The most powerful woman in the most populous county in Alabama is a little housewife from McCalla. At least that is the way Mary Buckelew refers to herself.
Few others in Jefferson County, however, would choose that description. As president of a county commission better known as a model of inaction before her 1991 arrival, Buckelew has elevated the five-member board to a position of unprecedented policy-making relevance. The board itself, once paralyzed by bitter and well-publicized infighting among its members, is now imbued with a sense of decorum.
Buckelew, the first woman ever elected to the Jefferson County Commission, is best recognized for an uncanny ability to find consensus in the unlikeliest of places. "In the past, you had a cloistered commission of good old boys who were responsive to the things good old boys wanted," says Mary Guy, a former political analyst at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "She is excellent at dealing with the good old boys, but she is much more inclusive and able to deal with those who were not accustomed to being consulted."
In a county fractured along racial and jurisdictional lines, home to 11 school boards and more than 30 towns, cities and unincorporated rural areas united only in their disdain for the city of Birmingham, collaborative decision-making is a complex endeavor. For years, petty turf and funding battles hampered virtually every function of county government, from mass transit to economic development to emergency services. Local bickering over sewer responsibilities, for example, resulted in untreated wastewater flowing into the county's rivers and a date in federal court.
Today, a unified county-wide sewer system plan is in effect--but only after Buckelew brokered the politically sensitive deal. When localities stopped contributing to the county emergency management agency and the agency fell into disarray, it was Buckelew who pieced together a restructuring plan. She was the driving force behind the creation of a joint purchasing cooperative utilized by more than 20 municipalities, and she guided the county through a series of difficult budget cuts. "It doesn't have to be any individual person's certain way," explains Buckelew. "In order to have ownership in the goal, there has to be a part of everyone in the end result."
As hard as it is for many area residents to believe, that includes the city of Birmingham, too. While it would be a stretch to say that those on both sides of the city limits are now united in a common vision of regional cooperation, Buckelew and the county commission have at least shown an interest in finding common ground with the central city. County commissioners and Birmingham city council members have even taken to meeting together to discuss issues of mutual concern, an event so extraordinary that one city council member remarked that the scene was straight out of "The Twilight Zone."
To hear Buckelew tell it, her conciliatory style is no different now that she manages a $300 million budget than when she began her public career as a co-founder of the local Parent-Teacher Association nearly two decades ago. "She doesn't drape herself in the cloak of power," says Mary Guy, "but in the cloak of the person who gets things done for the family."
It is safe to say that even today few public officials in Jefferson County share the view that the metropolitan area resembles anything remotely like a family unit. But if they ever do come to that realization, there is no doubt that a little housewife from McCalla would run the household.
Photo by Mike Clemmer