EP. 80 In Memoriam: Giles Perkins

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to this special edition of the MidPod. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. In this episode we honor the memory of Giles Perkins, the Alabama lawyer who played a critical role in Doug Jones' U.S. Senate campaign. That longshot bid culminated in a stunning victory almost exactly a year ago in December of 2017. Giles Perkins passed away on December 2nd, 2018 at the age of 51 after a long fight with cancer. He is survived by his wife Hillary and their three children. Perkins was a lawyer and a pillar of the community in Birmingham. He was the visionary leader of the effort to develop 19 acres of green space in downtown Birmingham. Railroad Park has become a much-loved asset for the community and an important pedestrian corridor between downtown and the Southside. Seasonal attractions like ice skating provide affordable and healthy recreation opportunities for families.

NICIE: Giles Perkins was active for decades in Democratic politics including as chair of the state Democratic Party in the 90s and it was Perkins who saw an opening and convinced Doug Jones to run for the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. He was a guiding force and Jones affectionately called him Yoda. Perkins saw a lane for the pragmatic and decent Jones at a time when the Republican Party was careening to the right. That lane got wider when the Republicans nominated Roy Moore. When we visited Alabama last November to cover this Senate race, women were coming forward almost every day to accuse Roy Moore of sexually molesting or assaulting them when they were young. The political atmosphere was electric. But on the day of our interview we found Perkins calm, thoughtful and taking the long view. We used some quotes from that interview in our Alabama Senate race profile Episode 5 of the MidPod. Now we want to share our full conversation in appreciation of this active citizen and his many good works. As you'll hear his love of community and family informed all that he did.

NICIE: Thank you so much for spending time with us today.

GILES PERKINS: My pleasure.

NICIE: Perhaps we could just begin. Tell us about yourself, how you came to Birmingham and what your select journey's been.

PERKINS: Sure. I grew up in East Texas. I met my wife in law school. She is from Birmingham, Alabama. And I followed her here in 1992 and have made my path between law and politics since then.

NICIE: What drew you to politics?

PERKINS: I grew up in a political family. My father was old enough not to really work for LBJ but to be part of that group and to work for John Connally who was governor of Texas. My mother Mary Perkins was on the state school board in Texas and my parents were of a progressive bent which is not uncommon in that generation of East Texas and we were all raised to believe that politics and community service were important.

NICIE: And a woman on the Texas school board in the what 60s 70s and 80s?

PERKINS: Actually in the 1980s mom was on the Texas school board. That's when they began electing it. She served a couple of terms and then was beaten in the '94 against Gingrich landslide.

NICIE: OK. So you have lived this generational shift in politics in the south in terms of the Republicans coming to power to some degree over the Democrats.

PERKINS: Oh absolutely we didn't know any Republicans as kids or we could list them all from our hand. And you know the Democratic Party back then encompassed a whole lot of different people, my parents happened to be in the progressive wing of it. But I have watched in my 50 years a shift in politics on a lot of different levels certainly making it where the South became a two party system.

NICIE: And what's your perspective on that shift?

PERKINS: Well in a lot of ways I think the shift is healthy that we define who people are and that party identification doesn't do that completely but it helps. You know when the Democratic Party was in control of everything we sort of had a two-party system because you had different wings of it. And now we just have clarity.

NICIE: Interesting. So you came to Alabama with your wife and what's your life been like since you moved here?

PERKINS: Yes. I read my father a letter because he wasn't much on telephones tell him that I wanted to come to Texas to work in our multigenerational law firm and he wrote me a note back and said we left there in 1841, why the hell would you go back? And I wrote a note to him that said a girl. And he understood and he never asked me again. And Alabama's been kind to me. I was lucky as a young man to go work for Jim Paulson who was governor of Alabama. And Jim has his legacy taken the Confederate flag off the Capitol, putting an equity funding education bill on the floor and recruiting Mercedes-Benz and those three things were in their own way defining and Alabama. I was so honored to work for him and learned the state. A few years later I ran the old Democratic Party last time we elected a Democrat governor and that year we elected eight out of 16 statewide candidates. That was 1998. That didn't you know initially turn out the way I hoped in terms of policy and progress in Alabama. And I brought my focus much more local spent about eight years of my life working on building a public park in Birmingham that has been important to our development as a community. I have kept my toe in national and state and local politics but I have mostly for the last 20 years practiced law.

NICIE: And tell us that Birmingham story. We've heard a bit about it we've got to enjoy the park the other night. But there's... yeah yeah there's been a lot of a lot of change and economic development here in Birmingham it would seem all over the last number of years and just maybe sketch out how that how that happened.

