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Folsom Is Wasting Little Time Making His Mark in Alabama

June 02, 1993|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Thrust into the office of Alabama governor after its previous occupant, Guy Hunt, was convicted on ethics charges less than six weeks ago, Jim Folsom surprised nearly everyone with the speed with which he set about making his mark.

Promising that his time in office will be a period of activism and reform, the 44-year-old Democratic governor swiftly announced that he would call a special legislative session to revamp the state's education system.

Within two weeks of assuming the governorship on April 22, he had banned the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol, appointed the most racially and sexually diverse cabinet in the state's history and removed Hunt's name from interstate highway signs.

Such resolute talk and action have people thinking that Alabama may finally have a governor who can lead it out of the quagmire in which most political observers agree it has been stuck since the 1960s.

"When I was coming up in the 1940s and 1950s, Alabama was alone among Deep South states for having fairly progressive politics," recalled William Barnard, chairman of the University of Alabama history department and an expert on the state's political history.

That changed in the 1960s, most spectacularly with the election of segregationist George C. Wallace in 1962. Wallace served as governor for four terms, the last ending in 1986, and set policies for the state while his wife was governor for two years in the 1960s.

"We're yet to come out from under the shadow of the Wallace regime," Barnard said.

Folsom's colorful father, (Big) Jim Folsom, served two terms as governor in the 1940s and 1950s, and despite his reputation as a liberal reformer, few observers expected much from Jim Jr.

He had, after all, been known as a slow decision-maker as lieutenant governor, a position he held since 1986.

Another reason he was not expected to make many changes is that he must stand for reelection next year, and there is a chance his time in office could be cut even shorter if Hunt, a Republican, wins an appeal of his conviction for illegally converting $200,000 in inaugural funds to personal use.

Folsom has decided, however, that he will work to change government no matter how short a time he may remain in office.

Still, there is one potentially serious problem that has marred Folsom's first six weeks--a spate of accusations that he, like his predecessor, has violated state ethics laws.

Folsom insists he has done nothing wrong and says the allegations are politically motivated. But they threaten his ambitious legislative goals, just as drinking problems and charges of corruption prevented his father from achieving his goals.

Four complaints have been filed against Folsom with the state Ethics Commission, including one by a former state legislator who told a newspaper he gave Folsom $25,000 in hopes of winning a political favor. The most recent complaint, filed May 11, said Folsom got free construction work on a home on Lake Catoma and that one of the contractors was appointed to a state licensing board.

As it happens, three of the complaints--two of which recently were dismissed--were filed by a Hunt supporter. Nevertheless, Folsom's protestations that the allegations are politically motivated reminded some here of the statements Hunt made--for more than a year before his conviction--about the allegations against him. Also, like Hunt, Folsom has refused to make his tax returns public.

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