Head of Alabama Teachers’ Union Tests Power in Governor’s Race

By Debra Viadero — March 21, 1990 14 min read

Montgomery, Ala.--Framed political cartoons from the state’s largest newspapers line the walls of Paul R. Hubbert’s office here at the Alabama Education Association.

Some show the 54-year-old teachers'-union lobbyist in a tug-of-war with former Gov. George C. Wallace, his blond, almost patrician, good looks playing well off Mr. Wallace’s craggy features and dark, bushy eyebrows.

In others, he is dangling state legislators from a string, or directing union members who are invariably depicted as portly schoolmarms. The pictures cover an entire wall and a third of another one, weaving their way around the trophy case and plaques that accent the office of the aea’s executive secretary.

That any state teachers'-union official could achieve the kind of public profile that lends itself to political caricature would be noteworthy. That Paul Hubbert has parlayed his high profile into a bid for governor is something much more.

“There was a lot of laughing initially when Paul said he was going to run,” said Bob Ingram, editorial director of WSFA-tv here and one of the state’s senior political commentators. “But Paul is an unusually talented, articulate, and attractive guy and people have looked at the numbers and realized he’s got the votes to do it.”

Right Ingredients

As one of five candidates seeking the Alabama Democratic Party’s nomination for governor this year, Mr. Hubbert is something of an anomaly. While teachers’ unions have wielded increasing power in state legislatures in recent decades, few--if any--of their leaders have ever had the clout to seek the state’s highest office.

Only Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida comes close to fitting that profile, according to the National Education Association. He led the Hillsborough County Teachers Association in 1968, when the Florida local joined a statewide teachers’ strike. Mr. Martinez, however, has long since distanced himself politically from his early union roots.

For the most part, experts say, teachers'-union officials lack the necessary ingredients for pursuing the job: name recognition, the right kind of political influence, the will, and the proper public image.

Unlike his peers elsewhere, Mr. Hubbert appears to have many of those ingredients. The story of how he came to acquire them is a complex one that is inextricably intertwined with the growth of the powerful Alabama Education Association--and with the unusual relationship between politics and education that exists in Alabama.

But at the heart of matter, policymakers and pundits here insist, is Paul Hubbert himself.

Rising From Cotton

Described by friends and foes alike as bright, hardworking, and articulate, Mr. Hubbert also boasts an early background that is the stuff of good political lore.

Born to a family of poor farmers in rural Fayette County, he spent some of his early years helping his parents pick cotton.

“I remember my mother coming to the end of a cotton row,” he recalled recently, in the storytelling tradition familiar to Southern politicians, “pushing her bonnet back and wiping her brow and saying, ‘Son, when you grow up I want you to get an education so you don’t have to be a clodhopper like your Daddy and me.”’

Mr. Hubbert took her advice, working his way through Florence State Teachers’ College, now a branch campus of the University of Alabama, and returning later to earn a master of arts degree and a doctorate in administration.

His political awakening, he said, came in 1960, at the start of his brief teaching career. He and his wife, Ann, both teachers right out of college, had purchased their first washing machine and stove with a promise to make the first payment on them by the following week, when their paychecks arrived.

But a few days before the payment was due, his principal announced on the school loudspeaker that checks might not be delivered on schedule. The administrator said the county school board could not pay its teachers because it had not received its funding from the state.

As it turned out, the checks did arrive. But the incident’s meaning was not lost on Mr. Hubbert. “As a young person, I thought it was abhorrent to put people through all that,” he said. “I thought somebody, somewhere, ought to be able to do something about it.”

Building a Machine

The aea would be Mr. Hubbert’s vehicle for setting about that task. In 1969, when he came to the association, it had only 40,000 members and a budget of less than $350,000. The group now boasts 70,000 members and a budget approaching $8 million.

In the 1960’s, the union had been viewed in the state as a “ladies’ tea-drinking society,” recalled State Senator Mac Parsons, a former chairman of the Senate education committee.

“Paul took an organization that met once a year in Birmingham and did a lot of shopping in town and ended up with a plastic bag full of trinkets and a yardstick,” Mr. Parsons said, “and turned it into a political organization that has become a player in state government.”

In truth, the organization was already poised to be a power in the state, according to William D. Barnard, chairman of the department of history at the University of Alabama.

The reason had to do with the way the state funded its education system. An unusually large share of funding for Alabama schools--roughly 70 percent--comes from the state. The legislature also sets salaries and benefits for teachers.

“The aea has always been a powerful interest in that regard,” Mr. Barnard said.

What Mr. Hubbert did, according to political observers, was capitalize on the group’s position of influence.

