The {Troubled} Crusade of Scott Beason

Perhaps no one in Alabama politics has stirred up as much controversy as Senator Scott Beason.

Is he just a stubborn ideologue or a courageous fighter for conservative ideals beset by sniping liberals?

We met Beason in the eye of the storm to hear his story.

by Jesse Chambers   Photography by Beau Gustafson and Lindsey Griffin

Who is Scott Beason?

Is the Republican state senator from Gardendale a cynical politician who wore a federal wire and testified against other legislators in last summer’s bingo trial not from a sense of duty, but only to harm the Democrats?

Or is he a true believer, a Tea Partier with small-town Christian values who’s willing to fight for those values in Montgomery and root out evils like gambling and corruption?

Did Beason subvert democracy when he used a procedural move to stop the passage of a new tax to help cash-strapped Jefferson County?

Or was he standing up for his constituents against needless taxes, excessive spending and sloppy administration?

Is HB56, the tough state immigration bill he co-sponsored, overly strict, an administrative nightmare and an invitation to racial profiling?

Or is Beason, with HB56, merely asserting the right of states to do what they say the federal government has not—take control of illegal immigration and punish employers who hire illegals rather than Americans?

Beason and his legislative initiatives tend to inspire strong emotions.

This tendency was only exacerbated when the Senator appeared at a Republican gathering in Cullman and used the phrase “empty the clip” in exhorting his fellow Republican lawmakers to pass HB56, or when he got caught on tape—on his own federal wire—referring to the mostly black patrons of Greenetrack in Greene County as “aborigines.”

The “aborigines” remark was revealed last June, when Beason testified in Montgomery at the federal corruption trial of several legislators and gambling figures. The remark caused Democrats and civil rights groups to call Beason a racist who should step down as chairman of the powerful Senate rules commitee.

Beason was finally forced to give up that position by his fellow Republicans Nov. 15, just before this story went to press. Their stated reason was that Beason’s participation in the next installment of the bingo trial in the spring could be a major distraction during the legislative session.

I met Beason at a quiet Homewood café in mid-October, as controversy over the recently enacted HB56 raged, and just two weeks after an earlier meeting of Republican leaders in which he had managed to hang on to his chairmanship.

I wanted to try to understand Beason, who’s been part of every major political story in the state recently.

And Beason had a reason to talk to me. “I want you to see who I am,” he said, as we sat in the almost deserted café, in the quiet eye of a storm he helped create.

Beason, who believes he hasn’t always been treated fairly by the media, especially  liberals, made light of his image problem. “I tell people, it’s kind of a joke, but I expect to go into a room some day and them have the music from Star Wars for Darth Vader, the imperial march, or whatever,” he said. “I think a lot of things have been blown out of proportion. I don’t feel like a victim, but I think it’s better for reporters to try to figure out who somebody is, instead of putting their spin on what they think he may be.”

Beason didn’t seem like Darth Vader while talking to me at the café or in subsequent telephone interviews. And according to Campbell Robertson—in his New York Times profile of Beason—the senator “does not come off, in conversation, as a bomb thrower.”

According to Robertson, State Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham, a liberal Democrat—while disagreeing with Beason on virtually everything-—professed to like him personally and feel he has “a core belief system.”

State Rep. Demetrius Newton, a Democrat from Birmingham, told Lisa Osburn of The Birmingham News that Beason, while ‘’ultra-conservative,” was “diligent” and “a nice person to work with.”

And Beason occasionally does something unexpected, such as introducing a bill last session to extend Forever Wild, the popular state lands conservation program.

When it became clear the bill was endangered by conservative critics of the program—i.e., people even further to the right than Beason—he brokered a compromise to put the program’s 20-year extension before the voters in Nov. 2012.

“A lot of people wanted to say it’s part of this U.N. Agenda 21, take-over-the-world kind of thing,” Beason said. “Are there people who want to do all that? Probably. But I don’t believe Forever Wild’s part of it. So I took some heat from people who traditionally support me. I believe in the program… and I’m optimistic it’s going to pass.”

But Beason made his name as an unabashed conservative and has cultivated the image of a tough, focused legislator who adheres to a strict personal code.

When asked to define “conservative,” Beason said it’s “someone who believes in personal responsibility, who believes that the government cannot solve all our ills.” Beason believes that capitalism, “even with the warts, with the problems” is the system best equipped to “pull people out of poverty.” And, not surprisingly, he said, “We don’t need more taxes.”

