Henry Mabry's success at helm of AEA surprise story of legislative session (George Talbot)
It’s not easy replacing a legend.
Just ask Ray Perkins, who took on the unenviable task of following Paul “Bear” Bryant as head coach of Alabama when he retired after the 1982 season.
Henry Mabry can relate to Perkins. It was Mabry who took the helm of the Alabama Education Association when Paul Hubbert, an Alabama political legend, retired from the teachers’ union late last year.
But while Perkins got off to a wobbly start, going 13-10 in his first two seasons, Mabry’s immediate success has emerged as the surprise story of this year’s legislative session.
Against long odds and severe political shortcomings, the AEA ran off a string of victories — none bigger than the campaign to block approval of the bill that would have established charter schools in Alabama.
AEA also blocked a pair of economic development bills that would have expanded the use of tax incentives. Mabry, a state finance director under former Gov. Don Siegelman, argued that the incentives would have robbed public education of vital funding.
“The fact that they could have any success in this environment is notable, much less get two major victories,” said Mobile lawyer Bradley Byrne, who battled AEA as a Republican candidate for governor in 2010. “My hat is off to (Mabry). I don’t agree with him on many issues, but I will say that he has done a good job for his membership.”
AEA fended off efforts by Republican leaders including Gov. Robert Bentley to tap into the Education Trust Fund to help cover a shortfall in the state’s general fund budget. Mabry also worked with Republicans to pass the school start date bill, forging new alliances in an organization traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party.
While Republican leaders fumed, Montgomery insiders said Mabry’s performance was nothing short of masterful.
“It was a very good session for him and AEA, who showed they still have some stick — despite assumptions that their demise was inevitable,” said one lobbyist.
“Suffice to say that the results speak for themselves,” said another Statehouse veteran.
Others said AEA’s success stood in stark contrast to last year’s session, when the newly elected Republican majority took AEA to the woodshed. The Montgomery-based association was pummeled with bills that killed the DROP program, cut pay and torpedoed its fundraising capability.
“When Dr. Mabry and I took office a little more than five months ago, we weren’t staring down the barrel of a gun. We were staring down the barrel of loaded cannon,” said Gregory Graves, who replaced Joe Reed as the No. 2 man at AEA.
Longtime AEA lobbyist Amy Marlowe said Mabry was able to start fast in December because he’d already worked closely with AEA as a contract lobbyist.
“The transition was seamless,” she said. “He knew us and we knew him. He didn’t want to overhaul our approach — just kick it up a notch.”
Mabry, she said, spent weeks traveling across the state to meet with AEA members, looking to rally the troops ahead of the session.
“It’s no secret that we were the boogie man (in 2011),” Marlowe said. “It was a difficult time for us. But we took it upon ourselves to roll up our sleeves, go out and meet with legislators in their districts and start rebuilding those relationships.”
Mabry, 44, was just 2 years old when Hubbert, 75, began his tenure at AEA in 1969. But early signs are that — unlike Ray Perkins — he’s not struggling with the weight of his predecessor’s legacy.
“The Lord has blessed us this session and we should all be thankful,” Mabry wrote in his latest newsletter to AEA’s 100,000 members. “We will remain diligent to the last hour of this session to stand up for you and the great public schools of our state.”