His Own Man


 

Joseph Siegelman may come with a pedigree in politics, but he is here to forge his own path.

Written by Rosalind Fournier, photography by Beau Gustafson

 

This is a fair bet. As the people of Alabama learn that Joseph Siegelman, a local attorney and managing partner in the Birmingham office of The Cochran Group, is running to become Alabama’s next attorney general, they will begin with two questions. One: Is that former Governor Don Siegelman’s son? Followed by, how old is he?

Siegelman would prefer for people to focus less on those questions—he is running as his own man, not as the son of a former governor—and he doesn’t see his youth (he’s 29) as a liability or even particularly remarkable. Siegelman points out that onetime Alabama AG Bill Baxley was only 28 when he was elected to the office.

But for the time being, his youth and his famous name will be there for Siegelman to contend with as he embarks on his first major political campaign. After all, his father was a prominent figure in Alabama politics for decades, as governor from 1999 to 2003, and before that as lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. Then, in a dramatic shift of fate, he became a national news story after he was convicted in 2006 on corruption charges and eventually spent nearly six years in federal prison. All of those things kept the Siegelman name and story alive in the news up until the day of his release, a year ago February, making it far from ancient history.

So it’s hardly surprising that in a quick Internet search of Joseph Siegelman, nearly every result begins with some version of “Joseph Siegelman, son of ex-governor Don Siegelman…”

Siegelman knows he can’t help that. But he’s onto the next chapter, and he’s eager to introduce himself to the people of Alabama on his own terms.

“I love my father, and I’m proud to be his son,” he says. “And I think people may naturally, automatically, and understandably associate me with my father. But what I need to do is get in front of people. People have to get to know Joseph. They have to know that I am my own person, and I have my values and what’s important to me.

“That may be a challenge,” he says, “but I embrace that challenge and I look forward to it.”

Growing up in the Governor’s mansion

Born and raised in Montgomery, Siegelman says growing up he didn’t really understand or pay much attention to what his dad did for a living. “It probably wasn’t until he was governor, and we moved into the governor’s mansion, that I realized what he did was something different than what other people may do,” he remembers.

Being the governor’s son affected him in a few ways, though. One was that he learned early on he didn’t want to be defined as such. “There was one time when…we were all lined up for something at school, and as I was coming to the line, a friend of mine was near the front and said, ‘Joe, just get in line with me.’ And somebody behind us said something to the effect of, ‘Just because you’re the governor’s kid doesn’t mean you can cut in line.’ That had an impact on me of knowing I didn’t want to be viewed as different.”

He also saw first-hand the demands of public service at that level, and from the viewpoint of a kid, it didn’t always look all that great. “When I was younger, my observation of my father was that he was a great dad, and he was around plenty,” Siegelman says. “He would come to my sporting events, and as much as he could he would be around for dinner…but he was also gone a lot. There are a lot of people in this state, and he worked as hard as he could for them. And as I got older I gained an appreciation for what he did and chose to do.”

A family’s nightmare

Siegelman was only 16 when his father was first indicted in May of 2005, accused of having sold former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy a seat on a state hospital board in exchange for large donations to Siegelman’s campaign to create a state lottery to fund higher education. Siegelman was sentenced in 2007 but released on appeal nine months later. The appeals court threw out some of the charges but upheld others, and Siegelman returned to prison in 2012 to serve out a six-year sentence.

At its most neutral, the case has been called politically charged. Many rallied to the older Siegelman’s side, with 52 state attorneys-general of both parties asking Congress to investigate the circumstances around the case. The New York Times wrote in an editorial at the time that “There is reason to believe his prosecution may have been a political hit, intended to take out the state’s most prominent Democrat.” No doubt, plenty of others believed—and continue to believe—otherwise. But there is also no doubt that watching a loved one taken off to prison must feel like a punch in the gut.

“I’m not going to pretend that it was a fun experience,” Siegelman says. “But my father is a strong person. He’s been strong for our family. And he’s always in high spirits, and he was in high spirits through that entire process, and that rubbed off on our family.”

Siegelman grows more emotional talking about his mother, Lori, and the worry he and his older sister, Dana, felt for her well being throughout the ordeal. “She’s a strong woman too, but that was probably more where our thoughts went to,” Siegelman says. “She was home alone. Dana and I were off in school. One of the smartest things we did, and my dad deserves probably most of the credit, but we got my mom a chocolate lab puppy, Kona.” It was a bittersweet gesture, an effort to do something, anything, to give her comfort. “We got him before my dad went. Kona probably took care of my mom as much as she took care of him.”

Entering the fray

Today, Siegelman, who earned his law degree at the University of Alabama, is the managing partner in The Cochran Firm—Birmingham office, where his practice involves personal injury cases, products liability, medical malpractice and mass tort litigation, among other areas. “I have always wanted to serve others, and the work I do now at the Cochran Firm fits into that,” he says. “People come to us when they have a problem that they can’t solve themselves, and they need legal help to do it. I am honored and privileged to be able to help people when we can. I love doing that, and I’m good at it.”