“First, he saw this huge force of teachers and knew that, if he could harness their energies and money, he could do all sorts of things,” Mr. Ingram, the political reporter, said. “And that’s what he did.”

He started out by recruiting teachers to run for seats in the legislature, which was then dominated by trial lawyers and businessmen.

The organization no longer has need of such recruiting efforts, according to Mr. Hubbert. But the political legacy of that early push lives on. A 1988 survey by the Alabama Alliance of Business and Industry indicated that 31 of 140 state legislators--almost one in four--were educators.

Mr. Hubbert also helped build the organization by what he calls “democratizing” it--opening up the group’s policymaking process to every member, rather than just the small group of superintendents and principals who had previously controlled it.

In addition, he merged the union with the Alabama State Teachers Union, an organization of black teachers formed before the public schools were integrated.

“The black group brought forth an advocacy that we did not have previously in the legal arena,” Mr. Hubbert said. “They had gained some experience in that area with the federal Voting Rights Act, and we meshed that with what had already been developed as a high-profile politically.”

The leader of the black teachers’ group, Joe Reed, also headed the Alabama Democratic Conference, the largest and most influential organization of black voters in the state. Mr. Reed, who is still president of the ADC, became the associate executive secretary of the combined teachers’ union.

That alliance has continued for 21 years, although the two groups have occasionally supported different political candidates.

The AEA has sought to add to its clout by forming a political-action committee to help finance the campaigns of friendly candidates. Mr. Hubbert said the association’s a-vote political-action committee was the first such fund created by any association or special-interest group in Alabama.

The group spent a little more than $600,000 on political campaigns in the most recent round of elections, and political observers estimate that the fund easily tops $1 million now. Mr. Hubbert, however, declined to reveal the exact amount.

“When someone gives you $10,000 and you see their face on the ‘Hill’ all the time, you’re going to remember them,” observed Sandra Sims-deGraffenreid, executive director and chief lobbyist of the Alabama School Boards Association.

The teachers’ union scored its first major legislative coup in 1971, during a battle with then-Governor Wallace. Pressed by a federal court to improve the state’s mental-health system, Mr. Wallace proposed funding such improvements by withholding money from the teachers’ retirement fund. The AEA fought against it and won.

The Wallace defeat marked the first time the powerful Governor had ever lost a vote on one of his legislative proposals.

“When that happened, it galvanized our people,” Mr. Hubbert recounted. “They really felt good about the organization for the first time.”

Other successes followed. In 1983, the association lobbied successfully for a bill requiring local school boards to automatically withhold from teachers’ paychecks contributions to the AEA’s political-action committee. Individual teachers could refuse to participate through the use of a “negative check-off” form. The measure passed during a special session that required bills to have a two-thirds majority for approval.

The enactment of back-to-back 15 percent pay raises for teachers in the early 1980’s also drew attention to the association and lent credence to the growing perception that the AEA was a political force to be reckoned with.

There was, however, a price to pay for some of those successes, and it came due when the state in the early 1980’s sought to draw new boundaries for its legislative districts.

An account of that time in Governing magazine explains that Alabama, like many other Southern states, is required under the Voting Rights Act to submit such plans to the U.S. Justice Department for approval. In 1982 and 1983, after the state had already redistricted and held elections, federal officials invalidated the plan, decided on a new map, and ordered that new elections be held.


The state Republican Party complied by holding primaries to determine who would be its legislative nominees. But the executive committee of the state Democratic Party, which was led by Mr. Hubbert and Mr. Reed at the time, handpicked its nominees.

The political backlash that followed gave ammunition to critics of the union’s and Mr. Hubbert’s growing influence.

“The Democratic Party made a basic mistake,” said Mr. Barnard, the University of Alabama historian. “They let the headiness of power and influence take them beyond what many politicians thought was acceptable.”

Mr. Hubbert downplays the incident’s significance.

“The very people who now talk about it in the most despicable way,” he said, “were among the groups who came to us and said, ‘We don’t want to fund another primary election.”’

Nevertheless, the move--and the barrage of negative publicity it evoked--is widely believed to have contributed to the election in 1986 of Guy Hunt, the state’s first Republican governor in more than 100 years.

And, according to Mr. Barnard, it gave impetus to the business community’s mobilization of forces to eject what it saw as the ruling “unholy triad” of educators, blacks, and trial lawyers.

Partly due to that effort, political observers said, the legend of Paul Hubbert as power broker began to blossom.

“Ironically, in one sense his mythic image as a power broker is a product of the talk of his enemies,” Mr. Barnard observed.

Perhaps the crowning moment in that image-making process came when Governor Hunt publicly referred to Mr. Hubbert as the “czar” of the legislature.

How much of that perception is myth and how much is true is difficult to determine.