PERKINS: Sure what's happened in Birmingham is explained pretty simply we were a steel town and when that economy changed it was painful to Burnham but we became a medical town. The number one employer statewide is University of Alabama medical system. And that influx of people and the development of people in Alabama who work in that hospital system has meant good restaurants, good parks, good amenities. And really a Birmingham that is vibrant and stable and I think getting a lot of recognition for that.

NICIE: Thank you so much. So we're here obviously to cover this Senate race. That's pretty interesting. But I'm wondering if as you look back on your career and involvement and Alabama politics does it remind you of anything? What are the sort of historical roots of this contest that we're here to try to understand?

PERKINS: Well you know what this Senate race reminds me of is when Alabama has opportunities and when change comes change came to Alabama and then the country in Birmingham during the civil rights movement in that focus on Birmingham, Alabama impacted America. And I think this Senate race has some opportunity to do that. The real truth is that this is a great opportunity for a Democrat to win because we've got a great candidate and in Doug Jones I am reminded of when we put our best foot forward. It sort of goes beyond party and we're able to put good people in leadership positions.

NICIE: I want to hear a little bit more about Mr. Jones but could you just say if there's somebody in the history of Alabama politics that he reminds you of or in the law field which obviously has been where he's made his career?

PERKINS: I can't really identify anyone in Alabama politics that specifically remind me of Doug Jones. I will say that it's been my pleasure over the years to know a lot of political leaders who want to serve for the right reasons and do the right things. And I think Doug falls in that category.

NICIE: When did you first get to know him or meet him?

PERKINS: I probably have known Doug Jones 25 years and I've known him well for a couple of decades both in the legal profession and as someone like myself who was working in politics to try and bring better Alabama.

NICIE: Is there anything what could you tell us about him what's he like as a person and what would you see as his key contributions over the years?

PERKINS: Well I mean he's bad as I said guys you'll ever meet. Doug's not really a politician. He's in his early 60s. First time he's run for office. He really really cares about people in Alabama. And you know I mean the story on him that's most known also reveals him and that is that when he became U.S. attorney his priority wasn't himself it wasn't a lot of other things. It was instead to go back and right a significant wrong in our history and put some really bad Klan guys in jail. And now when he take that on he took on successfully.

NICIE: I actually have a quick question about that. We did tour the 16th Street on Monday and we there is a video that they showed that tells a little bit about what happened but I still a little confused about the gap between the '77 trial and the 2000 you know trials that Doug Jones spearheaded. Why weren't those guys brought in in '77 do you know?

PERKINS: Well I got to say about you know Bill actually he was attorney general of Alabama prosecuted that first Klansman case. And Doug Jones is a law student actually when I watched that prosecution and then many years later was able to carry it further. My thought is not I'm not the right person to say this for sure is that more evidence came forward that in the 70s they had a real sense of who the perpetrators were but they couldn't particularly bring the case and by the time Doug was U.S. attorney, more things have been released, more people willing to cooperate. And he was able to bring forth a couple more prosecutions.

NICIE: Anything else about Mr. Jones? Is there another story about Mr. Jones that we wouldn't most people don't know that we should know?

PERKINS: Yeah the thing I would say about Doug to people that don't know don't know is that unlike some lawyers he also does a does a whole lot of free work. If you call up Doug Jones and you need help he's going to be there to help you even if it doesn't turn into a fee because he sees that obligation. I think as a person and a lawyer.

NICIE: So pro bono on the criminal side or on the civil side or?

PERKINS: You know I've seen him do pro bono work on certainly on the criminal side but also helping people with adoptions. You know a variety of things that people just in need know him because he's got a bit of a profile and they call him and he helps try and get them to a good spot.

NICIE: I'm gonna let Heather in here in a second but I guess the thing that we've been talking about in the car we've done a fair amount of just talking to folks you know in the parking lot in front of Publix. And obviously it changes every day with the way the recent revelations are coming out. But we do hear from a lot of Republican voters that they're just kind of struggling to even frame up the idea of voting for a Democrat. In other words we hear some definitely creeping concern about whether they could bring themselves to vote for Roy Moore but they it's like this it's a big gap a big gulf for them to get to get across. And I don't think that's unique to Alabama but it certainly has been a feature of our conversations here so I was just wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

PERKINS: Well I think it's very difficult for people to change voting patterns or party affiliation and it's the burden of the Jones campaign and of Doug Jones to earn their trust and that's what he's been working on since he got in the race to do. That's what he's you know spend the next few weeks doing. We're confident that if people give it a fair look they're going to say that's a reasonable guy. That's the guy who's gonna put Alabama before party or politics. And that a lot of them are going to vote for.

NICIE: Right. Thank you so much.

