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State officials honor former U.S. Senator Shelby

Richard Shelby, Brian Schatz
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is joined by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, right, as lawmakers leave the chamber and head for the exits after the Senate passed a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill that finances federal agencies through September and provides another significant round of military and economic aid to Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Governor Kay Ivey and other state officials paid homage to former Senator Richard Shelby this week. The retired vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee brought billions of dollars for projects like roads, bridges, university buildings, government installations and infrastructure. Shelby was also credited for encouraging the development of aerospace and other industries in the state. He retired this year after serving thirty-six years in the U.S. Senate. Shelby told the state leaders that it was "good to be home," and said he always believed elected leaders should work together for the good of the people they represent. "It's not about me. It's about our state, the people and the future of our state," he said. The longtime senator announced in 2021 that he would not seek another term. Shelby was replaced in the Senate by his one-time chief of staff, Katie Britt, who was elected in November.

Shelby was first elected as a conservative Democrat in 1978 to the U.S. House of Representatives during the party's waning days of control in the Deep South. In the House, he belonged to a caucus of Southern conservatives known as the boll weevils. Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986 but switched to the GOP in 1994. He became known for his measured demeanor and ability to harness his clout and relationships to direct billions of dollars in projects back to his home state of Alabama. He also had the rare accomplishment of chairing four major Senate committees — Appropriations; Intelligence; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; and Rules and Administration.

Shelby’s former staffer Katie Britt was elected to take his place, and secured a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, just not as co-chair. APR news analyzed what a “post Shelby” Congress might be for Alabama. Back in May, APR reported on how the state could look to West Virginia as an example of what changes might come when Shelby finally leaves office. Robert Byrd was the longest serving US Senator when he died in 2010. He also left big shoes to fill.

“In West Virginia when he left, or when he died, it certainly left a big gap,” said Eric Douglas, news director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “On one level people had been sort of been mentally preparing for a while, but there was a power vacuum in state-level politics as to who would take his spot and what would happen moving forward after that.”

Byrd also served as appropriations chair multiple times during his tenure as Senator. Douglas says he got several projects with federal funding brought to West Virginia, earning himself an apt nickname.

“Byrd himself referred to himself as the ‘billion-dollar senator. He served as the appropriations chair three different times in his time in office, but the last term he directed a lot of federal money to the state to the tune of about a billion dollars' worth of projects," Douglas said back in May of 2022.

One of those projects was bringing the FBI fingerprint analysis headquarters to the state. Richard Shelby secured similar projects for Alabama. The list includes bringing FBI facilities worth $2 billion in the Huntsville area.

In his last term, Shelby was able to bring federal funding back to the state with the return of earmarking in the federal budget. The practice allows members of Congress to secure federal funding for projects in their home state. Shelby ranked highest among his peers. He directed over a half billion dollars to the state for 16 projects. One was over one hundred and $30 million to restore and expand the Port of Mobile.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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