By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The last time a Governor of Alabama made an appointment to the US Senate was after the death of James Allen in 1978. Allen suffered a fatal heart attack on June 1, 1978, while vacationing with his wife, Maryon. A few days later Gov. George Wallace phoned Allen’s young Chief of Staff, Tom Coker, to ask who he thought the Senator would want to take his seat in Washington. “I was still at the condo when Gov. Wallace called,” said Coker. “He wanted to know who I thought Senator Allen would want to take his place in the Senate.”
Coker remembers there were several people who wanted the appointment, including State Senator James “Jimmy” Faulkner. “Jimmy wanted it bad, he and Gov. Wallace were very close, and I believe he was the Governor’s choice,” Coker said. But as he recalls, Wallace wanted to hear if there had been anyone that Allen might have preferred. As it turned out, Mrs. Allen told Coker she was sure that her husband would want her to take his place in the Senate. Coker passed that information along to Wallace and on June 8,he appointed Allen’s wife, Maryon as Senator. Mrs. Allen met her future husband while working as a journalist at the Birmingham News. In May 1964, the future Mrs. Allen interviewed then-Lieutenant Governor James Allen, and married four months later.
As Coker remembers, her appointment caused a bit of controversy as some felt she lacked the experience to be a senator. Wallace scheduled the special election to fill out the rest of Allen’s term in concurrence with next general election on November 7, 1978. Mrs. Allen wanted to win the seat in her own right, but a series of incidents caused her to lose to Donald Stewart.
“Mrs. Allen was a sharp-tongued lady,” said Coker. “She was a journalist and outspoken for the times.” Her outspoken nature was on full display in an interview with the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, who wrote for the style section of the paper (Quinn in October of that same year married legendary Post Editor, Ben Bradley).
“I warned her not to give that interview,” said Coker, “but she said something to the effect, ‘Sally is my friend she will do me right.’” However, when the interview was published, it stoked an unwelcome fire in the Wallace camp. In the Post article, Quinn quotes Allen, referring to “Wallace supports and their lime-green leisure suits,” according to Coker. “I don’t think it cost her the election,” he said, “but the Wallace people didn’t like criticism and people thought she was ungrateful for the appointment.”
Mrs. Allen lost the 1978 election to Donald Stewart who held the post for two years before being defeated in the Democratic primary by Jim Folsom, Jr. who was then bested in the general election by Jeremiah Denton, who would later lose after one term to Richard Shelby, who currently serves as the State’s Senior Senator.
Since joining the Union, only 10 US Senate seats representing Alabama have been vacated. After the passage of the 1901 Alabama State Constitution, only five have been filled by gubernatorial appointment.
It appears that Sen. Jeff Sessions will be confirmed as US Attorney General in the Trump Administration, which makes him the first Alabamian to leave his Senate post to ascend to a cabinet level position.