MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama's new governor has two immediate goals: Restore public trust in government, and work to improve the state's image after an unprecedented series of leadership scandals.
“There’s no doubt there’s been a dark cloud hanging over our great state,” Gov. Kay Ivey said Thursday, in her first news conference since becoming the state’s chief executive Monday. “People all over the world had their eyes on Alabama, and not for the right reasons. People have lost trust in government leaders.”
But beyond that, Ivey, 72, was scrupulously noncommittal on questions about her agenda and future moves within the executive branch. In the 17-minute news conference, the governor showed detailed knowledge of the issues she will confront — including budgets, prisons and education — without laying out a detailed program.
The governor, a former high school teacher, did signal a willingness like many of her predecessors to focus on education and said she hoped to see a prison construction bill come out of the Legislature, though she stressed that would not solve all the problems in the state's troubled Corrections system.
“Certainly we need to have the prison issue addressed,” she said. “It’s not just building new buildings, but it’s also mental health and staffing.”
'This is the people's business, y'all'
Ivey’s major actions so far have come in the cabinet. After Robert Bentley’s resignation Monday over allegations he misused state resources to pursue and later cover-up an affair with adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason, the governor began sacking those connected with the scandal. Jon Mason, Bentley’s director of faith-based services and Rebekah Mason’s husband, lost his job Tuesday.
Stan Stabler, appointed by Bentley to run the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, followed Mason out the door Wednesday. Stabler initiated an internal investigation of former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency secretary Spencer Collier, who made the first public accusations Bentley and Mason were having an affair.
The governor said Bentley’s actions “were not complimentary to any of us,” and said she wanted to press for clarity on ethics issues.
“This is the people’s business, y’all,” she said. “This is the public money, people’s taxes. This has to be the people’s business.”
Rural Development Office Director Ron Sparks, who did not have any connection to the Bentley scandal, also was fired Wednesday. Sparks, a Democrat who served two terms as the state’s Agriculture and Industries Commissioner, said he found out about his termination from news reports. Ivey said in a statement Wednesday she wanted to “focus rural development efforts into existing agencies.”
In February, Bentley appointed former Alabama attorney general Luther Strange to the U.S. Senate seat held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. Attorney General. The appointment drew criticism — the attorney general's office was investigating Bentley — and there have been calls to move the special election for the seat from 2018 — a date Bentley set — to later this year. Like other matters Thursday, Ivey was cautious.
"If you moved the date, it would cost about $15 million, which would come out of the General Fund," Ivey said. "While I have some concerns about the whole situation, I have to be mindful of the impact."
The governor said she planned to discuss priorities with cabinet members at a meeting Friday.
“Any time there’s a transition or change of administration, you can be sure there are going to be changes,” she said. "But we’re going to be very deliberate and consider and evaluate each one of the cabinet offices.”
Anything Ivey wants to accomplish will require smooth relations with the Alabama Legislature, which holds most of the power in the state. Bentley had a strained relationship with the House and Senate, but House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, a Republican from Monrovia, said Thursday that Ivey “knows the issues we have here for this session.”
“I think we’ll have a good relationship,” said McCutcheon. “She’s good to work with, and she and I have a great relationship ... between my interactions, and House members, and the Senate, we feel like we have a friend.”
Ivey on Thursday did not commit to seeking a full term in 2018.
“It’s certainly a possibility, but right now my priority has to be on stabilizing the ship of state,” she said.
Ivey, a Republican, is the second woman to serve as Alabama governor, after Democrat Lurleen Wallace, who served as governor from 1967 until her death in 1968. Ivey called Wallace “a personal mentor to me.”
“Her family sent some beautiful flowers that were her favorite shades of roses, pastel roses,” she said. “It’s very special to be part of Gov. Lurleen Wallace’s legacy, and I’m proud to be the first Republican woman to hold the office.”