Most national conservatives are missing the single most important U.S. House race in the country. From Alabama’s sixth district, near Birmingham, veteran think-tank workhorse Gary Palmer could immediately, even as a freshman, be a conservative congressional superstar.
Palmer is not just the founder and longtime president of the Alabama Policy Institute (API), but effectively is the dean of the entire alliance of tremendously successful think tanks known as the State Policy Network (SPN). His quarter century in the conservative vineyards gives Palmer not just unassailable credentials as a full-spectrum conservative, but also the policy chops, procedural knowledge, and political skills to hit the Capitol grounds sprinting as an advocate, legislator, and leader.
The sixth-district seat will be open due to the retirement of eleven-term representative Spencer Bachus, an institutionalist conservative ideologically in tune with his overwhelmingly Republican and conservative, but not hard-right, constituency. The seven-way Republican primary, full of political heavy hitters, already is exploding Alabama records for U.S. House fundraising. Two of Palmer’s opponents are state legislators, one is a recent tea-party activist, and one was chairman of the Business Council of Alabama — but for committed conservatives, this is a race in which the names of the others should not even be important. When one candidate has proven himself as long and as well as Palmer has, there should be no other choice
Palmer’s background is far from that of the typical policy wonk. He grew up poor, in a house his father built with his own hands, and was the first one in his family to attend college. Although he had not played a single down of high-school football, Palmer tried out for Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide as a walk-on — and made the team.
“I was called into Coach Bryant’s office suite,” he remembers, “and I had to wait outside his office while he talked on the phone to [Texas coach] Darrell Royal, one legend talking to another; it made me so nervous. But then Coach called me in and said he was gonna dress me out for the team, that he was proud of me, that I had worked hard and done a good job. It was worth everything I ever did at college to hear Coach Bryant tell me I had done a good job.”
Palmer never actually saw any action for the Tide varsity, but he graduated in 1977 with a B.S. in Operations Management. Twelve years followed working in business in Birmingham, including working for two major engineering firms as a cost engineer, in one of which Palmer received security clearances for work for the federal departments of Defense and Energy.
Yet, he says, he felt something was missing. Palmer had a radio at his engineering-firm desk, and he would listen at 7 a.m. to conservative Christian leader James Dobson. In 1989 he heard Dobson talk about a four-week course in Christian counseling sponsored by Dobson’s Focus on the Family and, despite having no obviously relevant background, he applied, with many hundreds of others, for one of the 25 spots. He said he still doesn’t know why his application made the cut, but suddenly he found himself at a conference in California:
While I was out there, people kept telling me that I wasn’t there just for that program, that I was called for leadership. The last day, one of their vice presidents asked me for names of contacts in Alabama; he wanted to find somebody to set up one of these state-based public policy groups — and I knew immediately that’s what I was supposed to do. I went home, called him back the next week to ask how to set something up, and within six weeks we were incorporated. Even though I had never done anything remotely political in my life, we got it started and within a year and a half we were considered one of the model organizations.
When the Heritage Foundation helped organize the state policy groups into the new, national SPN in 1992, Palmer immediately found himself on the national board and, fairly soon, as SPN chairman for two years. What began as a network of just 12 think tanks now numbers 65, with at least one in each of the 50 states.
SPN president Tracie Sharp, commenting not on his candidacy but on his API work, lauded Palmer for a demonstrated “commitment to the ideas that promote free markets and limited government.” And Kevin Kane, founder (in 2008) and president of Louisiana’s Pelican Institute, calls Palmer “just a terrific guy, and as you know him better, he just impresses you more and more. For me and Pelican, he has served as a role model and inspiration . . . always willing to give his time and share his experiences for people like me who are just getting started.”
In his home state, API has not just provided an invaluable resource for facts and ideas for journalists and political reformers, but has built a remarkable record of seeing its policy initiatives become law. Indeed, when Republicans in the 2010 elections took majorities in both state legislative chambers for the first time ever, they found themselves with what amounted to a ready-made agenda courtesy of Palmer’s long years of work — and, piece by piece, they implemented it.
