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2023 POWER & INFLUENCE 50: Numbers 1-10

Welcome back to the fifth and final installment of the Yellowhammer Multimedia 2023 list of Alabama’s most powerful and influential political leaders.

It’s been great to get your feedback all week on the rankings. This list is drawn from myriad conversations, as well as recent political and policy developments. It recognizes the top individuals in government and politics who leverage their power and influence for those they represent and the Yellowhammer State.

The first four installments can be found here: Numbers 50-41, Numbers 40-31, Numbers 30-21, and Numbers 20-11.

Enjoy Alabama’s top 10.

Jabo Waggoner, Alabama State Senate

In Alabama politics, power has a name. And that name is Jabo Waggoner.

This year marks his 50th serving in the state Legislature. He was a member of the House from 1966-86. He’s been a member of the Senate since 1990. He was a minority leader, a majority leader, and now holds the title of longest serving lawmaker in Alabama history.

But for Waggoner, we bet it’s not as much about that milestone itself as it is the outsized impact he continues to make, and in particular, the people he helps in doing so: His friends, his district, and those who come to him with good intentions and a good story.

There’s plenty of corollaries to be made between his friend and former colleague Richard Shelby. In terms of a fundamental respect to the power of appropriations, Waggoner is to the Birmingham region what Shelby was for the State of Alabama. UAB is just one example. Their use of power and influence is synonymous with growth and prosperity.

Waggoner is still very much the coolest guy in every room. Not only is he the most important conversation to have if you hope to get anything on the Senate calendar – it could also be the most interesting and enjoyable one you’ll have all day.

He’s someone who also exercises his power through friendship. It’s no coincidence the most important man is also the one everyone wants to be around.

Robbie McGhee, Poarch Band of Creek Indians

Wherever Robbie McGhee goes in the state of Alabama, he invariably gets cornered by legislators, mayors, city council members or county commissioners seeking local investment by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

These occurrences are never a surprise given PCI’s place as one of the Yellowhammer State’s leading job creators and investors in local communities.

McGhee is in his fourth term on the PCI Tribal Council, where he serves as vice chairman. In this role, McGhee is responsible for all governmental affairs at the federal, state and local level.

PCI is engaged in a diverse portfolio of business ventures. This includes gaming, hospitality, engineering, technology, manufacturing, construction and business consulting. The tribe’s federal services division has been the recipient of major contracts in recent years.

McGhee has prepared his entire professional career to carry the weight of PCI’s governmental relations responsibilities. He worked at the Department of the Interior, in the United States Senate and at a multinational law firm prior to returning home to Atmore.
Nevertheless, McGhee’s legacy in Alabama is cemented by his ability to leverage PCI’s strength so that all gaming legislation in the state goes through the tribe.

McGhee is a power player in every sense of the phrase.

Steve Windom, Windom Galliher & Associates

Steve Windom gains ground each and every year. It’s no wonder. The man is a machine.

As the lieutenant governor who brought Alabama into the 21st century, he’s been pulling the levers of power for a long time. He’s still a lawmaker in some ways. At least in terms of his ability to raise money, set meetings and get bills passed.

But that doesn’t even get at the core instinct that continues to multiply his power as a contract lobbyist. Windom is everywhere. He knows everyone. And everybody knows him. Especially during session, he’s an early bird and a night owl. It’s truly impossible to outwork someone who never stops working.

Like the ’63 Corvette he has parked in his garage, Windom is timeless. But when he takes off, he absolutely books it.

Steve Windom’s longevity as the tie that binds his clients to the ruling class in Alabama offers a masterclass in influence.

Quadrenniums come and go. But Windom remains.

Quentin Riggins, Alabama Power

We challenge anyone to show us a better fit between corporate culture and the personality of a senior member of management than exists between Alabama Power and Quentin Riggins.

Riggins serves as senior vice president of Governmental and Corporate Affairs for Alabama Power. This means Riggins is in charge of all state and federal government relations for one of the Yellowhammer State’s largest employers. He is also tasked with coordinating the company’s grassroots and corporate relations programs.

With so much at stake in so many communities across the state, the job of running point on all of the interactions with governmental entities would seem overwhelming.

