Shelby ending career as Alabama’s longest-serving senator

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby stands in front of an orange wall.

Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is retiring after 35 years in the Senate.

J. Scott Applewhite, AP Photo

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama’s longest serving senator and a shrewd force in state and national politics for more than four decades, leaves office next month after choosing not to seek a seventh term.

Shelby told The Associated Press that he had a “good run,” but he expressed concern about the growing political polarization in the Senate and said he never thought the country would see a day like the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m grateful and fortunate that the people of Alabama sent me up here six terms to the Senate and four terms to the House,” Shelby, 88, said. ” … We’ve tried to leave Alabama and the country better than it was.”

Shelby, the fourth-most senior member of the Senate, is known for his measured demeanor and ability to harness his clout and savvy to direct billions of dollars in projects back to his home state of Alabama.

He said he leaves a Senate that has grown more polarized, just like the rest of the country.

“It’s less collegial than when I first went to the Senate 36 years ago,” Shelby said.

The outgoing senator said even though it’s not always possible, he always saw the value in trying to work across the political aisle, “especially in appropriations, because you can’t do it yourself.”

Shelby had the rare accomplishment of chairing four major Senate committees — Appropriations; Intelligence; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; and Rules and Administration.

Shelby, now vice chairman on the appropriations committee, is spending his final days in the Senate as he often has — huddled in negotiations on the spending bill.

Shelby is perhaps best known at home for directing billions of dollars in projects back to Alabama, including more than a half billion in projects alone in a spring spending bill, causing one anti-earmark group to dub him the “prince of pork.”

Money for universities, the Interstate 22 highway connecting Memphis and Birmingham, dredging and other improvement for the ports in Mobile, and the development of the FBI’s second campus in Huntsville are a few of the projects that will be associated with Shelby’s legacy.

“Those things I’m proud of. Not that it gave people some money, but it created infrastructure for growth and attraction of business and jobs,” Shelby said, calling those projects transformative for the state.

Shelby, a lawyer and former member of the Alabama Legislature, 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 of Representatives 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.

Shelby said the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a day he “never would’ve envisioned” happening in the country. Shelby said he was sitting in the Senate for the presidential election certification when he saw Vice President Mike Pence leave abruptly. He said seconds later, law enforcement officers flooded the chamber, with one assembling a weapon by his desk, and shouting at the senators to get down.

“It was not a good day for America. I thought we would never see it,” Shelby said.

He declined to assign blame for the violence. “But maybe we’ll learn something from that. Learn not to ever permit that to happen again, not to create the conditions for that to happen.”

He announced his retirement last year. Shelby said he did not want to become a person who stayed in a position past their point of being effective.

“I’ve seen people in the Senate. I’ve seen them in business. I’ve seen them in academia, too, stay too long, hold on to the last thing. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to walk when I was capable of doing the job, when I knew I could do the job.”

Shelby will be succeeded by his former chief of staff, Katie Britt, who secured the GOP nomination after a bitter and expensive primary and went on to easily win the November race. “I believe she’ll be a force. I know her well. She’s experienced and will hit the ground running.”

Shelby said it will be up to others to determine how he is remembered.

“I’ve had a good run, interesting run in the House, in the Senate, 44 years. And we’ve all had ups and downs, but we’ve had a lot of successes over the years.”


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