Richard Craig Shelby (1934- ) served six terms in the U.S. Senate, from 1987 until 2023. His 36-year tenure in the Senate is so far the longest of any Alabamian. He is widely considered to have been one of the most important and successful Senators from the state, on par with John Sparkman, Lister Hill, and few others. He previously served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight years as an Alabama state senator. A stalwart conservative on social and economic issues for his entire political career, Shelby entered politics as a Democrat and then joined the Republican Party in 1994. He earned a reputation as a populist for championing the interests of individuals over corporations. With his seniority and standing within the Republican Party, Shelby was a very influential lawmaker in the Senate’s most important committees, including Appropriations and Banking, and used his political clout to direct millions of dollars in federal funds and programs back to Alabama. He was also recognized as a highly successful political fundraiser. After 1986, he typically won reelection by a 2-1 margin.
Shelby was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on May 6, 1934, to Ozie Houston Shelby, a draftsman for U.S. Steel, and Alice L. Skinner Shelby. He was the seventh of eight children and the only son. He attended Hueytown High School, where he played football and starred as a defensive end. Shelby entered the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in 1954. He started for the Crimson Tide football team but suffered a knee injury his freshman year, ending his tenure with the team. He graduated in 1957 with a degree in political science and graduated from the UA School of Law in 1963.
While in law school, Shelby served as a law clerk for Alabama Supreme Court justice James S. Coleman. During this time, he married Annette Nevin of Kinston, Coffee County; the couple would have two children. Annette Shelby was the first woman to become a tenured full professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
After being admitted to the Alabama State Bar, Shelby opened a law firm in Tuscaloosa in 1963. Two years later, he was named the city prosecutor for Tuscaloosa, a position he held for five years. He also served as the U.S. Magistrate for the Northern District Court of Alabama from 1966 to 1970 and as the state’s Special Assistant Attorney General from 1969 to 1971. In the 1970s, he launched Tuscaloosa Title Company, a real estate title firm that became the primary source of his personal wealth.
Shelby’s political career began in 1970 when he was elected to the Alabama State Senate. Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley tapped him for the powerful rules committee, beginning Shelby’s career-long practice of positioning himself on key panels. In 1978, Shelby’s former law partner, Walter W. Flowers Jr., stepped down as the U.S. representative for the Tuscaloosa-based Seventh Congressional District. Flowers mounted an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate against Howell T. Heflin, and Shelby won Flowers’s former House seat. In Congress, Shelby became part of the Conservative Democratic Forum, also known as the “Boll Weevil” Democrats, which formed in November 1980. Although part of the majority party, the Boll Weevils generally voted with Republicans on taxes, defense, and deregulation. Shelby emphasized his role in this group through his vocal support of and assistance in passing Pres. Ronald Reagan’s economic package in 1981. He would be reelected to the House for three additional terms.
In 1986, Shelby decided to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jeremiah Denton Jr., Alabama’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction. His open House seat was won by Claude Harris Jr. The move was seen as a political gamble because Denton, in addition to his advantage as the incumbent, was a retired Navy admiral and former prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Shelby won the close race in part by casting Denton as obsessed with affairs in Washington, D.C., and out of touch with Alabama voters. To avoid Denton’s fate, Shelby began a policy of holding annual town-hall meetings in each of Alabama’s 67 counties, a practice he continued to observe throughout his tenure.
After being re-elected in 1992, the fiscally conservative Shelby became one of the most vocal critics of Pres. Bill Clinton’s 1994 budget, fueling tensions with his political party. Shelby’s opposition to tax increases prompted administration officials to shift 90 National Aeronautics and Space Administration jobs from Alabama to Texas. In the 1994 mid-term elections, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades. On November 9, the day following the election, Shelby announced he was switching parties. His long-rumored defection, along with the election of Democrat turned Republican Forrest Hood “Fob” James as Alabama governor and a wave of Republican victories across the state, marked the shift of Alabama politics to Republican control. Shelby was rewarded for the party switch with a seat on the powerful Senate Committee for Appropriations, making him the first Alabamian on the committee since Lister Hill in the 1960s. Shelby was also named to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and retained his place on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.