But Riggins takes on the challenge the same way he played as an All-American linebacker at Auburn University. He is determined to succeed and relentless in his pursuit of Alabama Power’s objectives.

It is the perfect match of personality and approach at a company which fosters competition internally as well as part of its external goal to grow economic opportunity for the state of Alabama.

Riggins’ rather exceptional sphere of power and influence extends into his service on Auburn University’s Board of Trustees. This seat is undoubtedly special to Riggins. But his service extends to so many other endeavors they are too many to count.

The SEC Legend has a gravitational pull. Success seems to find Riggins. And so does power and influence.

Arthur Orr, Alabama State Senate

Law No. 11 in Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power” states, “Learn to keep people dependent on you.”

Arthur Orr has employed this principle in reaching heights of power and influence reserved for a select few in Alabama.

He currently serves as chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee. This makes him the signator on Alabama’s largest bank account – the education budget. Orr holds the checkbook for an account exceeding $8 billion.

Power and influence has always been a measure of willingness to exercise the tools at one’s disposal. Just because someone may sit in a position of power does not guarantee influence if they are not willing to use it.

In Orr’s case, he boldly uses the leverage afforded him as chief appropriator of education dollars to achieve an array of outcomes in the Alabama State Senate.

He has established himself as one of the strongest voices in the room when it comes to setting the calendar of legislation in the upper chamber, and he has shown time and again he can effectively whip votes for or against a piece of legislation from members keenly interested in the distribution of education dollars for their districts.

Orr’s steep climb has been to the benefit of his home region of North Alabama and his relative position among power players in Montgomery. As outlined in Law No. 11, “To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have.”

Orr is utilizing that freedom to gain a nearly immeasurable amount of power and influence.

Will Ainsworth, Lieutenant Governor

Will Ainsworth doesn’t just set the agenda, he creates the entire narrative.

This is the year we discontinue the line of thought that Ainsworth is successful relative to his role as lieutenant governor. It’s no longer that he has “reinvented the office’s authority” or that he is “active and out front” – it’s Ainsworth himself generating power.

As evidenced in the 2022 cycle, if you’re running for office just about anywhere in Alabama, Ainsworth’s attention and endorsement is becoming more of a requirement than a plus. A master strategist and perhaps the state’s best communicator, he knows where the votes are and how to get them. He’s eager to get involved with any election in any corner of the state on any level of the ticket – if he believes you’re a good candidate.

Ainsworth’s political vision speaks to the effectiveness he brings to his legislative and administrative duties. Whether it’s cutting taxes at the grocery store or widening roads on the way to the beach, Ainsworth knows what we really want. And clearly, how to get it done.

And he’s also led on substance. He’s worked to make Alabama a better home for service members and veterans as chair of the Military Stability Commission, he was a leading voice for reopening the state after lockdowns, and most recently oversaw the Fconomic Incentives Review Committee.

In a state that enjoys picking a winner, we don’t suspect Ainsworth has any trips to Buck’s Pocket in his future.

Nathaniel Ledbetter, Speaker, Alabama House of Representatives

Those who know Nathaniel Ledbetter had a good idea he’d be effective in his first session presiding over the House as speaker. No one knew he’d demolish expectations the way he has.

A clear tempo has been set in the ‘people’s house’ with Ledbetter as conductor. This is no small feat considering just under one-third of its members are freshman. Through a reinvention of the committee process and empowerment of his chairmen, the House has democratized decisions to the benefit of its members and their districts. He’s putting his reps outfront to lead on the substance they bring.

Ledbetter is humble and reserved. But when he speaks – everyone listens – and he means every word. Since his first day at the statehouse, it has been this quiet strength that has cultivated the trust of his colleagues. That presence is playing out powerfully in the lower chamber. If this session is any indication of what’s in store for the quadrennium, the House is back on time.

Elected to the House in 2014, made majority leader in 2017, and unanimously chosen as Speaker in 2022, the gentleman from Rainsville is on a lightning-streak. Prior to that, he was a three-term city councilman and mayor. While he now influences a far wider area than his district, the support he sees at home would be similar to many areas like it across Alabama that end up counting as the majority of ballot boxes on election day.

