The passing of Governor Albert Brewer on January 2nd at 88 years old marks the passing of an era in Alabama politics.
Albert P. Brewer was a good man and a true public servant. Brewer was born in Tennessee, but his folks moved to Decatur when he was very young after his father accepted a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
He graduated from Decatur High School with honors, then matriculated to the University of Alabama where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Brewer returned to Decatur to begin his law practice. Soon thereafter he was elected to the Alabama Legislature at the ripe old age of 25. He was elected without opposition three times and during his third term he became Speaker of the House. Brewer was the youngest Speaker in state history. In 1966, he beat two prominent state senators without a runoff to win the lieutenant governor’s job, which was much more powerful than it is today.
During his tenure as Speaker and Lt. Governor, either George or Lurleen Wallace was Governor. Brewer was a Wallace ally. When Gov. Lurleen Wallace died of cancer after only 16 months in office, Brewer ascended to the Governor’s office. He quickly and decisively took the reins of state government and became immediately effective. His years in the legislature gave him a keen insight into the machinations of state government. He was very well liked among the legislators and senators he had worked with over the past 15 years and therefore was extremely successful with his legislative agenda. He became a working governor.
Although Brewer was governor for only 33 months, he accomplished more as governor than most of his successors over the past 30 years combined. Brewer brought a low key businesslike style to the governor’s office, which was strikingly different than George Wallace’s racist flamboyant rhetoric and cronyism.
In 1970, Brewer and George Wallace squared off in what is the most memorable classic and pivotal governor’s race in Alabama political history. Brewer led Wallace by a slim margin in the first primary. However, Wallace, with his political life on the line, played the race card overtly in the runoff and defeated Brewer by a narrow margin.
Most political observers believe that had Brewer won, Alabama would have joined other southern states like North Carolina and Florida who had elected progressive pro-business governors. Brewer is often referred to as Alabama’s “New South” Governor.
He was a prince of a fellow and a good friend for over 50 years. I first met Governor Brewer when I was a young 13-year-old page in the State Legislature and he was Speaker of the House. My mentor was the State Representative from my home in Pike County. Mr. Gardner Bassett had been in the House for 24 years and was in his 70’s. He was training me to take his House seat once I was old enough. Mr. Gardner adored and admired the young Speaker Albert Brewer. He got Brewer and I acquainted and we became friends. Brewer would let me sit next to him in the Speaker’s box as he explained how he assigned bills to their proper committee. When Brewer became Lt. Governor in 1967, I was 15 and he made me head of the pages in the Senate. His daughters Becky and Allison served with me as Pages.
Gov. Brewer spent the last 30 years of his life teaching and mentoring law students at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. He was a mentor to my daughter, Ginny, while she was in law school at Cumberland, and followed her legal career as if she was his own daughter. Last January, Ginny and I ran into Gov. Brewer at a Birmingham restaurant. He was aging but still had that keen smile and twinkle in his eye.
Gov. Brewer and I had remained good friends over the years and he is featured prominently in my book, Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Political Stories. Thus, it is appropriate that the last time I visited with him was at a book signing in Bessemer. We later had lunch together at the Bright Star. As I close this column I am looking at a photo of Gov. Brewer and me from that day that adorns the wall of my office, with his ever present smile.
Albert Brewer has a special place in Alabama political history and in the hearts of many.
See you next week.