By PHILLIP RAWLS
State Sen. Vivian Davis Figures will make history for Alabama women in 2013.
The Mobile senator’s fellow Democrats have chosen her to begin a two-year term as minority leader in February. Legislative leaders say she is the first woman they can recall as a minority or majority leader in the Senate or House.“It quite an honor, but not just for me. It’s an honor for all the women of Alabama,” said Figures, 55.
It’s also a long way from when Figures was elected in 1997 and people would address the Senate by saying, “Gentlemen of the Senate.”
Figures would stand up and point out that there were two females among the Senate’s 35 members.
People began saying, “Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate.” But attitudes about male control of the Senate stayed much the same.
“In the Legislature or elsewhere, it truly is still a man’s world,” she said.
But she’s helped change things.
In 2011, she led a protest by five female senators who pointed out there were no women assigned to seven of the Senate’s 20 main committees. The Republican president pro tem of the Senate, Del Marsh, quickly added women to several committees.
“They just have to become accustomed to us being there because we have so much to give,” she said.
When she replaces Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville as minority leader, she will move into a role where she will regularly meet with Marsh and other top Republicans. Her goal is to make sure Democrat-sponsored bills get on the Senate’s work agenda and that Democratic ideas get heard when there are talks about a compromise on a bill.
The Senate’s majority leader, Republican Jabo Waggoner of Vestavia Hills, said he looks forward to working with Figures.
“She’s not a combative individual. She’s very compatible, very nice and very talented,” he said.
Figures never set out to be a leader in Alabama politics.
Her husband, Mobile lawyer Michael Figures, was elected to the Senate in 1978. In 1995, his fellow senators chose him to become the first African-American to hold the Senate’s top spot of president pro tem. An aneurysm the following year led to his death.
Vivian Figures was serving on the Mobile City Council by then, but she didn’t think she was qualified to replace her husband. She was also hesitant because she had three young sons to raise.
Her middle son, Shomari, changed her mind.
“It was my 7-year-old who said, ‘Mommy, you are the only one who can take Daddy’s place.’ That’s what really convinced me to run for the state Senate,” she said.
Figures won a special election, but she never saw herself as a replacement for her husband.
“It was never my intention to be another Michael Figures. I couldn’t do that if I tried 24/7. I felt it was important to be who I was, and in time people would get to know me for me,” she said.
When she arrived at the Statehouse, smoking was allowed everywhere. “You used to walk down the halls in clouds of smoke. I would put on my surgical mask and get my can of Lysol spray and spray my way to the chamber,” she said.
Figures, who has asthma, soon got smoking banned in the Senate and eventually throughout the Statehouse.
“Now they call me ‘the Smoke Buster,”’ she said.
When she first started serving, she was surprised to learn women were required to wear dresses in the chamber when the Senate was meeting. She showed up for work one day in her best navy blue pin-striped pants suit and got that rule ended.
It made her a hit with the Senate’s female employees.
Now, her role is role is changing from making sure women get fair treatment to making sure the Senate’s 11 Democrats get fair treatment.
Figures said it won’t change how she deals with people.
“I am a woman of deep faith. I have to treat people like I want to be treated, even if they don’t treat me fairly,” she said.