We suspect the more people who meet Ledbetter, the more his influence stands to grow.

In the meantime, expect him to continue running the House like clockwork.

Greg Reed, President Pro Tempore, Alabama State Senate

For 335 days out of the year, Greg Reed is one of the most powerful and influential people in the state of Alabama.

During the remaining 30 days which constitute the annual legislative session in the Yellowhammer State, Reed is THE most powerful and influential person in the state. In his role as President Pro Tempore of the Alabama Senate, it is Reed who single-handedly determines the fate of any and all legislation introduced at the State House.

Alabama’s constitution ensures that the Alabama Legislature enjoys a special function among the three co-equal branches of government. And the rules within that branch empower the President Pro Tempore.

Reed has used the capacity of his office to its fullest.

He is a true statesman, and he carries a palpable presence whether in a room of two people or 200. Reed employs a smart formula which includes relationship building and reliance on process and structure. This is essential to leading 35 people who each represent a separate piece of Alabama’s geography and have a singular set of interests. There may only be two sides of the aisle in the upper chamber but there are not two sets of interests which are the same.

That’s why Reed is a master at taking on the disparate roles of being the state’s finest diplomat and a sledgehammer within minutes of each other.

Reed has all the tools to go down in the history of the state as one of our finest public servants. Lauded for his grasp of public policy and his ability to convey a disciplined message, he is a gifted retail politician and has undertaken a successful career in business.

And, yet, it still always comes down to those few moments each legislative session which determine the direction of the state of Alabama. Those moments, and that direction, sit in the palm of Reed’s hands.

Zeke Smith, Alabama Power

Zeke Smith leads the most robust and effective governmental affairs operation in not just Alabama, but the entire Southeastern United States.

To illustrate recognition of that fact, we frequently point out that at political events involving his peers, it is Smith who clearly has the longest line of people wanting to speak with him.

Alabama Power services more than 1.5 million homes, businesses and industries. It employs more than 6,000 Alabamians. The company maintains more than 8,000 miles of power lines in order to achieve a power delivery rate exceeding 99%. So there is a lot the company has to tell people about.

That falls under Smith’s purview as executive vice president External Affairs. Governmental relations, corporate affairs, regulatory affairs, environmental affairs, public relations and charitable giving all fit under the umbrella of Smith’s office.

Smith is a savant when it comes to Alabama Power’s business and the regulatory climate within the structure of Alabama state government. At this point in his career, he is both a celebrity and cerebral and always mindful of his company’s brand. At the same time, he allows his team to think boldly about the possibilities for the company and the state.

There is not enough room in this space to list the initiatives in which Smith is involved in the areas of economic development and philanthropy. Notably, though, he serves on the Board of Trustees at Auburn University, where he and his wife, Darlene, have endowed multiple scholarships.

Smith will be talked about by generations of Alabama Power employees, governmental affairs professionals, people in his own community and those in Alabama communities miles from his home.

Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama

In 2019, we wrote that “Governor Kay Ellen Ivey will go down as one of the most consequential leaders in Alabama history.”

That’s been substantiated.

While it’s a plain fact that Ivey has won the hearts and minds of Alabamians with one of the highest and longest running favorability rates, after the last election cycle, we think she won the whole game.

From the renewal and expansion of economic incentives, to direct taxpayer relief for hardworking families, to the wise appropriation of federal funds investing in the current needs and future challenges of counties across the state, to so many other landmark victories – all Ivey has to do is point to the scoreboard.

Anyone surprised isn’t playing close enough attention.

We think she was simply following the playbook she wrote. Time and time again, Ivey leverages the trust she’s built over her career to accomplish a clear vision that’s communicated just as clearly. On the other side of leading Alabama through compounding world crises with calm, decisive judgment – both voters and lawmakers alike are invested in that reliability.

At this point, Ivey has become more than just Alabama’s “right the ship” governor. She’s also Alabama’s jobs governor, infrastructure governor, Alabama’s pro-military governor, and far more.

Ivey’s journey from Camden to Auburn to the summit of power she’s reached in Montgomery will be held up for years to come as the blueprint of an Alabama governor.

More than anything, Ivey’s politics is a reflection of her love for Alabama. It’s that simple.

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