Emory Folmar: The Road from Adversary to Friend for Life
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on January 19, 2019
After winning a full and unconditional pardon from the State of Alabama for Scottsboro Boy Clarence Norris in November 1976, I was elected to one four-year term on the Montgomery, Alabama City Council. After taking office in October 1979, I frequently clashed with Emory Folmar, the city's ultra-conservative, gun-toting, “law and order” Republican mayor. We clashed repeatedly over political philosophy and what I believed was Folmar’s failure to provide adequate city services to Montgomery’s predominantly black neighborhoods.
At one point, the tension between Folmar and me was so great that Folmar went on a conservative radio talk show in Montgomery and boldly told the listeners, “I need to take [Watkins] outside of City Hall and teach him some manners.” Obviously, this was a reference to a physical fight with me.
During my last meeting as a councilman, Folmar gleefully and publicly announced that “[Watkins’ departure from the Council] was one of the greatest blessings since the Yankee troops went home in 1870.”
In 1985, I became Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr.’s special legal counsel. Arrington, who was in his second term as Birmingham’s first black mayor, enjoyed utilizing my knowledge of municipal government law and seasoned litigation skills to further his public policy agenda. After all, Montgomery’s Mayor-Council Act was modeled after Birmingham’s 1955 Mayor-Council Act.
After winning an unprecedented string of 73 court victories for Mayor Arrington and the City of Birmingham, Mayor Folmar hired me to represent the City of Montgomery in some of its most complex litigation. At the time, Folmar was chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, while Dr. Arrington was the state’s leading African-American Democrat. Folmar also served as the state chairman for President George H. W. Bush’s 1988 and 1992 re-election campaigns.
In 2002, the Washington Post contacted Folmar to interview him about my efforts to buy the Minnesota Twins MLB team. This is what Folmar had to say about me: “I have tremendous respect for him as a lawyer and businessman. He always told the truth, which is a great commodity in my book." This was the ultimate compliment from a staunch political conservative who transformed himself from a fierce adversary in the political arena to a loyal and powerful political ally in life.
Emory Folmar was Montgomery’s mayor from 1977 to 1999. He never took a salary while serving as mayor. I embraced Folmar's lesson of personal financial sacrifice when serving others after I left the practice of law to enter the challenging and exciting world of private entrepreneurship.
Emory Folmar died on November 11, 2011. He was a “man’s man.” He was also my friend.
I credit my personal relationship with Emory Folmar for helping me achieve the political independence I thoroughly enjoy today.
A year after Folmar left office in 1999, President George H. W. Bush nominated Missouri Republican Senator John David Ashcroft for U.S. Attorney General. Ashcroft’s nomination was met with stiff opposition from national civil rights groups. I did not know Ashcroft personally, but I could tell that the same kind of character assassination I had seen in earlier Senate confirmation hearings was in play again.
The Ashcroft nomination was on the ropes and seemed doomed. After thoroughly and independently researching Ashcroft’s overall record as a U.S. senator, a Missouri governor and a state attorney general, I determined that Ashcroft was NOT a racist, despite the fact that his views on affirmative action and judicial remedies for the desegregation of Missouri public schools during the 1970s did not match my views on these subjects.
By today’s standards, Ashcroft would be considered a mainstream Republican conservative.
With two days left to go before Ashcroft’s scheduled January 31, 2001 Senate confirmation vote, I knew I needed to act quickly to keep Ashcroft’s nomination from going down in flames due to character assassination. I asked Jonathan Rose, my Washington lawyer at the Jones Day law firm, to contact Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, to see whether the Post would allow me to run a half-page “Confirm John Ashcroft” open letter in the front section of the newspaper on the morning of the vote. Graham agreed. I penned my open letter on my Alamerica Bank stationary and paid $43,000 to publish it on January 31st.
Senator Jeff Sessions, my law school classmate, was pleasantly surprised to see my letter in the Washington Post that morning and called me to ask if he could read it into the Congressional Record prior to the vote. I said, “yes”.
My “Confirm John Ashcroft” open letter lifted Ashcroft’s nomination out of the zone of political danger. Ashcroft was confirmed as the 79th Attorney General of the United States by a vote of 58 to 42. He served with distinction in this position from 2001 to 2005.
After the vote, Ashcroft tried for days to reach me by phone to say, “thank you”. We never connected because of my busy international travel schedule, but he left several voice messages of thanks. I would not meet Ashcroft until nine years later when I was attempting to buy the St. Louis Rams football team. Again, Ashcroft thanked me repeatedly for standing up for him in what he described as his “darkest hour” in public life.
What Emory Folmar and I learned from each other was this: If we truly believe in the promise of America, we must stand up for its ideals and principles when they matter the most. Integrity, accountability, transparency, decency and fairness are the hallmarks of good government, not race, gender, party affiliation, religious beliefs, or one’s socio-economic status in life. If and when we stand up for America’s core principles, we are truly serving our nation.
America is the greatest country on the planet. I know this from first-hand experience because I work in more than 40 international markets across four continents. We all have an affirmative obligation as Americans to stand up for what’s right, even when it is uncomfortable and unpopular to do so.
Emory Folmar showed us how this is done.
PHOTO: Emory Folmar was mayor of Montgomery, Alabama from 1977 to 1999. Folmar served as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and the state chairman for President George H. W. Bush’s 1988 and 1992 re-election campaigns. He was a true leader and courageous man.