Alabama’s newest Republican member of Congress, and the first elected female U.S. senator from the state, is now among a handful of prominent politicians who got their start at the University of Alabama.
U.S. Senator-elect Katie Boyd Britt, an attorney and business leader from Enterprise, began her political career at UA, where she ran for student government president in 2003. After graduating, she worked for former U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R), another UA alumnus whom she will soon replace in Congress.
“I join Katie Britt’s many friends and family in congratulating Alabama’s newest senator, a proud University of Alabama graduate,” UA President Stuart Bell said in a statement Tuesday evening.
“Senator Britt has embodied determination, service and leadership since her days as a student. We look forward to working closely with her and our delegation to advance our great state through a shared commitment to teaching, research and service.”
Britt joins a long line of Alabama politicians who share an official and unofficial campus leadership background. Many were leaders in student government.
The UA Student Government Association lauds itself as a training ground for some of the state’s most influential players, calling on its members to “serve societal needs on a larger scale beyond the institution.”
What isn’t officially acknowledged is the long-suspected influence of the Machine, a century-old voting bloc that has garnered national attention as one of the country’s most controversial secret societies.
“Being willing to go against the Machine and making those tough decisions… I think it helped increase her experience with being in adverse situations, having perseverance and resilience,” said Rev. Robert Turner, one of Britt’s former SGA staffers.
‘She stuck to her guns’
Britt herself has not affirmed or denied the existence of the Machine or her involvement with it, and her campaign did not respond to questions from AL.com. But her relationship with the group, according to newspaper coverage and those who knew her, was complex.
After taking office as SGA president in 2003, Britt helped bring the morning-after pill to campus (which would later be the subject of an attack ad by her opponent in the primaries) and vetoed a Machine-backed proposal that would have made independent campaigns more difficult.
She also created a majority-independent cabinet – a major change from the previous year, where 84% of SGA members belonged to Greek organizations, according to reporting by The Crimson White.
One of those members was Turner, the student government’s first Black chief of staff.
Turner, a Tuskegee native who later became a minister in Tulsa, made national headlines for his push for reparations in 2021. He disagrees with many of Britt’s conservative views, he said, but on campus, they shared a common bond and goals.
“I faced difficulty during that time from the Machine,” Turner told AL.com. “She faced difficulty from the Machine. They did not like the fact that I was her executive chief of staff. They did not like that at all. But she stuck to her guns, and when she believes in something she never wavers.”
At the time of Britt’s presidency, the SGA was reeling from a three-year shutdown prompted by a violent attack against an independent candidate, as well as a cross-burning on the lawn of a white student’s off-campus house in the early 1990s.
Both incidents were rumored to be linked to the Machine, an underground group of fraternity and sorority representatives who have been known to influence campus elections. The organization is not recognized by university officials, but is said to still have an impact on student government.
“The Machine’s power lies not only in the people it turns out but in the lessons it offers on how power is won and wielded. Indeed, it has helped remake state politics in its own shadowy image,” read a 1992 Esquire Magazine cover story on the group, which called the Machine the “most powerful fraternity in America.”
Student president run
In 2003, Turner, a self-described “strong independent,” was encouraged to run against the Machine for SGA president. But he felt like someone else would be better suited for the job.
“I think you should run, Katie,” he told Britt, who was a close friend of his. “I don’t care who they have up to run against you. We can beat them.”
“And we did,” he said. “But before we beat them, they joined her.”
Britt, a Chi Omega member, wasn’t the Machine’s first choice, Turner said. According to newspaper articles, the sorority had a fraught relationship with the group, and few women had been backed before.
“The Machine, as it is better known, had to run Katie Boyd, a smart girl with a gleaming reputation and quietly vicious political acumen, who was not going to be turned down in favor of the lesser, male candidate the Machine had lined up the year before,” Crimson White reporter Nick Beadle wrote in a 2007 retrospective. “But the Machine knew it could not quietly pull her out of the race or beat her if she ran, so it backed her and told Chi O that if Boyd ran, they could not run someone for SGA Senate.”
Britt had encountered similar challenges before. After earning a seat as an SGA senator her freshman year, a male friend congratulated her on her victory, then added that it was “too bad you won’t go any further … because you’re a girl,” Britt told reporters on the campaign trail last year.
“I didn’t set my sights going to the University of Alabama to be the SGA president,” Britt told The Montgomery Advertiser. “This was not on the list of things I wanted to do, or maybe even thought that I could. And in that moment I was like, ‘game on.’”
Machine influence has long been blamed for low voter turnout in student elections, and Britt’s 2003 run wasn’t much different. Just over 2,600 (about 14% of the student body) turned out to vote that year.
But Britt had still managed to earn a large chunk of independent support, Turner said. And news coverage painted her as a surprising standout who left an accomplished track record.
“Among the Machine candidates who will always be elected, there have been some very good ones who have implemented policies that made students care about the SGA,” CW managing editor Mike Faulk wrote in a 2007 column. “The 2003-04 SGA President Katie Boyd set a decent standard of quality to beat, but so far no one else has.”
The Machine’s long lineage
In 2017, Jared Hunter became the first known SGA presidential candidate to publicly announce he was backed by the Machine. While many former leaders deny any involvement, reports of Machine influence date back to the early 1900s.
Lister Hill, the first SGA President at The University of Alabama, represented the state for over 45 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, according to the UA SGA website.
A 1993 article from the Tuscaloosa News lists Hill and John Sparkman, another longtime U.S. congressman, as the Machine’s original “forebears,” though both have denied their affiliation.
Other “likely Machinists” who later won political office include the late federal Judge Robert Vance, who was chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party; former Lt. Gov. Albert Boutwell, who also was mayor of Birmingham; former congressman Jack Edwards of Mobile; and former Sen. Donald Stewart of Anniston, according to the 1993 article.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who famously beat the Machine in 1986, was one of few independents who succeeded.
George Wallace, a four-time governor and presidential candidate, also ran for a student post in the 1930s without Machine backing but lost.
Britt’s dealings with the group, Turner said, may have also had a hand in shaping her political career.
“She doesn’t allow herself to lose. I don’t know whether she’s ever lost anything, from kindergarten to now,” he said, laughing. “She fights. And when she wants something, she’s gonna get it.”
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