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November 22, 2004

Mobilians wrestle for seat on UA trustee board



Staff Reporters

Four prominent Mobilians are in the running for a trustee spot on the University of Alabama board, and the state Senate is already being lobbied on behalf of at least two of them.


John McMahon, president pro tem of the 17-member UA board, confirmed that Riley Boykin Smith, Harris Morrissette and Marietta Urquhart have met with trustees to talk about the post. Others have also identified Elliot Maisel as a contender.


Jockeying for the seat has come into view as people have contacted state senators. Several senators said trustees would like to appoint Morrissette, but Smith is trying to build support in the Senate to force the board to name him. Most members of the Senate Confirmations Committee interviewed by the Mobile Register said they remain uncommitted.

Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman, said he had heard of Smith's maneuvering for the seat but said he did not know whether the effort had yielded enough votes either to make a substitution or force trustees' hands in their own vote.

"I'm not committed," Little said.

Some other senators and lobbyists said Smith's pushiness may have turned off trustees and members of the Senate, weakening his chances to win the seat.

McMahon said doesn't think senators will lightly override the people chosen by trustees. "I think the board has been careful of who they elect, and the Senate has been respectful of those choices," McMahon said.

Maisel, Smith and Urquhart have declined to comment. The Register has been unable to reach Morrissette.

 Nominations delayed

A seat representing the 1st Congressional District has been open since September 2003, when the board's mandatory retirement age forced Oliver "Ollie" Delchamps Jr. to step down just after his 70th birthday.

The 1st District includes Mobile, Baldwin, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties, as well as parts of Clarke County. UA trustees serve six-year terms, with a limit of three terms in a row.

McMahon had said in April that the seat would be filled by spring. Now he's saying the board is aiming to send nominations to the state Senate by February.

McMahon said two other seats would be filled at the same time, one from the 7th Congressional District, formerly held by Richard Scrushy, and one from the 5th Congressional District, formerly held by Olin King. Scrushy resigned from the board in March 2003 after his HealthSouth Corp. became embroiled in an accounting scandal. King, a Huntsville software executive, retired after hitting the age ceiling.

Under a 1982 amendment to the state Constitution, trustees themselves fill vacancies, voting by secret ballot. The person chosen immediately takes a seat on the board, and his name is submitted to the Senate the next time the Legislature meets. If the Senate rejects the nominee, it must choose some other person to take the spot. The process makes the University of Alabama system panel the only self-perpetuating board of trustees in the state. The governor holds nominating power for most other university boards.

The Senate does not use its substitution power often. In the early 1980s, under Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley's leadership, the Senate named three members. Later, senators put lobbyist Joe Fine on the board, overriding the board's choice, James Loftin of Dothan.

But often, the Senate's opinion can influence board choices, said Jack Edwards, the former Mobile congressman who served as a UA trustee from 1988 to 1999.

"In the last couple of years, it has become an issue rather constantly before the Senate," Edwards said.

 Pieces of the puzzle

Choosing trustees for the university system, with campuses in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville, is a complicated puzzle. There's political pressure to make sure enough black people and women are trustees.

But trustees also feel pushed to make sure there are members with ties to each campus.

In particular, there are loyalists to the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham campuses who feel the other gets too much board attention. Jefferson County lawmakers have increasingly demanded trustees with undergraduate degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, hoping such trustees would "liberate" UAB from Tuscaloosa control.

But some in Tuscaloosa think the pendulum has already swung too far toward Birmingham. Trustees chose Paul Bryant Jr., son of the legendary football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, for a board seat in 2000. But the move came only after demands for a Tuscaloosa resident by state Sen. Phil Poole, D-Moundville, and very public arm-twisting by Gov. Don Siegelman.

With three open seats, McMahon said, the board would try to balance its considerations. One of those will be adding a white woman. Of the current 14 trustees, there are two black females but no white females.

"Having a white female is the No. 1 criteria, and we believe all the campuses should have people who have ties and historic relationships to that campus," McMahon said.

Edwards said that balancing act only gets harder if senators push for certain names.

 Sports, politics, volunteerism

All of the four Mobile candidates who have come to light would appear to have strong claims to a board seat.

Smith was a former conservation commissioner under Siegelman. And it probably doesn't hurt that his football-star father was a friend and fellow player with Bear Bryant. Smith is also well-connected to other power figures in the state.

For example, his older sister is married to Wallace Malone, longtime head of SouthTrust Bank. Smith, whose family's business interests included thousands of acres of timberland owned by Tensaw Land and Timber, is the grandson of legendary Mobile congressman Frank Boykin.

Morrissette was Student Government Association president at Alabama during the 1980-1981 school year, a fertile breeding ground for future politicians and trustees. He also was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a traditional berth in Tuscaloosa for the sons of rich Mobilians. Morrissette is a principal in Marshall Biscuit Co., a Saraland company that makes frozen biscuits sold in supermarkets. He's the son of Vaughan Morrissette and late Mobile businessman Taylor Morrissette.

 Sports supporter

Maisel is president of Mobile's Gulf Distributing Co., which sells beer and wine. He also has other business interests. Maisel is a longtime sports supporter both in Tuscaloosa and in Mobile. He's the son of Herman Maisel, a Mobile real estate investor who gained local fame earlier in life by coaching Murphy High School to a state basketball title.

Urquhart, a commercial real estate agent for Heggeman Realty Co., has a long list of civic leadership positions. She was the first woman to become chairman of the board of trustees at UMS-Wright Preparatory School. She's also enrolled in the current Leadership Alabama class and is former head of the Junior League of Mobile and Volunteer Mobile. She attended the Tuscaloosa campus from 1973 to 1975, serving as an officer in the Kappa Delta sorority, and graduated from UAB in 1976.

Though it's still early in the game, one senator on the Confirmations Committee said he backs Smith.

"I'm committed to Riley from way back," said Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler.

Lindsey said he had been approached by supporters of Smith and Harris Morrissette. He said he knew of no other candidates and had "no idea when or what (board members) plan to do."

Lindsey said his support for Smith does not necessarily mean that he would back substituting his friend's name should Alabama trustees submit someone else for confirmation.

"That's always a possibility, but I haven't really thought about it," he said, referring questions about substitutions to Sen. E.B. McClain, a Midfield Democrat who chairs the Confirmations Committee.

Urquhart's secret weapons may be her status as a woman and a UAB graduate. Both might help smooth her path to confirmation through the Senate.

Sen. Sundra Escott, D-Birmingham, said she has not had any conversations with anyone about the Mobile vacancy on the UA System board. As a member of the Confirmations Committee, Escott has spoken out in favor of more women and minority appointees to public posts, including trusteeships.

Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, does not sit on the Confirmations Committee but has expressed keen interest in trustee appointments in recent years, particularly on university boards dominated by white males.

She said she has no racial or gender quota but added, "I have a son at the University of Alabama now, and I certainly want to see a board that reflects the composition of the university and the state."




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