Daughter Takes Over Longest-Serving State Senator's Seat

Feb 18, 2019

Former state Sen. Hank Sanders (L) and Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier (R)
Credit Kim Chandler / AP

For nearly 40 years, state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma was a fixture of the Alabama Statehouse.

Sanders, 76, did not seek re-election last year after nine terms in office. When lawmakers convene next month, Senate District 23 will be represented by another member of the Sanders family. His daughter, Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier, won election to her father's longtime Senate seat last November.

The long-serving Democrat said he has no regrets about leaving state politics, because he says he is leaving the district in good hands.

"Part of the reason I haven't had a single afterthought is because I know Malika will not just do a good job, I know she'll do a better job than I ever did. I am so proud of her. She has the intellect. She has the commitment," Sanders said.

Sanders grew up in poverty as one of 13 children and made his way to Harvard Law School. He was first elected to the Alabama Senate in 1983.

Sanders-Fortier, now 45, was just a child when her father was elected. As a teenager, she served as a page in the Alabama Legislature where her dad served in office.

"Since I had no plans to be in politics, it never crossed my mind that I would actually be here in an official capacity," Sanders-Fortier said.

Like her parents, Sanders-Fortier is also an attorney.

Since winning election, she says she's been touched that both Republicans and Democrats have reached out to convey respect for her father.

Sanders-Fortier says education, sentencing reform and urging Medicaid expansion will be among her top priorities this year. Alabama is one of 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"We say we're a country where if you do an honest day's work, there should be some basic benefits that go along with that. Certainly, health care should be one of those benefits. I think ultimately that is something we should all be able to agree on," Sanders-Fortier said.

She says she wants to urge more people to get involved in the political process.

Last year, the elder Sanders had filed paperwork with the Alabama Democratic Party to run for a 10th term, a move that likely kept primary challengers from emerging for an open legislative seat. As qualifying ended, he announced he had made a last-minute decision not to run, and asked his daughter to do so instead.

Sanders' retirement comes at the same time a number of other longtime African-American legislators are leaving the Alabama Legislature. Some of them were elected not long after 1970, when African-Americans joined the Alabama Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, a member of the House since 1974, lost re-election in Montgomery. State Rep. James Buskey of Mobile retired after 42 years in office.

As the old generation gives way to the new, Sanders-Fortier joins a large entering class of freshman in both chambers of the Legislature.

"I am just as proud as any father can be. I know I am going to remain proud, because she is going to make us all proud," Sanders said.