About Fob James, Governor
Forrest Hood James, Jr., known as Fob James (born September 15, 1934), is an American politician, a civil engineer, and an All-American half-back. He served two terms as the 48th Governor of Alabama, from 1979 to 1983 as a Democrat, and again from 1995 to 1999 as a Republican.
Education, football, and early career
After graduation in 1952 from Baylor School, a private high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. James played football (1952–1955) at Auburn University, where he played for head coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan. In 1955 James was named All-American as a halfback. He received a civil engineering degree in 1957. He played professional football in Canada as a member of the Montreal Alouettes during the 1956 season and entered the Army to serve two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
From 1958–59, James was a heavy construction engineer with Burford-Toothaker Tractor Company in Montgomery, AL. In 1959, his second born, Gregory Fleming James, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Needing money to pay Greg's medical bills, James left Montgomery in 1960 to take a job as construction superintendent with Laidlaw Contracting Company, a road-paving company in Mobile, AL. In 1961, the James decided that he could earn a living from the manufacture of plastic-coated barbells. In 1962, he founded Diversified Products Inc., a manufacturer of fitness equipment known for the plastic-disc barbells filled with "Orbatron," which DP patented. The company name had been changed to "Diversified Products Corporation" after originally being called Health-Disc Inc. In addition to physical fitness equipment, the company manufactured ballasts and counterweights for farms, industry and trucking. James founded DP in his basement and, over the next 15 years, the company ultimately grew to employ 1,500 people with plants in Opelika, AL, Los Angeles, and Toronto, with sales of about $1 billion annually. James served as the CEO of DP until it was bought by the Liggett Group in 1977.
James lost his 8-year-old son to cystic fibrosis. The Gregory Fleming James Cystic Fibrosis Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, established in 1981, is named in his honor. James played an integral role in the establishment of the Center. Curiously he does not support modern biology including evolution and DNA. Thus he famously asked schools in Alabama to insert in textbooks that "evolution is a theory accepted by only few scientists. And further that DNA or "chemicals" are not the building blocks of life.
Additionally, from 1972 to 1974, James served as president of the Alabama Citizens for Transportation, a statewide committee which developed a twenty-year highway program subsequently adopted by the Alabama Legislature.
During his 1978 campaign for Governor, James campaigned as a "born-again Democrat". James had left the Democratic Party in the early 1970s but returned to the party before the election. In the first primary, he defeated Bill Baxley 296,196 votes to 210,089 votes. In the second primary, James easily outdistanced Baxley and defeated the Republican candidate, Guy Hunt, in the November general election.
During James' first administration, the state faced considerable financial difficulties; however, James was reasonably successful in attaining his education reform package, improving the state's mental health system, rectifying some prison overcrowding problems and re-establishing the once financially strapped Medicaid system. Furthermore, James consolidated various state agencies to reduce state spending. Additionally, he implemented a ten percent State spending cut, instituted a hiring freeze and laid off a considerable number of the state employee workforce. He also chose to emphasize funding for k-12 education over that for Alabama's colleges and universities, a highly contested action. He also worked to acquire stiffer penalties for convicted drug traffickers and was quite instrumental in the improvement of the state's highways as a result of earmarking a substantial amount of money for such improvements from the state's oil windfall funds. However, James was unsuccessful in his attempts to: have a new state constitution drafted, levy a fuel tax, rectify the court-ordered desegregation of some of the state's post-secondary institutions and secure passage of his bill to eliminate income tax deductions for Social Security payments.
One of his greatest accomplishments was his success in integrating Alabama government. During his inauguration, he "claim(ed) for all Alabamians a New Beginning (his campaign theme) free from racism and discrimination." During his first term as governor, he named Oscar Adams to fill a vacancy on the Alabama Supreme Court, the first African American chosen for such a position. In addition, he appointed other blacks to cabinet positions, including Gary Cooper as director of the Department of Pensions and Security, the first African American to be named to head a major state agency in Alabama in a century.
During his first term, James caused controversy by his religious beliefs, specifically, his signing into law a measure passed by the legislature allowing teachers to lead willing students in prayer. The law was declared unconstitutional in May 1983.
James's decision not to run again for governor in 1982 eased the way for George Wallace to return to office for a fourth and final term. Out of office, however, James began to yearn for a return to the governorship, and in both the 1986 and 1990 Democratic primaries was defeated in both races. Living a semi-retired life while out of office, he partnered with his sons in several businesses. He managed and partly owned Orange Beach Marina, served as the CEO of Coastal Erosion Control, a company that worked to prevent coastal erosion, and worked as the CEO of Escambia County Environmental Corporation, which develops landfills and waste incinerators. In the spring of 1994, James's desire to be governor led him to switch parties one more time, and he qualified at the last moment as a Republican candidate. James defeated Folsom by a narrow margin and won his second term as governor, this time as a Republican.