“The main quality about power in politics is the mystique of it,” Mr. Parsons noted. “I think that probably holds true for Paul Hubbert.”

Despite the union leader’s “mystique,” however, Alabama teachers rank only 37th in the nation in average annual salaries. And the state has consistently been rated near the bottom in per-pupil spending.

“Alabama says, ‘Thank God for Mississippi’,” Mr. Parsons quipped.

Standing in the way of better education funding in the state, contended Mr. Barnard, are poverty and the state’s school-funding formula. Under the state constitution, Alabama can only spend as much on education as it collects in income and sales taxes.

That amount has been limited, Mr. Barnard noted, because the state missed out on the prosperity enjoyed by some other Sun Belt neighbors.

The bottom line, he said, is that neither Mr. Hubbert nor the AEA has succeeded in getting higher property taxes passed as a way of helping bolster funds for education.

“Generally, when they talk about how strong you are,” Mr. Hubbert mused, “you’re probably about half as strong as they say. And when they talk about how weak you are, you’re probably half as weak as they say.”

“If I’m going to carry any baggage into this governor’s race,” he added, “at least it will be baggage born of having been successful.”

The Race

After 21 years of lobbying, and with his two daughters grown and on their own, Mr. Hubbert said he had reached the point where he felt the need to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He could retire and live comfortably, or he could go on to new challenges.

“I just decided I could do more in the Governor’s office than I can at AEA,” he said.

He threw his hat in the ring last fall and officially kicked off the campaign in January. The Democratic primary is June 5.

So far, he has not made a spectacular showing in the polls. A survey conducted in late February by his campaign showed Attorney General Don Siegelman and former Gov. Fob James well ahead of their opponents for the Democratic nomination. The remaining three candidates--U.S. Representative Ronnie G. Flippo, Mr. Hubbert, and State Senator Charles Bishop--were bunched closely together.

But political observers say such early polls largely reflect name recognition in the general public--a weak point for Mr. Hubbert, who is now known principally by state policymakers and educators.

“But if you have enough money, you can buy an image,” State Senator Parsons suggested. Mr. Hubbert said he expects to have about $2 million to spend in the campaign.

All of the 11 people interviewed for this article said they considered Mr. Hubbert one of two or three serious contenders for the nomination. Most predicted he would at least make it to his party’s run-off election in June.

“From what I hear in the field,” Mr. Barnard said, “when Paul Hubbert comes to town a couple of things happen: First, everyone is impressed with his energy, his articulateness, and his vision for the state. Then business people, who have viewed him as the devil incarnate, come out scratching their heads and saying, ‘Gee, I’ve heard bad things about this fellow but he doesn’t seem so bad.”’

Overcoming his poor image among the business community appears to be one of Mr. Hubbert’s biggest challenges.

A 1988 survey of business leaders conducted by the Alabama Alliance of Business and Industry suggests they are sharply critical of Mr. Hubbert’s union. More than 90 percent of those polled said the teachers’ union has negatively affected the state’s business climate, and 96 percent said the AEA had “too much” political influence.

“I just think his view of the economy and what motivates it would be bad for business,” said State Senator Larry Dixon, a Republican from Montgomery and a longtime critic of Mr. Hubbert.

Other observers--including Mr. Hubbert himself--say that he will have to rid himself of the perception that he is a “one-dimensional” candidate concerned only with the4"bread-and-butter” issues important to his union membership.

Keen to such concerns, the Democratic hopeful said he has talked less about education in his speeches than some of his opponents have.

Many of his education proposals, moreover, have focused on accountability. Mr. Hubbert contends that colleges and universities should be required to provide additional training, at no cost, to teacher-education graduates who come to their teaching assignments underprepared.

But he has talked mostly about the need for improved health care, better roads, and economic-development efforts. He has called for a “workfare” program and prison reform, and has promised to stop out-of-state industries from dumping toxic waste in Alabama.

“It’s your basic stump speech,” Ms. Sims-deGraffenreid said of his general message thus far.

Even if Mr. Hubbert wins his party’s nomination, he will face formidable opposition from Governor Hunt, who is expected to run for a second term.

But most political observers say it is too early in the race to underestimate Mr. Hubbert’s ability to, as one put it, “get what he wants.” Most note that he entered the race despite potentially fatal health problems last year that forced him to undergo a liver transplant. His doctors, Mr. Hubbert said, have given him the “green light” to campaign.

“Let’s put it this way,” said State Superintendent of Education Wayne Teague, who has opposed the influential union leader on several occasions during his 15 years in office. “I wouldn’t want to be his adversary.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Head of Alabama Teachers’ Union Tests Power in Governor’s Race