Alabama lost two legends this week
Twice during the past 10 days, the state of Alabama was hit with some difficult news. On Monday, March 28, former Congressman Tom Bevill passed away at his home in Jasper, Ala., at the age of 84, one day after having celebrated his birthday on Easter. Less than two days later, retired Sen. Howell Heflin passed away at the age of 83 in a hospital near his home of Tuscumbia, Ala.
The passing of these two political legends marks the passing of an era in Alabama politics. Together, these two men represented nearly a half-century of combined congressional experience – a mark that becomes all the more impressive when compared with the combined total of 86 years experience on Capitol Hill that the nine members of the Alabama delegation currently have.
A leader in the Senate
Few men ever worked harder at the art of compromise in the United States Senate than Howell Heflin. Affectionately known as "the Judge" because of his tenure on the Alabama Supreme Court, Sen. Heflin developed a reputation, during his 18 years in Washington, of working with his colleagues to find common ground on numerous issues – always with the best interests of his constituents at heart.
Many times, Judge Heflin put partisanship aside to support issues for which he saw great benefit, but which others in his party were actively working to oppose. On one important occasion during the 1980s, he was one of the few Democrats to openly support President Reagan's strategic defense initiative (SDI), known more popularly as the "Star Wars" missile defense system.
The Judge also served as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during some very contentious confirmation hearings in the 1980s, including the Supreme Court nominations of Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. While his personal views tended toward the conservative end of the spectrum on defense and financial matters, he was more progressive on social issues. In fact, U.W. Clemon and Myron Thompson, African-American federal judges from Birmingham and Montgomery, respectively, were both championed by Heflin when nominated to their appointments by President Jimmy Carter.
Influential member of the House
Like Sen. Heflin, Congressman Tom Bevill was truly a distinguished gentleman from Alabama, a man who provided three decades of outstanding representation for the residents of his district.
In fact, he represented two different districts during his career. During his first six years in Congress, he represented what was at that time the Seventh Congressional District. When the 10-year redistricting plan took effect in 1973, he found himself the congressman from Alabama's Fourth District.
Regardless of the district number, Congressman Bevill worked hard for his constituents and for his state. The seniority he achieved during his 15 terms in the House of Representatives was well earned, and indeed he was sometimes known as Alabama's "third senator" for the influence he wielded in the halls of Congress.
To this day, the signs of his influence can be found throughout Alabama. After a quarter-century of work, the highway project known as Corridor X, a massive highway project linking Memphis, Tenn. with Birmingham, Ala., is nearing completion. This highway will provide a vital link between these two cities and will provide tremendous benefits for further economic development in that region.
Additionally, it was Congressman Bevill's leadership and hard work that resulted in the completion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. This corridor has provided incalculable benefits for Alabama's economy and has resulted in thousands of jobs for men and women in our state.
There are many other projects that bear the hallmark of the hard work put forth by Tom Bevill during his 30 years in Congress. As was the case with Sen. Heflin, he was a man who put the interests of his district and his state above all others and those efforts made him a great success and a great man indeed.
Impact continues to this day
Even with all of the newspaper column inches, radio broadcasts, and television news reports devoted to tributes to Howell Heflin and Tom Bevill, we could never say enough about the contributions of these two great Alabamians. Undoubtedly, there are many members of both the House of Representatives and Senate who learned many lessons from them and who are still influenced by them in their own decision-making.
In a small way, I find I have inherited a part of the legacy of the Judge and the Congressman. Among the many talented men and women who work on my district office staff, there are two hardworking individuals who cut their teeth working for Howell Heflin and Tom Bevill. These ladies certainly learned from the best, and I now find myself learning from them each day.
There will undoubtedly be time in the years ahead for historians to gauge the true measure of these public servants and their legacies. For now, I feel it is most appropriate that we share our prayers and sympathy with the families of Tom Bevill and Howell Heflin, two of the finest individuals to ever champion the needs of the great state of Alabama.
Jo Bonner represents Southwest Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives.