With the Republican Party flailing after losing control of the federal government and recent scandals surrounding top presidential hopefuls, the party must search for viable alternative candidates.
One intriguing Republican flying under the national radar is Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. The conservative former House member has a solid record after seven years in office by limiting spending, expanding economic development and reforming education in a poor, largely rural state unused to political change. Mr. Riley’s deep understanding of policy, combined with an amiable, down-home manner, also scores well with voters across the ideological spectrum.
In an exclusive interview in his Montgomery, Ala., office with The Washington Times, Mr. Riley’s charm was unmistakable, as was his commitment to changing government to serve voters, not entrenched political interests.
“I see so many decisions now that are being made up there [Washington] predicated on what the last administration did,” said Mr. Riley. “And it has increased the level of cynicism, I think, across this country in a way that it really does kind of retard the president and this administration from really doing some things that might be achievable, might be good. Cynicism can become paralyzing for a person or for a state or for a nation.”
Formerly a prosperous businessman, Mr. Riley began his political life with a successful 1996 congressional run, a decision made after buying a used motorcycle and riding solo from his state to Key West, Fla. Such outside-the-political-box thinking is also evident from his years running Alabama.
After barely besting scandal-plagued Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman in 2002, Mr. Riley quickly launched an ambitious multiyear tax reform effort. Aimed at relieving the tax burden on low-income earners and shifting revenues to underfunded agencies like law enforcement, the plan split conservative interests and he failed to sell the complex plan to voters. “I am not sure that’s what people expected a hard-core conservative Republican to do,” moderate Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis said of the Riley tax plan.
After the failure, Mr. Riley still managed to cut over a half-billion dollars from the state’s already struggling budget, left in ruins by Mr. Siegelman. He also cut taxes on the state’s poorest workers by increasing the earnings threshold, combined agencies and reformed the state budgeting process to allow agencies to keep unspent funds from year to year, ratcheting down pressure to continually increase annual budgets.
“A bureaucracy will spend every dime that you send them,” said Mr. Riley. “We did away with the philosophy if you don’t spend it, you lose it. It gives them the same incentive to help fund government much like you would do in your own household budget or in a business.”
Mr. Riley combined budget reform with an effective emphasis on economic development and education in a state that has long lagged behind the nation as a whole. With unemployment now running at more than 10 percent, it hit a record 3.1 percent low in 2006 from 5.3 percent when Mr. Riley first took office. One move that helped drive that job growth was combining the state’s nine separate economic-development agencies into one effective force.
Mr. Riley also hired top-tier administrators from out of state instead of the traditional friends of the governor. This has lead to top rankings as a business-friendly state.
Mr. Riley’s education reforms brought some attention because the system improved, even if it generally remains behind many other states. In his first term, education funding increased by more than $2 billion. His reading initiative improved test scores and has been copied by other states. An effort to bring Advanced Placement classes to even the most remote and poorest public high schools through video conferencing is particularly novel. Next year, every student in the state will have access to eight AP courses.
Re-elected in 2006 with 58 percent of the vote, Mr. Riley remains popular. His approval rating is in the mid-50 percent range, peaking as high as 70 percent in his second term, according to Survey USA.
Mr. Davis, who is running to succeed Mr. Riley, praised his political acumen and called his character “above reproach.” Most tellingly, Mr. Davis said he would not run against Mr. Riley if the term-limited governor could run again.
“He’s very popular, and he’s done a good job, so I think it would have been very hard to make a case against him,” said Mr. Davis.
Still, little is known about Mr. Riley outside Alabama. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas, who was in the same 1997 freshman House class as Mr. Riley, said Mr. Riley’s instincts are admirable. “He is someone people should be watching and listening to,” said Mr. Sessions.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican, echoed that sentiment, mentioning Mr. Riley as a possible Cabinet official, vice presidential or even presidential candidate. “He’s got a Reagan quality,” said Mr. Bachus. “In terms of accomplishments, he’s right there at the top. He’s ran a phenomenally good government in Alabama and would be a real asset coming back here [to Washington].”
Mr. Riley is inherently limited by the fact he doesn’t court the national stage. Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Alabama Republican, who succeeded Mr. Riley in Alabama’s 3rd District House seat, doubts Mr. Riley ever would run for president.
“He’s made his commitment to public service,” said Mr. Rogers. “Now he wants to spend some time with his family and his motorcycle.”
Mr. Riley plans another solo motorcycle ride across America and Canada all the way to Alaska next year. When asked whether he will contemplate a presidential campaign on that trip, Mr. Riley downplayed the idea. Nevertheless, when pushed, he added that he has “never ruled out anything in my life.”
The question now: Will the Republican establishment take notice?
Christian Bourge is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.