He recalls one case that has stuck with him. “There is a gentleman I represented who had cerebral palsy and had to use a wheelchair for mobility,” Siegelman says. “There wasn’t a sidewalk that led into his apartment complex, so he didn’t have any way to get home except on the roadway. He took every precaution he could, but even doing everything he could do couldn’t keep him safe. So there are people like that gentleman who are vulnerable. They need protection through the law that they may not otherwise be getting. I want to be able to look out for those people.”

Siegelman says that is at the root of his decision to run for attorney general. “I want the people of Alabama to be my clients,” he says. “This will give me an opportunity to serve in an official role as opposed to serving others through individual cases as a lawyer representing them.”

On the Democrat side, Siegelman has one just opponent: Chris Christie, who was a partner at the law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP before stepping down to concentrate on the race. The Republican side is more competitive, with four candidates qualifying: incumbent Steve Marshall, who was appointed in February 2017 by former Governor Robert Bentley; former U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who has served as chief deputy and deputy attorney general for five years; Chess Bedsole, a criminal court judge; and Troy King, who was formerly attorney general from 2004 to 2010.

The race is expected to be competitive, and Siegelman admits his family’s first reaction to his entering the race was mixed. His father initially tried to talk him out of running—going as far as to recruit his uncle to help dissuade him. “I think he and my whole family were surprised when I told them I wanted to do this,” he says. “He knows the commitment that it requires, and he knows I’m up to the task, but he wanted to make sure I knew what I might be giving up in private practice. But of course my father and his brother now are supportive and I’m sure will help in any way they can.”

As for his opponents, Siegelman declines to comment on anyone specifically, but he has clear ideas about how the attorney general’s office should operate, as well as its potential for abuse.

“I feel that some decisions out of that office have been clouded by political agenda,” he says. “I view it as an apolitical position, which is why I first became motivated to run for it. I think when politics or political considerations are at or near the top of a priority list, real people are forgotten. And I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He says he’s focused instead on solving problems such as the state’s epidemic of opioid abuse.

“I think we are not doing nearly enough to fight the opioid epidemic. There’s a coalition of 41 current attorneys general doing what they can to try and fight this opioid epidemic. Alabama was the 41st state to join this coalition, yet Alabama has one of the worst problems anywhere in the country. It has taken too long to get mobilized, and we are not doing enough.”

Siegelman continues. “We have got to make sure that our children are safe in their schools, and we want to make sure that we are looking out for an aging population—our parents and grandparents. We want to make sure that we are free from fraud and abuse, whether online or otherwise, and we want to make sure that women and children aren’t subjected to sexual assault or abuse. We have a human trafficking problem in this state, and we need to do everything we can to stop it.

“There is a lot that we are not doing out of that office. And there are tools at our disposal that aren’t currently being used. So we want to refocus attention on the needs of the individual people of this state and not on any political considerations. To the extent possible, that’s going to be the goal of a Joseph Siegelman administration as attorney general.”

As for the legacy question, Siegelman says with or without the famous name, this is his race to win or lose. “I cannot control what other people think,” he says. “And whether someone has a favorable view or an unfavorable view of my father or my family, I hope they will have an open mind when it comes to me and will allow themselves to learn about me and what I want to do for them. I don’t think there’s any replacement for getting out in front of voters, shaking their hands, letting them know you’re a real person, you’re genuine, you’re authentic, and you care about what’s going on in their lives.

“Here’s the question that I would ask people,” he says. “Do you think the attorney general’s office is being run the way that it’s supposed to? Do you think that it’s using its resources as well and as efficiently as it should be? And if not, do you think I can do better? And I hope that people will set aside any other questions that may be floating around their minds and focus on those things.”

At about this point in the conversation, his father steps in to remind him he’s going to be late for a meeting. As the younger Siegelman shoos him away, the former governor takes advantage of the moment to brag that Joseph recently passed the notoriously difficult California Bar Exam in order to qualify to practice in that state on behalf of the Cochran Firm as need arises.

Siegelman dismisses this—“like that’s going to do me a lot of good running in Alabama,” he quips—but it’s clear they have an easy rapport.

“There are not many people who know me as well as my father does,” he says, “and so he’s a good surrogate for me. He can tell people what he knows about me, what I’d want to do, the type of person I am and who I represent. He has no formal role in the campaign, but he’s held every statewide office in the state, and he has a lot of wisdom to offer. So I ask him questions all the time. And sometimes he offers advice when I don’t want advice, and I have to turn him away.

“This is all new to me,” Siegelman adds, “and I don’t know how a campaign is supposed to look, but things are moving quickly. I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support we’ve already received, I’m excited and energized, and we’re working hard and gaining momentum every day.” •

 

One Response to “His Own Man”

  1. Barbara Gould Randle says:

    So proud of Joseph for taking a stand for our great state of Alabama; he will serve us well. Joseph is the real deal. We need young blood and energy in Montgomery.

Leave a Reply for Barbara Gould Randle