Born in Hartselle, Beason moved with his family to Gardendale just before third grade and says it had a real “small-town feel” and was a great place to grow up. He’s lived there since, except while attending the University of Alabama, where he earned a geology degree in 1991. His wife, Lori, grew up in Gardendale, and they’re raising three kids there. The Beasons attend the First Baptist Church, where he was baptized.

What does he value?  “I would think God first, family second,” he told me. “A lot of politicians say that kind of thing because that’s what they expect people to say, but that’s really what life’s all about. I think that’s allowed me to stay grounded, stay focused, and try to do what’s right, to understand there are going to be trials… things you have to go through. But it’s all a part of duty.”

Duty is a word Beason uses a lot. He told me (and told Osburn) about a lesson in duty his father, Tom Beason, gave him after punishing him for some transgression at age five or six, when the family was living in Gadsden.

Beason asked his dad, “Why do I have to do what’s right?”

According to Beason, “He just said—and he’s a military guy—‘because it’s our duty.’ There’s a lot of times when you don’t have a choice. You may want to dodge an issue [or] avoid a controversy to make things easier, and I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means, please don’t get that, but it’s our duty. A lot of things are that simple. And I think a lot of people in our society have a problem with that. Because when you begin to think about that, and you look at a world where there are rights and wrongs, that bothers some people.”

Beason said he’s tried to apply this principle to politics.  He said “it’s our duty” to do what’s needed to create a better society. “We can discuss things. I’m open to anybody’s viewpoints, but I believe there are rights and wrongs,” he said.

This remark may reveal Beason’s essence as much as anything he told me—an apparent warmth and friendliness, a willingness to talk, but an unwavering set of convictions regarding the direction he, and the state, should follow.

In 1994, when he was only 24 years old, Beason ran for State Senate against incumbent Republican Jack Biddle. He had little political experience, but, he says, “I felt called to run.” He said he “realized the only way for your elected official to say or do the things you want them to do is to be the elected official.”

He sought divine guidance while deciding to run. “My wife and I prayed tremendously,” Beason said. “Some people scoff at that… but I’ve won races I never should have won, and I don’t think there’s anybody who can look at those races and say that something didn’t happen there.”

“I dove into it completely blind,” Beason said, referring to his campaign against Biddle. He put out signs and did retail politics. “Every day when I got off work, I ate a hamburger in the car, and I just went to talk to people,” he said. “I went door to door. I went to every ballpark.”

He lost but got about 40 percent of the vote. “[Biddle] just waxed me the last two weeks with money,” according to Beason.

In the electoral victories that followed, Beason sees God’s hand. “In some of the races, with the lack of resources I’ve had and some of the opponents I’ve had politically, you’re not supposed to [win], and I’m firmly convinced I won for a purpose,” he said.

Beason cites his defeat of incumbent Jim Townsend in the Republican primary for a State House seat in 1998. “I felt called to run,” he said again, adding, “Townsend spent a lot of money, a lot more than me. It wasn’t [a] negative [campaign], but I didn’t think I should win.” But he did, and won the general election easily.

Beason had made his name as a conservative gadfly when he ran for reelection in 2002 and attracted unwanted attention from “some powers in Montgomery,” he says. “The Speaker [Democrat Seth Hammett] and some other people at that time had decided I was a problem, so they supported another guy in the [Republican] primary… That was just the information I was given. That was the way I understood it. I was with the group that was saying things had to change in Montgomery. I was trying to slow the process down and make sure conservative voices were heard, and that’s not always welcome.”  Despite facing three opponents, Beason won the primary without a run-off.

He won his Senate seat in 2006, beating Biddle, who was backed by both the AEA and the Business Council. “People told me, ‘You just can’t win. Why are you even doing this?’ I just said, ‘You remember these numbers’—it was reflective of a [Bible] verse—‘and if I win, which I’m going to. I’m telling you right now… you ask me about that.’”

Beason wouldn’t tell me the verse he cited. “You know, that’s kind of personal,” he said. “I’d hate to put it out in the press… It’s one of those things, I wouldn’t discuss it, [even] doing a Sunday school lesson.”

Beason was reelected in 2010—when his party took over the Alabama legislature for the first time in 136 years—and became chairman of the Senate rules committee.

He was able to take advantage of his power in the Senate last session, when he used a procedural move to kill a new tax for Jefferson County, whose old occupational tax had been ruled unconstitutional.