During James's second term, the Governor appointed Aubrey Miller, a black Alabamian, to head the Alabama Tourism Department. He also appointed Beth Chapman, the first woman in Alabama’s history to serve as Appointments Secretary, to his Cabinet.
James stressed again what he called "fundamental American values" and pressed his consistent support for K-12 education. The legislature joined him in passing an educational reform package known as the James Educational Foundation Act. This important legislation required local school systems that were not already at a minimum level of support to raise local property taxes to 10 mills, and it increased the number of credit hours in academic subjects that students were required to have in order to graduate. This legislation also empowered the state superintendent of education to take control of schools that scored poorly on national achievement tests. Unfortunately, in his quest to improve K-12 education, he stripped funding from the state's colleges and universities and further strained relations between higher education and the governor's office.
James took a predictable "get tough" position on crime and criminals when he and his prison commissioner, Ronald Jones, reinstituted chain gangs for Alabama's prison inmates. The Governor approved other strict policies instituted by Jones but balked at the commissioner's suggestion that chain gangs be extended to include female prisoners, and James put an end to the chain gang shortly thereafter because of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of community human rights groups. Regarding crime issues, James also cited as one of his "major accomplishments" the revision of the Alabama Criminal Code, which made it one of the toughest in the U.S.
Unlike his moderate first term, however, James began to reflect an individualistic states' rights attitude. He refused to accept federal monies from the U.S. Department of Education's Goals 2000 program because he believed that accepting the money would lead to increased federal involvement and control over the state's schools. When Secretary of Education Richard Riley promised that the Department of Education would not interfere in the use of the funds, Alabama's state board of education ignored the governor's role and voted to accept the funding and use it to purchase computers for K–12 classrooms. In a similar act, James "seceded" from the National Governors' Association and was the only head of a state to refuse to attend this organization's meetings.
James was also criticized for his religious beliefs. At a 1995 Alabama State Board of Education meeting, James criticized the theory of evolution in textbooks by imitating a "slump-shouldered ape turning into an upright human". He supported the adoption of a textbook warning sticker that stated, among other things, that "No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."
James's longest and most publicized religious battle, however, came during the controversy surrounding the posting of the Ten Commandments and the offering of a daily prayer in the courtroom of Etowah County Judge Roy S. Moore. In a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Court Dudge Ira DeMent, an appointee of President George H. W. Bush, ordered the removal of the commandment plaque and cessation of the prayers because they violated the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state. Judge Moore appealed the decision, and James supported his position, threatening for a brief period to mobilize the Alabama National Guard and use force if necessary to prevent the removal of the Ten Commandments plaque from Moore's courtroom. In October 1997, Judge DeMent issued another sweeping and controversial order forbidding certain religious practices in DeKalb County's public schools. James verbally attacked DeMent's order as yet another illegitimate intrusion by federal courts into local affairs. The judge's order was, in part, reversed shortly after James left office, allowing students on their own to hold religious meetings on school grounds.
During his second term James, who firmly supported the death penalty, presided over seven executions by electric chair. (Alabama resumed executions in 1983.) However, in one of his last official acts as Governor, James commuted the death sentence of Judith Ann Neelley to life in prison. This remains, as of 2008, the only post-Furman commutation of a death sentence by a Governor in Alabama. James explained that, in his view, executing Neelley would not have been just. His reason was that the Neelley case was the only time he had seen a judge overrule the jury in issuing a death penalty.
In his campaign for re-election to a third term, James faced strong opposition in the Republican party primary from Winton Blount III, a fellow conservative and a millionaire businessman, who sharply criticized religious right influence on James. James struggled through the bitter Republican primary runoff and defeated Blount but had little money left to finance the general election campaign. Lieutenant Governor Don Siegelman, on the other hand, easily won the Democratic primary on the sole issue of establishing a state lottery to provide college scholarships. James opposed the lottery and was soundly defeated by Siegelman in the general election in 1998. He returned to semi-retirement, saying he wanted to spend more time with his children and grandchildren.
James helped arrange a State of Alabama-paid voluntary return of Lester Coleman, a former journalist accused by the Federal Government of the United States of committing perjury who was residing in Europe, to the United States. According to Redding Pitt, a federal government attorney from Montgomery, Alabama, Coleman called James, an acquaintance of Coleman from the 1970s, for help in his case. Coleman promoted alternative theories regarding the Pan Am Flight 103 incident, and his perjury charges stemmed from his statements about Pan Am 103. Joe Boohaker, Coleman's attorney, said that James apparently knew Coleman from the time when Coleman worked at a Birmingham, Alabama radio station.
In a widely reported incident, James remarked that he wished the state's government ran as well as the Waffle House Restaurants he enjoyed frequenting. Editorial observers responded by suggesting that running a state was significantly more complicated than running a restaurant.
Life after politics
James has 10 grandchildren and resides in Alabama. He is the CEO of Escambia County Environmental Corporation.