State Auditor Andrew Sorrell is known by many as the most conservative politician in Alabama, and he earned that distinction by boldly standing for his beliefs and constituents against opposition, even from those in his own party.
Sorrell was the guest on the 100th episode of "1819 News: The Podcast" last week, where he discussed how he came from California to become a successful businessman and state leader in Alabama.
He began by telling how he was born in California and moved to Wisconsin when he was a few weeks old. His family then made their way to Alabama when he was six years old. He said he was encouraged to be civically involved from a young age and caught the entrepreneurial spirit in high school by helping his brother sell used textbooks. While growing that business, which is still in operation today, he learned more about what it means to be a Republican.
"I would listen to talk radio all day long, and it started to kind of help shape my political philosophy," he told podcast host and 1819 News CEO Bryan Dawson. "So then I wasn't just voting Republican because I was a Christian, I was voting Republican because I understood a whole more wide breadth of issues."
He went on to start other successful businesses before venturing into the field of campaign management. After losing a couple of races, he decided to get formally educated on how to run a campaign.
"In my mind at that time, I was not thinking that I was doing this to run myself. I was going to help other people win campaigns," he said. "I was a businessman. I was too busy to run for political office."
All that changed in 2014. After winning some campaigns, he saw that District 3 was vulnerable to a Republican win after Democrat Marcel Black won reelection with less than 60% of the vote.
"I remember thinking that race is winnable for a Republican in 2018. We just got to find the right candidate," he said.
He began searching for someone to run and even asked his dad. Finally, someone asked Sorrell why he wouldn't run for the seat himself.
"Somebody eventually said, 'If you're so passionate, why don't you run?' And I was like, Well I'm 28 years old, I'm single, I'm still living in a one-bedroom apartment — I just didn't seem like I would be the best candidate for that office. But sometimes the best candidate is the person who wants it the most."
He faced stiff opposition in the primary against Humphry Lee, who he said was actually a Democrat hand-picked by Black and convinced by other Republicans to run in the GOP race.
Sorrell earned 70% of the vote in the primary and went on to win the general with 52%.
"We flipped that district. It had been Democrat for 140 years. So when I walked into Montgomery, I didn't feel like I owed Montgomery anything, and honestly, I was there because the people voted for me. You got to realize that you are to represent your district'; you're not there to be a part of a team or do what leadership tells you. None of those reasons are why you say that you're running… So when votes came up that affected my district and I voted for my district, people were like, 'What are you doing?' I'm doing what we all said we were going to do when we were campaigning. I was confused by it all."
Sorrell was immediately put to the test with a vote on increasing the state's gas tax. After running a poll and learning that 88% of his constituents were against it, he said there was no way he could vote in favor of the bill.
"I may be new to state politics, but I'm not stupid," he said. "I'm not going to have my first vote be against 88% of my district. Plus I'm also philosophically opposed to higher taxes."
Sorrell recounted the debate held on the house floor before voting on the gas tax, though he said it was more a "cheerleading session" for the bill with most lawmakers supporting it.
After hours of hearing nothing but praise for the gas tax, Sorrell said he "couldn't handle it anymore" and went down to the well to speak his mind.
"I spoke for about two minutes, and the first thing I said was, 'Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition to this bill.' And everybody in the room stopped talking," he said. "… It was not my best speech as a politician, but it was probably the most impactful because I was the only person doing it."
Sorrell was shocked that his speech was met with a round of applause by the other lawmakers, even those who were voting in favor of the tax, he said.
"I got a lot of respect that day from other members just for having the courage to go down to the well to say what I believed in."
Sorrell later found himself in the minority again on a bill that would have taken away the people's right to vote for school board members. He said after opposing that bill, which had overwhelming support, including from Gov. Kay Ivey, another lawmaker told him that he had just "ruined" his political career, even though 80% of his district was against it.
That comment led to Sorrell running for state auditor instead of a second term as representative.
Of the five candidates running for state auditor in 2022, Sorrell said he started out polling the lowest. He ultimately turned that around by using his knowledge of campaign strategy and clear conservative messaging.
"For all of the people who said you're too conservative, you make too many people mad in Montgomery, well I tell you what, the voters must like and support what I stand for because I got the highest percentage of any statewide candidate in Alabama that had opposition."
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