Beason (who, granted, wasn’t the only legislator to help kill a Jeffco funding measure last session) is unapologetic. “I’m going to agree with the premise that they do not have sufficient money to run the county the way it’s always been run, but I believe they have sufficient money to run the county in a better way,” he said. “And I think that’s really the philosophical argument we have. No, they can’t do all the things they’ve always done and have no review of how it’s been done and no review of their services.”

Of course, the controversy over the Jefferson County tax bill pales somewhat in comparison to the press attention that HB56, the nation’s toughest immigration law, has received.

Beason says the bill was necessary in part due to the costs that illegal immigration incurs for the state, including education, health care and law enforcement. “That doesn’t include… what is potentially lost when people aren’t paying the taxes they’re supposed to pay, the economy that’s underneath the radar screen,” he said. “That doesn’t include dollars that are sent out of the county that don’t get to roll over.”

Alabama had become “a magnet state” for illegal immigration, Beason argues, having done nothing about the issue, unlike Georgia. And most of HB56, about 80 percent, is based on federal law, he said.

Did Beason and the bill’s backers expect such harsh criticism? “What we did not anticipate was the completely out-of-proportion coverage by local media,”  he said, adding, “It’s the media’s fault to an extent that the bill’s been misinterpreted.” According to Beason, the media has made the new law, its implementation and its effects on average citizens—people renewing car tags, for example—seem more complicated than it really is.

Civil rights groups have complained that HB56 will lead to racial profiling when police demand that Hispanics or other people of color are forced to offer proof of lawful status.

According to Beason, he and his colleagues worked hard to prevent this. “Multiple times in the bill it has wording against racial profiling,” he said. “You can’t hassle somebody for the way they look. And we have very professional law enforcement across the state at every level. I just don’t think it will occur. Now, is there some possibility it could happen? It could happen anywhere in the country, not just Alabama, with any crime. But people want to play the race card because they don’t like the bill and don’t have a good argument for the people of Alabama.”

What does Beason tell farmers, builders and other employers who have lost cheap labor? “We didn’t used to use these workers,” he said. “Over time, a number of businesses moved into using illegal workers. We’re going to have to move back to a legal work force. That’s just the way it is.”

Negative fallout from the law could be extensive and do great harm to Alabama, said Kyle Whitmire, political writer for Weld for Birmingham and editor of the blog, The Second Front. He said Beason and Gov. Robert Bentley “have created an abrupt halt in Alabama’s political and economic momentum.” He said previous governors Don Siegelman, a Democrat, and Bob Riley, a Republican, touted Alabama as “a New South state ripe for investment from all over the world.”

However, Whitmire said, “HB56 has put the kibosh on that and sent a signal to the rest of the country and now the world that, whether it’s justified or not, we’re just the same, old bunch of racist bumpkins we always were.”

Beason disagrees: “As far as I can tell, based on some short conversations I’ve had with people involved in economic development, Alabama is still moving forward and doing well.”

Does Alabama’s difficult racial history makes people more suspicious of HB56? “I think that’s unfortunate that this continues to raise its head,” Beason said. “I believe that Alabama is one of the least racist places in the country. I’ve been other places… that give Alabama a hard time that clearly have segregated communities. I think Alabama’s made great strides. I have African-American neighbors. My little boy, one of his best buddies in the neighborhood is black. He comes to our house. He goes to their house. Great people. I think it’s unfortunate that too many times… if someone disagrees with you politically, especially if you’re a Republican from the South, one of the first things they say is racism.”

Of course, Beason didn’t help his case with his famous “empty the clip” remark, made during his address to a Republican Party breakfast in Cullman in February, during the run-up to the passage of HB56.

Beason said that Republicans should “empty the clip”—i.e., expend all their political capital—to make sure they passed the immigration bill, since Democrats were not serious about dealing with the problem

When the remark was printed in The Cullman Times, it got picked up nationally, and many took it to mean that Beason was declaring open season, literally, on immigrants.

According to Beason, the Times reporter came to the event late and failed to mention a gun-themed joke Beason told at the beginning that he says provided a context for “empty the clip.” The joke—some variation of which Beason told—is found on the Internet:

How do you tell the difference between Democrats, Republicans and Southern Republicans (or Texas Republicans, or rednecks)?

You’re walking down the street with your wife and kids when a knife-wielding terrorist—Beason said he used “thug”—appears.

You’re carrying a pistol, so what do you do? If you’re a Democrat, you worry the guy looks poor and oppressed.

If you’re a Republican, you fire the gun: BANG!

But the Southern Republican replies with a bunch of shots—BANG! BANG! BANG!—then reloads and fires again—BANG! BANG! BANG!