HEATHER ATWOOD: Well I think I would like to know, Mr. Perkins, what you see Doug Jones, the state of Alabama looking like if Doug Jones is elected what would you like the to be sending to a Democrat sent Alabama sends a Democrat to Washington. What would you like to happen come out of that process?

PERKINS: You know I think right now what I would like the message to be of Doug Jones get elected is that we sent the best person to Washington. That was a moment where the state decided that partisan politics weren't as important as a quality person with some leadership skills. And if we can get to that moment then that's progress for Alabama and an opportunity for us to be a leader not only in the country but also in the U.S. Senate and in Washington. And you know you look back in Alabama history there was a time when John Sparkman, Mr. Hill and others where we were in those leadership roles and and I think this is an opportunity to regain that.

NICIE: And what's your sense on the ground? Where you think this thing's going? Do you have any indicators you're watching or?

PERKINS: Well you know in terms of indicators I'm certainly looking at all things that professional political people would do. But what's of more interest to me is energy. And you know we sent Doug went down to Mobile, Alabama two weeks ago and I think 600 people showed up at a fish fry and you know after 25 years now in Alabama politics and a lifetime in Southern politics I've never seen that getting a crowd of 80 people is tough and he is seeing that across the state. And that kind of enthusiasm the number of people showing up to volunteer at the headquarters is something different. And that's been true now for a couple of months. And my sense on the ground is there's a whole lot of positive energy for Doug Jones.

NICIE: We asked Perkins about the racial dynamics in Alabama these days.

PERKINS: I think Alabama has changed measurably over the decades and that you would find a lot more trust and optimism in a broader conversation than just talking to one person. And you know I've been encouraged that people across party lines have come forward and said these women are credible and we support that they've come forward. You know these are five Alabama women making very statements that are very tough for them to make and inviting people into their private lives in a way that I'm sure they don't want to. But feeling like it's the right thing to do and I think most citizens of the state applaud that. And I don't think there exists still the kind of divide that we have the historic baggage of it in fact I go further I think that Alabama has had to deal with a lot of its racial issues in an open way that a lot of other communities in the country including some in the Northeast have not. And that's been a healthy force.

NICIE: What would be a good example of that in your mind?

PERKINS: Well in my mind when the whole world looks at you in the 1960s and post 60s and says you know you've got a racial problem then you have to come to terms with it and you see in migration patterns of people moving into Birmingham and those are white people and black people and you see real honest dialogue about race. No one's sleeping it sweeping it under the rug and you can look at our amenities that are shared cultural amenities that are shared across the state in both amusement and sports. And there's not racism there anymore. I'm not saying to you there aren't any bigots left in Alabama but I think there are bigots left everywhere but it's nothing like the perception that is occasionally promoted from out of state.

NICIE: So we just had this awesome little side trip to Florence and Muscle Shoals. But on that very topic is there another hidden gem in Alabama that you would suggest that we check out?

PERKINS: Well I assume you went out to Muscle Shoals check out the music which is certainly worth doing. Have you not been on the Alabama coast Mobile Mall Country are lovely places, unique to go to a place like Fairhope and see what's happened there know in Huntsville you can look at Redstone Arsenal and the impact from NASA and all that. That's a unique community for us. But you know I also think that I would say this to anyone while you're in Birmingham and the outskirts go eat because you're going to find the best meals in the country here. And and I encourage everyone to continue that experience in that story because it's just true.

NICIE: We had an amazing meal our first night at Fero Italian place. Delicious. And what else? Mugshots burgers. Yeah we have not had a bad year in Alabama. No definitely not.

PERKINS: Well while you're here, certainly gonna want to go to Frank Stitt's restaurants. And and you know there are a lot of great chefs in this city. Most of them come out of his kitchen but you don't want to miss that.

NICIE: Where are we going. Chez Fanfan or El Barrio. Yeah tonight. Which do you recommend one or the other?

PERKINS: Yeah. Both great places both friends the guys that run Barrio came out of Frank's kitchen. Fanfan is his kitchen and I may see you there.

NICIE: That would be great. That would be great. Anything else?

HEATHER: I'm good. I thank you very much for being honest and about what's going on in Alabama. Yeah.

NICIE: Thank you so much Giles Perkins, much appreciated.

NICIE: A memorial service for Giles Perkins was held in railroad Park on December 14th. You can learn more and support the park in his memory at railroadpark.org. Political consultant Joe Trippi who worked the Jones campaign recently told Politico that when he asked Perkins how he did it how had he managed to work so hard on the campaign while undergoing chemotherapy, attending countless meetings and events, Perkins told him quote "It was because he wanted to show his kids how to live and that helping Jones to get elected was the best way to do that."

NICIE: Thanks for listening and thanks for being an active citizen.

Eunice Panetta