In the Weeds w/ Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s next senator
By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Today I spoke with Tommy Tuberville, who last week defeated incumbent Democrat Doug Jones to win election to the United States Senate. Do we call him Senator-elect? I don’t know, people are awfully sensitive about the office-holder-elect thing right now. But, it’s a fact that Tuberville would rather be called “Coach” anyway. And it certainly was his football coaching career, including nine years at Auburn University, where Tuberville earned the near-universal name recognition and reputation for straight talk that made him a formidable candidate for Senate.
He ran against also formidable competition: a sitting congressman popular in his district, the secretary of state who had twice been elected statewide, and, of course, the man who held this very Senate seat before moving on to the upper echelons of the Trump administration. Tuberville outlasted them all, and then easily defeated Jones by a 60-40 margin.
But, the fun part is over. Now it is time to govern, and Tuberville has spent part of this week in Washington, D.C. preparing to do that. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this transition phase. The team the senator surrounds himself with – including outside advisers – and the culture they build together from the very beginning will go a long way toward how successful Tuberville will be as a senator.
Talking to him, it sounds like he is taking it seriously and moving fast. Much like a newly hired football coach, Tuberville has to fill out a staff, starting with a chief-of-staff. Everything flows down from the chief and that person has to be empowered on hiring decisions from the beginning. The scheduler controls a senator’s entire world and serves as a gatekeeper at a time when everybody wants five minutes with the new senator. And the communications director has to transition Tuberville from the last six months of largely avoiding the press to turning his media savvy into a strength. They are big decisions and you get a lot of outside opinions, but the coach seems to have an idea of the kind of people he wants, with a premium on Alabama roots and Capitol Hill experience. I cannot imagine how many resumes they are getting right now.
Aside No 1: Let’s face it, football metaphors were already part of political jargon and now it’s only going to get worse. Let’s embrace it together as I promise to be the least campy as possible about it.
Aside No 2: If you want to go deeper into the staff hiring process, including who is being mentioned for Tuberville’s chief of staff, that was covered toward the bottom of Friday’s edition of Inside Alabama Politics.
I asked Tuberville what committees he’d like to serve on, to which he replied with the obvious ones: Armed Services and Agriculture. Armed Services is a “Super A” committee under Republican rules and Agriculture is a regular “A” committee. That means it is possible he could tack on a third lower-tier committee like Budget or Veterans Affairs if he really wanted to. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t recommend Budget (it’s not what it sounds like) but I would recommend Veterans Affairs.
We also talked about the importance of working across the aisle in this upcoming time of a divided government overseeing a divided country. I found his comments on that especially interesting.
So, here’s our interview, in the weeds.
Todd C. Stacy Hey, Coach, how are you?
Coach Tommy Tuberville Oh, it’s just a beautiful day and rainy here in Auburn. Rain from the hurricane today.
TCS: Yes, sir, I was actually driving back from D.C. yesterday and it started raining about when I hit Knoxville. And that’s a long drive in the rain. But I appreciate you taking the time. I wanted to catch up with you and ask how’s it going? How did orientation go? I know you were in D.C. Were there a lot of senators up there, new senators like yourself?
CTT: Yeah. We all had to go through at the same time, Republican and Democrats and it was fun, a good group. They pretty much jam three days into a day and a half because of the COVID. You know, you go up and and it’s a typical organization of ethics and rules and offices, which I’ve got a temporary office, everybody does until they get finished with who’s going to be in the majority and then they kind of move you around depending, but it’s good. I got to speak to the Caucus, introduced myself and go over things that I was concerned about for the people of Alabama.
We had a variety of things, I started interviewing people for the staff. You’ve got kind of three tiers of your staff that you have to hire. I’m going to do my first tier early, which is a chief of staff, your communications team and your scheduler and then everybody else kind of falls in after that.
TCS: That was actually my next question. What’s your approach to staff?
CTT: Yeah. You know, you’ve got time, but I don’t have a lot of time with those three positions. I want to hire a chief of staff, scheduler and my comms person in D.C. and we’ll get a comms person in the state, probably two. You can’t start with everything else until you pretty much get the scheduler, comms and your chief of staff, then all three of those are in with you on schedule and things that want to meet people and in what direction you want to go.
