The last Democratic senator from Alabama was played by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.
He was large in stature, suit size and personality. He once mistook his wife’s panties for a handkerchief, wiping his nose with them in public and then issuing an apologetic news release. And he mentored Doug Jones, the Democrat who upset Republican Roy Moore in a special election for an open U.S. Senate seat last month.
On Wednesday, Jones will be sworn into the Senate by Vice President Mike Pence, cutting the GOP’s majority to a 51-49 advantage.
And he will take the seat of the last Democrat to occupy statewide office in Alabama. Jones paid tribute to him in his election night victory speech, telling supporters, “I want to thank each of you for helping me fulfill a lifelong dream of serving in the United States Senate that started out with my mentor, Howell Heflin.”
That’s how Washington referred to him. The son of a Methodist preacher, Heflin was a small-time lawyer who, through sheer wit and simple truth-telling, rose to become chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court before winning a Senate seat in 1978. One of his clients was Helen Keller, who grew up in the same small town that he did — Tuscumbia, not far from the Tennessee River.
“I just try to be the country judge,” he told an interviewer back in 1987. “I don’t try to reach an early opinion on something. A judge is supposed to listen to the last argument before he makes up his mind.”
In the Senate, where Jones worked for him as staff counsel, Heflin chaired the Ethics Committee and was known for his simple but effective questioning of hearing witnesses.
Farley played him in a classic SNL skit parodying the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, dressed like the burly Heflin in a bunch-upped suit, his thick hair pointed nearly vertical, his drawl country-slow.
“Uhhh, what porno movie did you talk about?” Heflin/Farley asks Thomas.
Heflin was a conservative Democrat known for taking principled stands, often crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans. He opposed the Confederate flag. He also opposed a fellow Alabamian named Jeff Sessions.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions, then Alabama’s U.S. attorney, for a federal judgeship. During the confirmation process, Sessions was attacked for his past views on race, including allegations he suppressed African American voters.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, sent Congress a letter urging his appointment be blocked, writing: “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Several astonishing things then transpired.
The Judiciary Committee debated his nomination for 20 hours.
And though Republicans controlled the Senate, and thus the committee, Sessions was voted down 10 to 8. Heflin, after initially supporting Sessions, flipped against him, saying he was not convinced the nominee would be fair and impartial.
“This is not an easy vote for me, and it will be one that many will disagree with, particularly in my home state,” Heflin said. “But as long as I have reasonable doubts, my conscience is not clear and I must vote no.”
Heflin became a pariah in Alabama.
An editorial in the Mobile-Register newspaper called him “the Benedict Arnold of Alabama.” Heflin has “toed the party line and established himself as simply another political hack who can be swayed by the liberal Eastern Establishment,” the paper said.
Heflin did not regret the vote, which wound up sending Sessions down a different career path.
“His ultimate rejection for the lifetime appointment set him on a political path,” Paul Kane, The Washington Post’s senior congressional correspondent, wrote in 2014.
In 1995, after serving three terms, Heflin retired. Democrats, after long dominating the South, were struggling. Alabama’s other senator, Richard C. Shelby, had switched parties, becoming a Republican in 1994.
“Simply put,” Heflin said, “the time to pass the torch to another generation is near.”
Who won his seat?
And who just won Sessions’s seat, after he became attorney general?
Jones, the man Heflin mentored.
Jones often mentioned the late Heflin — he died in 2005 after a massive heart attack — on the campaign trail, celebrating his principled stands.
“Elected officials, media personalities, elements of political parties and other organizations strive to pit one group of Americans against another,” Heflin said in his retirement speech. “We must set a new course in this Congress and across the land — a course of moderation, tolerance, responsibility and compassion.”
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