As the sun rises on another spring day, a former Alabama governor who many credit for igniting the resurgence of the state’s economy in 1993 walks peacefully with his wife along a tree-shadowed street in their west Cullman neighborhood with two dogs in tow. Today, life is good for the couple.
Miles away from the halls of state government where current conversations typically circle back to headlines of political scandals and indictments, you get a sense Jim Folsom Jr. is glad to be in his hometown. And, when talk of the current state affairs is raised, he keeps his thoughts to himself. Instead, Folsom simply smiles and moves the conversation toward his distinguished public service career.
Raised in a dynamic household where his father, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, was only the second person to serve two full terms as Alabama’s governor (1947-1951 and 1955-1959), winning and losing and understanding politics is cyclical comes in handy for James E. “Little Jim” Folsom, who held several key state offices, including governor when Guy Hunt left office after a felony conviction.
“Losing, it’s nothing personal. It’s just politics,” says Folsom as he sits in his Cullman home where photos capture many years of Alabama politics. “I’ve never taken it personally.”
“I do,” comes the emphatic interjection of his wife, Marsha Guthrie Folsom, sitting next to her husband. “I applaud the fact Jim is very philosophical about it. I think Jim growing up in the environment he had made him resilient.”
Looking back for Jim Folsom is nothing short of satisfaction. He acknowledges that stepping in for Hunt as governor was difficult because both were from Cullman County and had worked closely as lieutenant governor and governor. He served two terms as lieutenant governor and on the Public Service Commission.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says. “I’ve had the wind at my back and the wind in my face.”
While politely declining to discuss the current condition of Alabama politics, Folsom said the one point bothering him about government on the state and federal levels is the decline of relationships among politicians.
“The process in government hasn’t changed, but the relationships have changed. There was a lot more civility and a lot less partisanship,” he says. “I noticed that the partisanship started becoming personal to a point which some people wouldn’t speak to each other, which surprised me. In the past, it was not unusual for a Democrat to appoint a Republican to a key position because of their ability, which made everybody a stakeholder in the government.”
But, as Alabama’s third governor from Cullman County, Jim is content to remain here and enjoy his career as senior vice president of public finance investment banking for Piper Jaffray & Co. The Minneapolis-based investment firm has a Birmingham office, where he works alongside former University of Alabama quarterback Walter Lewis.
Marsha has embarked on an ambitious business venture as head of Resource Fiber LLC, a company devoted to growing and processing bamboo for flooring and other products. The idea she shares with her partners is to grow bamboo in Alabama, establishing a new crop for farmers, and reducing the amount that is imported for processing.
Turning their attention away from politics and considering Alabama’s future is an exciting topic for the Folsoms.
“The natural resources in Alabama are incredible,” Marsha says. “Looking toward the future, water is going to be an important resource going forward and Alabama has an abundance of it. It’s the oil of the future.”
They also believe Alabama has come a long way since the troubled years of the civil rights movement and the image that was projected across the nation. Cullman is especially appealing to them as the community enjoys economic growth and provides outstanding educational opportunities for young people.
“Having both grown up here, Cullman did a lot of nurturing along the way,” Marsha says. “It’s a community that nurtures young people to succeed. We’ve traveled a lot but this is home.”
Agreeing with Marsha’s assessment, Jim adds, “Alabama has everything to offer. In the ‘60s we had a lot of negative press because of racial strife. We have had to face the fact it hurt us, but we’ve overcome that.”
As the racial turmoil subsided, Alabama began to make strides in another direction. In the past 30 years, he notes, economic development entered a new era as new markets were found for rich agricultural products and the arrival of the auto industry.
Mercedes & Alabama
Within weeks of taking over as governor, Jim was informed that a major European company was considering Alabama for a significant investment. After much negotiation and legislation, Alabama became home to Mercedes’ first automobile production plant outside Germany. The operation is based in Vance, but for Cullman it brought another German company, REHAU, which has invested generously in the community.
Securing Mercedes for Alabama was a series of twists and turns. Coded under the name Project Rosewood, Folsom and his colleagues didn’t know at first the identity of the company. Billy Joe Camp, a Cullman native and then director of the Alabama Development Office, came to Folsom and said 30 sites were under consideration, including Alabama.
“We eventually went to Germany and thought we were going to meet with the search team, but it was a subcommittee, so it didn’t look good at the time. Finally, we convinced them to look at the site near Tuscaloosa. They looked and also saw the University of Alabama, and we learned then we were in competition with the Carolinas and Tennessee,” he recalls.
Along the way, Folsom and Camp, both having grown up in Cullman with its German heritage, piqued an interest in the Mercedes executives. At one point, the site where Topre is located was considered for the Mercedes production plant.
“The German heritage of Cullman was truly intriguing to them. We had told them all about the history,” he remembers.
Folsom’s team began to gain confidence that Alabama could compete for Mercedes. Success would open doors to a new era of economic development. The Legislature put into place a package of incentives to make the investment possible for the company.
Marsha remembers the decision was made while they were attending a governors’ conference in Virginia. He was sitting near the governors of Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina — the three states remaining in competition for the project with Alabama — when he was told an important call was waiting him from Mercedes.
He was told by a Mercedes executive that Alabama was the company’s choice. When he returned to the table, his peers suspiciously asked if his state had been selected.
“I couldn’t tell anyone, not even Marsha. That was the agreement until they were ready to announce,” Jim says. “Not long after that a story broke on one of the TV news stations that Mercedes was going to North Carolina. For days I received condolences. I just couldn’t say anything. That went on for days.”
The truth eventually announced and Alabama was in the driver’s seat for opening new lanes of economic development.
Jim also faced a re-election campaign, which he eventually lost to Fob James, who had switched to the Republican Party.
The incentives used to open the door for Mercedes are largely in place today, but during Folsom’s re-election campaign some of the innovative tax breaks and details of the legislation were used against him, charging that the state gave away too much to gain the industry.
“It’s politics. You expect it,” Jim says. “I was blessed to serve as governor and having served on the Public Service Commission and as lieutenant governor.”
A conversation with the Folsoms today indicates they are content to leave political ambitions behind. Their children are reaching milestones. Their son, James E. Folsom III, is in New Orleans and plans to take the bar exam this summer to practice law. Their daughter, Meghan, is in New York and owns a business and is planning a wedding.
Marsha continues to focus on bamboo, working toward establishing more farming of the crop to ship to production centers in the country.
Jim enjoys the financial business and the time he has for golf, music and travel with Marsha. But he remembers well his father didn’t serve consecutive terms and was patient where politics were concerned.
“I remember when I first ran for office, daddy told me to work the perimeter. Your opponent will work the main roads. And you know it worked,” he recalls with a laugh. “I enjoyed the time I had in public office. In politics, you never say never.”
— Palmer is the editor of The Cullman Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.