We got rid of those portable classrooms. We're building roads and bridges and airports in places that have never had roads and bridges built before. We're establishing job training centers and 72 model early learning centers."

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 over the next four years.

"I don't know what it will take to get noticed," he said. "It either has to happen because [Gov.-elect Bob Riley] wants it to happen, or it's going to happen because the local communities organize."

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

"In our plan for change, which is the blueprint for the Riley administration, we put it right there in black and white in print…," Azbell said. "I don't know how much more committed we can get than to put a promise in a book and hand out thousands and thousands of copies."

One look at Riley's "Plan for Change" 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 rural areas surrounding Montgomery is brief, at best.

The 170-word paragraph penned by Riley and his staff offers no specific plans for those areas.

"A recent Birmingham News article compared the Black Belt region of our state to a third world country," says the "Plan for Change." "No area of this state should ever have to receive such a scathing designation. It is incumbent upon the governor to do everything possible to promote business throughout every region of our state. We must come up with creative solutions to help economically distressed counties expand their economic base."

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.

"Generally, these counties do not have the resources that other areas do, and as such are unable to hire recruiters who will work to bring industry to these regions. In such situations, state government should step in and help these counties recruit industry."

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

"I was attracted to (rural areas) because I wanted to bring jobs and improve education, and I know you have to invest in infrastructure to do that," he said. "We've been doing that with roads and bridges…"

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

One reporter 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.

"It takes your elected officials banning together," Siegelman said. "You have to take a Black Belt delegation, and fill up the Capitol auditorium with city council members, county commissioners, economic development leaders, mayors and legislators, and say 'we've got needs over here that need to be addressed.'"

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

"It takes the child care centers," he said. "It takes the job training centers to raise educational levels. It takes additional infrastructure. Then you've got to have special programs like after school programs."

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.

"We were really working on everything simultaneously," he said. "We were bringing in jobs, working on education, and addressing healthcare issues. That's pretty much it."

For Alabama and Siegelman – for now – that's pretty much it.

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