You know, the top level for me, the No. 1 prerequisite is Alabama ties. There’s going to be some areas that you won’t be able to do that, but I want as many people that know where, you know, Dothan is at as compared to Muscle Shoals. Then the top tier group will be pretty close to 10 years experience on the Hill in Washington, D.C. You have no shortage of names. It’s no different than what I did six or seven times, being a head football coach. You’re going to get all the help you want, but you got to do as much of it as you possibly can, especially the top groups like your coordinators. You get those guys and then those coordinators help you do the position coaches. It’s no different in this business. It’s just you got to go through the weeds and make sure that your group, like in other words, your Alabama connections and then your experience. Your team is the most important thing that you do. You know, you’re the face of your team because everybody’s got a role to play. It’s like being a head coach. But you got to set the rules and regulations and the schedule and all that and what you want to get done. So it’s about as similar as I’ve ever felt about being a head football coach, hiring a staff.
TCS: Yeah, well, having worked on the Hill, I couldn’t agree more. Well, speaking of organization, what committees have you been thinking about? Are you aiming for any right now and the reasoning behind that?
CTT: Well, you know, there’s several committees that I want to try to get on. Obviously the Armed Services and Ag Committees. I think it’s important in Alabama that you represent those two groups because we got, what, four or five military bases. We’ve got all these defense contractors, shipbuilders, we have 370,000 veterans in the state. I mean, we’ve got a lot of people that are connected to the military, it’s a large part of our GDP that needs to continue to grow and we need to represent them. But, here’s what happens: you know, we’re in a difficult situation and different situation where we don’t have a majority. And so you’re limited on the committees. You get more on each committee, plus a chairman, if you’re a majority. And so right now, they don’t know the numbers because we won’t know the majority until, what is it, Jan. 5 or 6, the Georgia election? We’re 50-48 (Republicans-Democrats) as we speak. We got two in the last 24 hours, Alaska and North Carolina, we’re in good shape. And with a state like Georgia, of course, there’s going to be hundreds of millions of dollars spent because the majority of the Senate is as popular probably as the president, to be honest with you.
TCS: You gonna go campaign in Georgia, help them out?
CTT: Oh, yeah. I’ll go over there at least a week or two and campaign myself, along with a lot of people in my former campaign staff. We’re raising money for them, the whole caucus is. You know, I had my first caucus meeting yesterday and Vice President Pence was there and spoke to us about the next two months. I got to get up and introduce myself and tell everybody, you know, why I’m here and what I want to try to get done. It was very good, had a lot of good reception. Of course, setting up an office to work. Right now, it’s a temporary office. Now, it is five rooms, it’s huge, there in the Dirksen Building. But it’s something that gives you somewhere to work out of, whether it’s interviewing, whether it’s fundraising like we’ll do for Georgia. It gives you a place to work. So, anyway, I got it up and running and I got a couple on my transition team that are going to be on my staff at some level once we get this thing going full speed. But they’re all setting it up. I’m back in Auburn today and I’ll be back there most of next week handling all the major interviews for the top-tier positions.
TCS: You mentioned the majorities and they are going to be razor thin. I mean, right now it looks like one or two seats in the Senate for Republicans, maybe 14 or 15 seats for Democrats in the House. And that’s as close as it’s been in a long, long time. Do you think the Democrats are going to have to work with Republicans and Republicans are going to have to work with Democrats? You see that being possibly a more productive situation?
CTT: Yeah and that’s how our government was set up. You know, our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three of branches of government. It wasn’t set up that way, our three branches, the House, the Senate and executive.
You know, we’re up there to help the people of the country. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. And there’s so much division that I see right now on the Democrat side, not the Republican side. You’ve got groups that are far left and you got groups that are not as far left and you got your staunch Democrats that are closer to the middle. So I think the big problem they’re going have is getting their people on the straight and narrow. Now, that’s just my opinion. Just looking at it, I think we probably are closer as a group then they even thought about being. And they never dreamed – they thought they were going to have a blue wave, and obviously we’ve actually won a couple of House seats that kind of blew them away just the last couple of days, one in California and one, I think, one in New York, if I’m not mistaken. So we gained House seats. It looks like we’re not going to gain any Senate seats, but we’ll probably lose one. But it looked a whole lot worse than that a month ago. If you look at it, too, they spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to take over state elections in terms of the House and the Senate and Republicans actually gained two, which was a total disaster across the country for Democrats because they they had planned on taking over, you know, more state government and went the opposite way. I think Eric Holder was in charge of that. So it wasn’t anything close to what the Democrats thought it was going to be and I think probably because of that you’re going to look at their votes. We had leadership votes yesterday and I think they’re doing theirs at the end of this week. The house did not have their orientation until I think tomorrow and the next day, but we voted in our leadership yesterday and I got to participate in that vote. McConnell held on to that along with John Thune as our whip, whether it’s majority or a minority, just depends on the leadership or the majority, and what happens in January.