These committee seats placed Shelby in important roles for two of the most pivotal events in modern U.S. history: the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2008. Shelby chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1997 to 2001 and then co-chaired a joint congressional panel investigating how to improve the country’s intelligence operations following the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The panel sharply criticized the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence agencies. Shelby followed up with his own report that was even more critical of the leadership and made him a leading voice for reform. The panel’s findings resulted in the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which combined the anti-terrorist activities of several intelligence agencies including the F.B.I. and C.I.A. He was criticized for leaking classified information, but the case was not pursued by the Justice Department.
Shelby’s position on the Senate Banking Committee made him a key player responding to the country’s 2008 financial crisis. Again, his criticism of the banking system and the government’s lax regulation of it far predated the crisis itself. In 2002, Shelby supported the Sarbanes-Oxley law that was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal to protect investors from the possibility of fraudulent accounting activities by corporations. He criticized Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, for his apparent lack of concern regarding an overvalued housing market in the United States that later lost value in the recession. Shelby also warned of the inadequate capitalization of federal mortgage backers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which both later collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis. Shelby also opposed Pres. George W. Bush’s Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an economic stimulus bill promoted by Pres. Barack Obama. He also objected to the federal bailout of floundering automakers affected by the economic downturn. These pieces of legislation have largely been considered successful in helping the U.S. economy recover. After that financial crisis, Shelby sought financial regulatory reform and worked on passing measures assisting individual consumers affected by the practices of larger corporations.
Shelby was a vocal critic of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which provides stricter regulation of the nation’s financial institutions. To counter the effects of that legislation, Shelby introduced the Financial Regulatory Improvement Act of 2015 designed to provide regulatory relief for smaller financial institutions such as credit unions and regional banks while heightening congressional scrutiny of the Federal Reserve, but it failed to become law. Shelby was also highly critical of the fact that few individuals were personally held accountable for the financial crisis. Shelby’s role on the Banking Committee drew criticism from the media and Democrats because of his involvement in the real estate industry in Alabama, where he has made large sums of money. In addition, his leadership on the committee enabled him to block numerous administrative appointees for agencies such as the Federal Reserve and Export-Import Bank during much of the 114th Congress. He also sat on the Senate Rules Committee.
In 2018, Shelby was named chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations, which he chaired until January 3, 2021, while Republicans controlled the Senate. He largely stayed out of the fray surrounding the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump (2017-21), supporting his agenda and voting to acquit him in the two impeachment trials, but he also voted to seat president-elect Joe Biden. Shelby generally opposed Biden’s signature legislation on economic stimulus, infrastructure spending, marriage equality, investments in the domestic semiconductor industry, and an inflation reduction bill that also aimed to lower prescription drug prices and address climate change. In early 2021, Shelby announced that he would not run for reelection in 2022. His former chief of staff, Katie Britt, of Enterprise, Coffee County, easily won the open seat in 2022, defeating Morris “Mo” Brooks in the primary and Democrat Will Boyd in the general election.
Throughout his tenure in Congress, Shelby successfully directed hundreds of millions of dollars to Alabama in the form of funding for buildings and research centers, as well as through funding appropriated to federal programs, including the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Madison County. The city of Tuscaloosa received more than $100 million for revitalization efforts. The most visible examples of this largess are the buildings and programs on the state’s university campuses that have been named in his honor. Among these are Shelby Hall on the UA Tuscaloosa campus, which houses the Senator Richard C. and Dr. Annette N. Shelby College of Engineering and School of Computer and Information Sciences, and Auburn University‘s Senator Richard C. and Dr. Annette N. Shelby Center for Engineering Technology. In addition, there are research centers named in Shelby’s honor at UA Huntsville, UA Birmingham, and the University of South Alabama. The Annette N. Shelby Park in Tuscaloosa at Queen City Avenue and 15th Street is named in his wife’s honor.
Flowers, Steve. Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories. Montgomery, Ala.: New South Books, 2015.