Montgomery, Ala. — This is the time of year when the thick-leafed magnolia trees in this historic capital city unfold their white blossoms. But the display is brief, and soon the blossoms fade and disappear.
Many Alabamians wonder whether, like the magnolias, their new governor will fade quickly, too -- into political retirement. In the state where his predecessor, George C. Wallace, served three terms and became the symbol of resistance to federal school integration policies, quiet, businesslike Forrest (FOB) James Jr. may leave office after only one term.
But even if he does, the Republican- turned-Democrat Governor James is determined to make a lasting impact on the state. In his Reagan-like efforts to trim the size of state government, he has won some battles and is losing others.
Now Mr. Wallace, a political perennial if ever there was one, is showing interest in running for governor in 1982. If he does, Alabama voters may have a choice between two starkly different ways of running state government.
Where Wallace thrived on saying yes to constituents' requests for state programs, Governor James prides himself in saying no.
Wallace's style is that of the handshaking, never-forget-a-name politician eager for the spotlight. James prefers his quiet hideaway office behind the governor's mansion.
In an interview in that office, James said he found the State of Alabama almost "broke" when he took office in January 1979.
Since then, he has won passage of a 4-cent gasoline tax to help pay off road bonds. And he has cut the number of state employees by about 2,000 -- nearly half of them in the Highway Department.
He wants to reduce the number of four- and two-year colleges in the state and put more money into elementary and secondary education. And he wants to reduce teachers' retirement benefits.
Alabama, one of the poorest of the United States, has the most generous teacher retirement benefits, says the governor. Trimming back 20 percent will save the state $1 billion in the 1980s, he estimates.
The state's most powerful lobby, the Alabama Education Association (AEA), agrees funding has tilted too much toward higher education. But AEA executive secretary Paul Hubber vigorously opposes trimming retirement benefits.
He calls James "politically inept" for his attempts to change educational spending priorities. So far, the governor has run into a wall of opposition in the legislature on most educational issues.
To win support for his educational and budgeting reforms, James says he plans an 'all out" public campaign statewide in July.
The governor, who made improving elementary education a key campaign issue, has got achievement tests adopted for elementary and secondary schools. This, be contends, puts pressure on the system to improve attention to the basics.
But such nuts-and-bolts issues appear to have made little impression with voters, like one Montgomery historian-buff who says she thinks James is "drab." She misses the Wallace era, when "at least you knew you had a governor."
Grover Smith, state director of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), worries that James's budget-cutting will hurt minority Alabamians.
One recent poll put James ahead of Wallace 30 to 22 percent in gubernatorial race based on nine potential candidates. Another poll, with fewer candidates, gave Wallace a 43 to 17 percent lead.