Alabama businessman William “Bill” Cabaniss Jr. has worn many hats but his early battle to change the state’s Jackpot Justice image is high up on his legacy ladder. A new biography tells the story of Cabaniss as a successful businessman, a ground-breaking Republican member of the Alabama House and Senate, a friend of presidents, and a U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Cabaniss was one of four Republicans elected to the House in 1978, a watershed year for the GOP that portended the future of a two-party state and the beginning of the end of domination by a singular political system that had held a lock on state politics for more than 100 years.
Cabaniss was elected to the state Senate in 1982, as a Republican, one of three in the 35-member body. He was reelected in 1983 in a court-ordered statewide election and again in 1986 when major candidates ran on a platform of tort reform.
That was one year after creation of the Business Council of Alabama that began to seek legal and political fairness for state businesses. At that time Alabama’s laws favored trial lawyers to the point that major industries would not locate in Alabama due to unfair laws that essentially allowed trial lawyers to raid business treasuries almost at will.
Cabaniss made that exact point Tuesday when he spoke to a BCA board of directors meeting prior to a book signing.
As an outside salesman for his manufacturing company, Precision Grinding Inc., Cabaniss said, customers often told him why they wouldn’t locate in Alabama.
“’We didn’t come to Alabama because your politics stinks’,” Cabaniss said he was told, referring to the justice system that has been called Tort Hell.
Needless to say that’s when he became interested in politics. “Those comments by businesses in the South made such an impression on me that I jumped into the process,” he said.
The 1986 election was a watershed year for business. Voters chose conservative Democrats who elected a tort-reform minded House speaker and the first Republican governor in more than a century, Guy Hunt.
Realizing they went together, Cabaniss introduced tort reform and ethics reform bills.
A package or tort reform bills were passed but trial lawyers ganged up and got the Supreme Court to overturn them. It would take historic court elections in the mid-1990s with significant BCA help to correct unjust laws and a court philosophy that penalized Alabama businesses.
“It was a new day thanks to you all,” Cabaniss told BCA board members.
BCA 2015 Chairman Marty Abroms of Abroms & Associates PC in Florence commented about Cabaniss’ early reform efforts. “Thank you, you kicked it off,” Abroms said.
In 1988 Cabaniss helped the Alabama presidential campaign of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was elected. In 1990, Cabaniss ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in a campaign highlighted by class warfare by the Democrat, incumbent Sen. Howell Heflin.
But his political career did not end. In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed Cabaniss as ambassador to the Czech Republic, an office he held for two years. He said those two years strengthened his appreciation for the United States and Alabama.
“The opportunity to represent the United States in the Czech Republic was an unbelievable experience,” Cabaniss said.
Recognition continued for Cabaniss. BCA 2010 Chairman Sandy Stimpson referred to Cabaniss as a “statesman” and “true gentleman” when presenting him with the 2010 Chairman’s Award for Leadership and Distinguished Service.
Cabaniss said that about four years ago a church member, Worth Earlwood “Woody” Norman Jr., approached him about writing an autobiography. Soon Norman offered to write a biography.
After contemplating, Cabaniss agreed and the collaboration produced the just-released William Jelks Cabaniss, Jr., Crossing Lines, In His Business, Political, and Diplomatic Life. Cabaniss signed books following the BCA board of directors meeting.