His daughter says, “Nice grouping, Daddy!“

The joke was a metaphor for three kinds of politicians, Beason said: Democrats who don’t confront real problems; Republicans who fire once, but leave you to wondering if the problem’s been solved; and Republicans who, well, “empty the clip.”

“I said when we talk about these issues—and I didn’t talk just about immigration; I was talking about education and other things—we have to stay at it,” Beason recalled. “We have to continue to fire all the bullets. You have to keep working at it until the problem’s really solved. “

Beason thought the meaning of “empty the clip” should be clear in that context. But he said he learned from the controversy that many people, including some reporters, “don’t care what really happened.”

According to Sam Rolley, who covered the event for the Times, “I don’t think [Beason] was advocating violence at all.” Rolley—who now works for a blog in Cullman and is a gun owner—says he was aware of the joke, even though he arrived a few minutes late, and wasn’t trying to take Beason out of context. (Rolley did tell me that he found some of Beason’s other remarks about immigration to be a bit extreme.)

At any rate, the controversy over “empty the clip” had little real effect on Beason, unlike the “aborigines” remark that came to light when he testified last summer at the bingo trial.

Beason made the remark on tape in 2010 while talking to Republican legislator (now district judge) Benjamin Lewis about economic development in Greene County

The Senator apologized for the remark at a press conference in September, saying, “I don’t know where that word came from or why it popped in my head that day.”

When we met at the café two weeks later, Beason said he was still unsure why he said it. “Where does that word come from, anyway?” he said. “Who uses that? It’s not normal. It’s not even something you would say if you were … purposely being racist.”

I had numerous questions for Beason regarding his time working with the FBI.

What it was like to wear the wire?

What was the effect on his family? (Lori told The Birmingham News that she and Beason were advised, after the identities of the legislators who had worn wires were revealed, to know the signs that someone might be following them, and to keep an eye on their kids.)

What it was like to have defense attorneys, such as Milton McGregor’s mouthpiece Bobby Segall, try to destroy your credibility as you sat trapped in the witness box?

For example, attorney Jim Parkman suggested that Beason was angry that Parkman’s client, State Sen. Harri Anne Smith (I-Slocomb), had refused to loan him money. According to press reports, Beason testified that he asked Smith for advice but never made a loan application to her bank.

Beason repeatedly declined to talk much about the experience, since retrials are pending for some defendants, and he may again be called to testify.

In a later phone interview, Beason also declined to comment on the harsh remarks that bingo trial Judge Myron Thompson made Oct. 20 about Beason and Lewis, who also wore a wire. Thompson (who, for what it’s worth, is an African-American and a Democratic appointee) called them racists and said their testimony was politically motivated.

Some defense attorneys tried to suggest that Beason was a career politician with no means of support outside the legislature, so I asked Beason how he makes a living.

“I’ve done a number of different things over the years,” Beason said. He has a political consulting firm called Leonidas Group. He worked as a geologist after college, had a small retail business, and was part-owner for a number of years, he said, of two construction and renovation firms. And, he said, “I’ve got some… start-up things going, that are just so small right now I can barely even talk about them.”

Politics have taken over his life more recently, however. “Over the last couple of years, because of the effort to take over the legislature, which I was greatly involved in, I have pretty much focused on politics,” He said. “My wife and I make our own financial decisions. We’ve been blessed in the past. If we want to do that, I think we should be able to.”

According to Beason, he has tried to work for himself, to “stay as independent as possible,” adding that, “I’ve always avoided at all costs using my office to get a job, work for somebody or get a business arrangement, because I don’t want to be tied to anyone who can say, ‘By the way, after five years, I need your help on this vote.’”

Is Beason a career politician? “I’ve never said I want to be in politics forever, but when you take on challenges, you have things you want to work on… [if] the voters in your district would like to see you return, and you still have that fire to work hard for them, I think some things just kind of happen over time,” he said.

He told me—when I asked if he is considering a run for the U.S. Congress or for governor—that he doesn’t have an agenda. “So many people ask me when I have interviews, ‘What are your plans?’” he says. “Everybody says I’m going to run for this, run for that, and all this is some big strategy. If it were, I need to fire all my consultants. It’s really not that way for me.”

I asked Beason again later, in a phone interview, if he had any immediate plans to run for another office. “I’m going to take everything a day at a time,” he said. “You never know the path that was laid out for you, but I’m not really thinking about political futures these days. We have so many issues to deal with.”