For 20 years, API had banged the drum for school choice, plowing the political ground and changing minds aplenty. Last year the state finally enacted a sweeping school-scholarship program, combined with school “flexibility” provisions. And for seven years, API had warned about the budget-busting dangers of a particularly generous “special” pension program for state workers. The legislature saved about $60 million a year by eliminating it, following API’s proposal almost to the letter. Successful ethics reforms and campaign-finance reforms — transparency and disclosure, not limits — also tracked the think tank’s longstanding proposals.
But it’s not just state policy that Palmer has mastered. He was an early supporter of current U.S. senator Jeff Sessions, and in 1997 he saw the newly elected Sessions appointed to the Environment and Public Works Committee. Realizing how one-sided much of the day’s public environmental reporting was, Palmer and API produced Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children About the Environment — which, Palmer notes, attracted front-page attention (aghast, of course) from the Washington Post and New York Times. The book became successful enough to require nine printings; it was translated into Spanish for widespread distribution in South and Central America and also was published in Canada and even Turkey.
National leaders have noticed. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal told me that Palmer is “an impressive guy [whose work] has distinguished him nationally as a reliable conservative leader.”
In addition to national and state policy, Palmer has helped municipalities too. Last year Mobile elected the conservative reformist Sandy Stimpson as mayor in an upset. Stimpson’s first big involvement with public policy had come as API’s chairman of the board.
“Gary is so resolute and firm in his convictions that he is not for sale,” Stimpson says. “But he also knows how to find a pathway to solutions that many conservatives can’t find. They complain and they know things aren’t right, but they don’t have the creativity to come up with a pathway to a solution. Gary just seems to find a way to come up with creative alternatives to solve complex problems.”
In Dothan, Ala., Mayor Mike Schmitz took office in 2009 facing an environmental lawsuit involving the city’s sewage system, which threatened to cost millions and take years to fix. Schmitz thought the only solution would be a long-running consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It was a scary process with the federal government, so I contacted Gary,” Schmitz says. Palmer explained to him a way to get the feds to sign off on an administrative order with federal involvement ending in two years, rather than 20 or 25 for a consent decree, and a cash fine much smaller than what the mayor had feared, by proposing a plan to fix the problem themselves.
“Gary finds solutions,” Schmitz says. “He looks into things at a real deep level. He gave me knowledge no one else was giving me, and in the end I believe it will save millions of dollars for the city.”
With all of these successes in Alabama, then, why did Palmer decide to run for Congress?
“I’ve always believed that to get the nation back on the right course, change would start from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Palmer told me. “The State Policy Network always has been focused on driving what reforms are needed at the state level. The big reforms that have started across the country — welfare reform, school choice, right-to-work — they’ve all started at the state level. But somebody needs to actually take these reforms to the federal level as well. What makes my candidacy unique is that I have networked in every state. I have the credibility to get these groups to work with us to drive the messaging, to get the reforms that are needed.”
And that is what makes this the most important race in the country. There’s a disconnect between the grassroots and congressional Republicans, with far too little coordination between them and far too little knowledge of how to take advantage, in Congress, of the state laboratories of republicanism. There’s certainly far too little knowledge of how to integrate it all.
Palmer understands all this, and he has the speaking ability to publicize it and the perseverance to see it through. If Bear Bryant would let him suit up for the Tide despite never having played a down of high-school football, and if this engineering-firm employee could start a successful state think-tank despite having no background in policy or politics, then Gary Palmer certainly won’t be sidetracked by the enervating wheel-spinning of congressional careerists.
All too often, conservative activists rally to whichever seemingly conservative candidate appears best able to rouse the people, or turn a clever phrase, or play well for the cameras. Too often ignored is the knowledge and skill set needed actually to legislate a conservative agenda. For that job, Gary Palmer is one of the best in the business. National conservatives should be rushing to support him.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting. An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Gary Palmer worked as a financial-side project manager at two engineering firms. In fact, he worked as a cost engineer.