GARDENDALE, Ala. — Newspaper editorials have called him treasonous. The N.A.A.C.P. has called for his resignation. Chamber of commerce groups and civil libertarians have found common cause in disgruntlement, and a Republican sheriff more or less accused him of being an accessory to any deaths that take place in his county.
Despite that list of critics (and quite a few more), a lot of Alabamians love Scott Beason, a 41-year-old Republican state senator who is the state’s foremost champion of conservative populism. His majority-of-one approach in the Legislature is popular among his supporters, but as recent weeks have shown, it can leave a person pretty exposed: outside of college football, Mr. Beason has become just about the most divisive topic in Alabama.
“There’s no question,” said Cam Ward, a Republican state senator. “Some people love him, and some people hate him.”
Protest marches and lawsuits are still dominating headlines after the passage of the strictest and most far-reaching immigration bill in the country, of which Mr. Beason was the Senate sponsor.
Mr. Beason was also right in the middle of the debate over Jefferson County, home of the city of Birmingham and one of the biggest fiscal crises in the country. Though several state lawmakers blocked or voted down plans to help the county when it suddenly faced a steep dropoff in revenue — a lack of action that has led to hundreds of layoffs and steep cuts in services — the crisis has largely been pinned on Mr. Beason, who singlehandedly scuttled the county’s last effort at a financial contingency plan.
And then there is Mr. Beason’s leading role in the blockbuster public corruption trial unfolding this summer in Montgomery. As part of a federal investigation into accusations that casino operators tried to buy lawmakers’ votes for a gambling bill, Mr. Beason wore a concealed recording device throughout the spring of 2010.
And on those recordings, it was revealed in court, Mr. Beason disparages fellow Republicans and has some derogatory conversations about blacks, whom he at one point refers to as “aborigines.” It left an impressively bipartisan trail of bad blood.
Mr. Beason does not come off, in conversation, as a bomb thrower. In a phone interview from Florida, where he and his family are on vacation, he said he was surprised by the intensity of the recent attention.
Though he said he could not comment on the trial, he attributed a lot of the rancor to people who have misconstrued his statements or positions, intentionally in some cases. The positions themselves he is not apologizing for.
“I don’t mind standing up against anybody on my principles and my beliefs,” he said.
This may sound rather grand, but even his political opponents acknowledge that Mr. Beason is sincere.
“Scott very much has a core belief system that he really works for,” said Patricia Todd, a Democratic state representative who is openly gay and avowedly liberal. “I disagree with him,” she said. But, she added, “I respect him.”
His opponents also grant that Mr. Beason, who has a reputation as a dogged campaigner, truly represents the politics of his district, part of which lies here in the Birmingham suburbs of northern Jefferson County. The district is for the most part white, middle-class and deeply conservative.
Patriotism and social issues like abortion are more important to the voters here than Republican leaders often realize, said Mr. Beason, and special tax breaks for corporations are just as aggravating to them as government programs for the poor.
“I don’t think that they necessarily understand that the majority of our voters care about big issues,” he said of his party, which he has been bucking for as long as he has pursued a career in politics.
In 1994, just a few years out of college, Mr. Beason ran for State Senate, challenging a Republican veteran. He lost.
A dozen years later, after two terms in the House, he ran against that same veteran and won. The Republicans were still in the minority, however, and his stands, at times as a lone dissenter, did not mean all that much. Some even wondered if he was becoming another career politician: in 2007, he voted for a 62 percent pay raise for lawmakers, arguing that it opened up the legislature to middle-class citizens.
But in 2010, the Republicans took over the Senate for the first time in more than a century, and Mr. Beason was made chairman of the rules committee, one of the most powerful positions in the state. Pushing his agenda now was more than just posturing.
“Being in the majority is much more difficult than being in the minority and just saying ‘You guys are wrong,’ ” Mr. Beason said. “You’ve got to be much more careful.”
His emphasis on carefulness would undoubtedly raise some eyebrows in Jefferson County.
In April, the county’s occupational tax, which represented about 44 percent of its uncommitted general revenue, was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court on technicalities. The new, majority Republican County Commission turned to the Legislature for help, setting off a fiscal showdown that had more than a few echoes of the debt-ceiling debate in Washington.
Democrats blocked one proposal to redirect tax revenue that currently goes to the indigent care fund. Another plan, to allow the county to levy taxes to replace some of the lost revenue, passed the House.
It never came up for a vote in the Senate; Mr. Beason contested it until the session ended. Nearly 550 layoffs followed, about a quarter of the work force. Courthouses were closed. Maintenance on county roads and bridges came to a halt. The Sheriff’s Department went to a 32-hour workweek, prompting the angry comment from Sheriff Mike Hale. Such cuts will become permanent if new revenue is not found.
Mr. Beason acknowledged that the cuts were tough, but he said the county needed to learn to become more efficient. He urged the county to use the $75 million it has in reserve, a move the county strongly resists because that is its only fail-safe — it is unable to issue any debt. “They’re not going to change unless they have to change,” he said.
In parts of Jefferson County this is a popular stance, as the county government has not exactly instilled trust in the past (several former commissioners went to prison). But many county residents, whether they lost jobs or are now facing lengthy waits for basic services, were fuming, and they were not the only ones.
Jefferson County is $4.5 billion in debt and on the knife edge of bankruptcy. Those who have a stake in that debt took away the unsettling lesson that Alabama’s Legislature was willing to risk their investment on political grounds.
Matt Fabian, the managing director for Municipal Market Advisors, said that for years there has been a mutual understanding among investors, bond issuers and politicians that contracts and debts would be honored, no matter what it took. The rise of Mr. Beason and other anti-tax hawks has threatened that understanding, he said.
“He is the embodiment of that trend that we worry about,” said Mr. Fabian, who has been advising investors to be wary of buying any Alabama debt.
In the end, Mr. Beason’s biggest liability may rise from his attempt in the casino case, as he described it on the witness stand, to “do whatever I could to help get the bad guys.” Already irked that he wore a wire in closed caucus meetings, some Republicans say that the fallout has seriously jeopardized his leadership of the rules committee, not to mention his future political ambitions.
Mr. Beason acknowledged that “a lot of discussions” will have to take place with his fellow Republicans when the trial is over.
“I think he’s endangered himself as far as statewide office is concerned,” said William Stewart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama. Professor Stewart points out that Mr. Beason is still popular in his district, and it is reflected in interviews here, where for some, his enemies list is a selling point. But whether Mr. Beason can stick with his approach all the way to Washington is less certain.
“He’s too much of a loner,” Professor Stewart said.