William Stewart, former political science professor at the University of Alabama and state politics watcher, thinks Beason has damaged his chances for higher office. “I think the [Alabama] Republican Party, even though it is overwhelmingly white, doesn’t want to project a racist image,” Stewart said in early November. “Speaker [Mike] Hubbard has made that clear in a number of forums, and Beason’s comments were seen as demeaning to African Americans.”

Many also believe that Beason damaged his relationships inside the Republican Party by wearing the wire and making disparaging remarks about some other Republicans on tape-—something that must have had an impact on the decision to replace Beason as rules chairman.

According to Whitmire, “I think there are people in the Republican Party who are upset about the things he was saying about other Republicans on those tapes, more than what he was saying about minorities, not that they don’t care about that.”

“I couldn’t say what other people necessarily say about me,” Beason told me two weeks before he was replaced as chairman. “I think I get along with everybody really well. There is a new body in the legislature. We have 20 new people. A lot of them have the same mindset. Let’s do what’s right for the state. Let’s do what we were elected to do. I think my relationship with them is very good.’

According to Stewart, Beason was asked at a September Republican retreat to take a leave from the rules chairmanship because of the “aborigines” remark. Senate Majority Leader Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills), told Kim Chandler of The Birmingham News that some Senate leaders asked Beason to step aside for one year, and that he refused.

“He didn’t want to do it, and they didn’t make him do it,” Stewart said. “That shows he has some influence. He was allowed to just make a delayed apology a few days later.”

Whitmire said that there’s been a rift in the Republican Party between the establishment, Business Council types, including Riley and Hubbard, and the ‘ideological-type Tea Party Republicans,” including Beason. “I think a lot of people on the establishment… wanted him off the rules committee, or at least off the chairmanship,” Whitmire said. “But what it came down to was, were they going to have this private rift become a very public and nasty rift, and was Beason going to walk out of the delegation and take a bunch of people with him?

Beason was reluctant to tell the whole story when we first discussed it. “All I can say is the decision was made, and I remain the rules committee chairman,” he told me in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of different theories of what may or may not have happened. I’d say on nine out of ten issues, the party sticks together. A lot of work has been done the last couple of years to bring everybody together. That’s why we’ve been able to accomplish so much in the legislature. I think the idea that there’s a rift has been overblown.”

I spoke to Beason again two days after he was forced out of the rules committee chair by Republican leadership. “It’s their decision to make,” he said. “I think what happened is the pressure from the Democrats and liberals around the state was more than they could bear. The issue had already been handled. The majority of the Senate thought it had been handled. But the pressure got to be too much.”

He acknowledged the impact that losing rhe chairmanship might have on his work in the Senate. “I will continue to take the same stands on convervative issues,” Beason said. “It will dampen what I can do a little bit, because it was an influential position, but I’ll continue to work for those things. I’ll still be the same person. I’m not going anywhere.”

Stewart suggested in early November that Beason still has a political future. “I think obviously he can continue on as a very powerful state senator, and he’s not an old man, and maybe in due time he can bounce back,” Stewart said. “He went to the FBI when he felt that he was being approached in a corrupt manner. I will give him his due. He turned the person in who he believed was behaving in a corrupt way toward him.’”

Beason with Gov. Robert Bentley

According to Whitmire, “Ideologue is a strong word but with Beason, whether it’s the tax issue for Jefferson County, or HB56, this is his ideology. When challenged on it, he’s just not very good at changing his position to match what facts and evidence support.”

Beason embraced the label. “I would say I’m definitely ideological,” he said. According to Beason, his reading of post-war history shows that conservatives have always been expected by the liberals to compromise, “to take more steps back.” He adds that, “The liberal philosophy has not served the county well, and I think that we have to recover those steps that have been taken back. And I guess you could say I am ideological, and I want to move more quickly than slowly. I do believe I will listen to a different argument on how to get to the same place… I am for compromise on how to get to Point B, but not for a compromise that doesn’t get us to Point B.”

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One Response to “The {Troubled} Crusade of Scott Beason”

  1. annette stansell says:

    An excellent article with the exception of Kyle Whitmire’s comments.

    There are many of us that like Scott Beason and believe strongly in the HB56 written as it is. We are proud of Scott Beason for the courage he had to wear the wire and we believe it was the right thing to do.
    I am disappointed in some AL Republicans involved to remove Scott. Since Jabbo is helping Newt’s campaign in Alabama, will Jabbo be distracted and have time for his new position that he took from Scott?

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