TCS: You campaigned on supporting President Trump, being a solid vote for him in the Senate. I know that there’s still some challenges and recounts going on, but it looks like we’re probably going to have a President Biden. How does that change your posture in terms of how you campaigned versus how you can govern? Can you work with a Biden administration?
CTT: Well, first of all, I think it still is still up in the air who’s going to be the president. We do have a system to go by. And, you know, I just don’t understand why we get the media so involved and thinking, whether it’s President Trump or Biden. When we’re in a situation where it’s totally different in the election than we’ve normally had because we had seven or eight states come in and they change the election rules, supposedly because of the virus, but they had all these mail-in ballots and they can’t get them counted and they can’t get them counted the right way. So instead of waiting like what should have happened, the media just jumped the gun. And of course, they gave Arizona to Biden last week, and now the president looks like he’s got a great chance to win that state after the election. So, you know, the media has got to stand down on all of this because they’re creating so much havoc. I remember in 2000 Al Gore was president, United States, president elect, for 30 days – 30 days – and after 30 days, it got to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court says, no, George Bush is going to be the president. That’s the problem we’ll get into when we do a lot of guessing, and that’s all it is right now. It’s a guessing game of how these recounts are going to go and all the ballots coming in on some of these supposedly mail-in ballots. So I just wanted to say that, first of all, that I don’t think it’s over with. I think it’s going to go to three (weeks), maybe longer than that. I might be wrong, and it still could go to Joe Biden. I’m not saying that. I’d just say right now we’ve got to wait and see what happens.
Now, if – if – Joe Biden gets elected, obviously, we’ve got to do what’s best for the country. And, you know, there’s no doubt. Of course, I’ll follow the lead of McConnell in terms of how we have the Senate and how we set our schedules up and all that. But there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get done, one of them is these elections. We cannot allow this country to go through what we’re going through again. I mean, we’re an advanced country and we’re sitting here a week after the election and we don’t know. We have no clue, and that’s wrong. Alabama, within three hours of closing the polls down, had a winner in every race. And some of these states don’t have the population that we have. So to me, it’s just chaos, organized chaos, and I don’t know why we have this, we’re a better country in this. Whoever is elected, we’re better than this. And we don’t need to keep the people and the taxpayers in the cities and this country on a tightrope like we’re doing. And then, of course, the media is building it up. Biden’s got a transition team, Biden’s got COVID task force and all that. Well, that’s fine. But wait a minute, folks. We still have a President of the United States. He hasn’t conceded and I don’t blame him for not doing that. Now, if he’d have lost and it had all been gone and wouldn’t have been recounts, then it’s over. But right now we don’t have that and I just hate that the press is getting there and picking a winner. It’s like picking the winner of the Iron Bowl halfway through the Iron Bowl. You can’t do it. You’ve got to play the game out.
So, we’ll see what happens. Whoever is president, if Joe Biden is a president, you know, of course, we’re going (work with them). You know my beliefs. I mean, I’m a Christian conservative and we’re not going to get away from those values on my vote. But, you know, it is what it is when you get to that. And so if we can work with the House, we surely work with the president if it’s President Biden.
TCS: Other than the obvious, I mean you won your race, and so that’s obviously a big takeaway. Other than that obvious point, what kind of takeaways did you take from the election, both state and nationally? What do you think voters said?
CTT: Well, it’s a little concerning to me that, just as a citizen this time last week, I look at it and I see what country I grew up in and what it’s meant and the direction that we were going, and it’s concerning to me that a guy can run for president of the United States and have an opportunity to win when he leans more to a Socialist type of government, you know, one-payer system in health care, raise taxes 20%, when the other half the country is basically voting for freedom, let us control our own lives, stay out of our life. And that’s concerning to me that we’re to the point now where we’ve got almost half the country voting for something that this country wasn’t built on. Very concerning and, you know, as I tell people, my dad fought 76 years ago in Europe to free Europe of Socialism. Today, you look at this election, we have half this country that made some kind of movement, now they might not believe in it 100 percent, but they made some kind of movement toward socialism. So we’re fighting it right here on our own soil. We’ve got to decide, you know, over the years which direction we’re going, and that part’s concerning to me.
TCS: A lot of times when new members of Congress or senators get elected, they’ll partner up with somebody who’s more of a veteran member in almost kind of a mentor thing. Is there somebody that you’re close with that you’ve developed a relationship with that has been there a long time that can kind of help show you the ropes a little bit?
CTT: Yeah. Of course, I’ve gotten to know most of the Republican senators in the last, since really the run off, you know, since you’re the primary winner into the general. I’ve had dinner with Ted Cruz, I believe in a lot of what he believes, very conservative. I like Rand Paul. You know, he’s a non-spender. He believes in smaller government, which Ted Cruz does, too. But I mean, (Paul) really goes that direction. I really like Tom Cotton because of his military background and his stance on the military. So, I think everybody will have some kind of strength. And, you know, that’s what you do. I mean, you have a strength in some area and I want to learn from all of them. I’m going to do the most I can in the next two months to learn as much about – and most senators don’t do this – I want to learn as much about the Senate rules as you can. A lot of them go up there, even the lawyers, and they don’t have a clue about the Senate rules and how you do things on the floor. You can’t learn it all in one day, but I want to learn the fundamentals, how it all works, to where every day when I’m there, I understand it. I don’t want it to just happen and you’ve got to learn by guesswork. So there’s people I’m going to work with and talk to in the next two months and learn the ins and outs of the rules of the floor because you can do a lot of good by really understanding the things that happen, how you slow things down, how you speed it up. As one person you’ve still got a major vote. I don’t care whether you’re the leader or whether you’re the last person with seniority. You can use your knowledge of how things work on that floor by studying it and getting down to fundamentals, and that’s what I will do for the next (few months), get my staff together, learn the fundamentals and and get off to a good, good, strong start for the people of Alabama.
TCS: A coach that knows the rules can have some advantages in a game, right?
TCC: Do you know them?
TCS: What the Senate rules?
CTT: Yeah. Senate rules. House rules. It’s pretty unique. The filibuster rules and stuff like that of how you can really slow the progress of something that you don’t like. I don’t care if everybody else likes it in the Senate, you can actually slow it down. You might not be able to beat it at the end of the day, but there’s a lot of little things, just like a football game. You know, how you slow down the clock, how to run the clock in a two minute drill. And it’s no different. It’s just the fundamentals of the little things. If you get them down, you can really be more proficient in what you’re doing. And as I’ve talked to people, most senators who have gone in up there never do it. I mean, they just kind of hit the ground running, and I’m going to do that, but I’m going to learn the rules because when something happens, I want to know why it happened. I think in six months, I’ll be well versed in it, you know, if you can learn as you go along.
TCS: I was a House guy and those rules are a little stricter. The Senate, I mean, that is basically not even all written down, it’s all precedent. So, yeah it can be really interesting to watch. And you’re right. I’ve seen it work to where, you know, something passed or failed just based on procedure. And you’re right, very few senators really make an effort to make the rules.
CTT: How about the House guys. Were they up on the rules? Did they just kind of learn as they go?
TCS: Not many invest a whole lot of time. It’s the ones that have been there forever and that have gone through something. What happens is the staff, right, the speaker’s staff or even just like the professional House staff, they’re the ones that know because they’re the ones who have worked there thirty years. And they’ll tell a member, “Oh, well, now this is how this is. You can make this motion and then this motion and it’ll buy you time or will shut down the debate,” or whatever it is. So unless somebody remembers that from 20 years ago and how it happened, a lot of people don’t really know the rules. But the House is a little different in that they adopt their own rules like they vote on their own rules every Congress. So technically, you don’t have an excuse. You should have read what you voted on. You know, where as in the Senate it’s all precedent, the greatest deliberative body in the world.
CTT: Oh, good. Well, I appreciate it. You’ve got the number so stay in touch.
TCS: Yes, sir. I appreciate it, Coach.
CTT: Thank you.