Right hand man

Published 12:00am Saturday, July 12, 2014

When Seth Hammett reports to work in Montgomery every day, he is surrounded by Alabama’s past.

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Hammett, who recently accepted what he insists is an interim assignment as Gov. Robert Bentley’s chief of staff, works in the oldest part of Alabama’s state capitol, completed in 1851. In the original capitol, the spacious office he occupies was the governor’s office for six decades, vacated briefly in 1861 when it became the office of Jefferson Davis, then president of the Confederate States of America.

“It’s like going to work in a museum every day,” Hammett said as he pointed out features of the building. For instance, there is a safe room behind his office with solid walls and a metal door.

But even as he is welcomed by the state’s history each day, his focus is firmly on urgent matters of the day, and preparations for the state’s future.

Having spent 32 years in the Alabama House of Representatives, including 12 as Speaker of the House, Hammett had perhaps textbook knowledge of government operations when he agreed to become interim chief. Even he has been surprised by some of the operations of the governor’s office.

Take, for instance, requests for appearances. Even as much as the governor is out and about the state, Bentley is only able to accommodate about 5 percent of the requests that he attend special events, Hammett said.

“There is a never-ending stream of people asking him to do them,” Hammett said.

Extraditions – or requests from other states that Alabama hand over people charged of crimes by those states – all run through the governor’s office. The requests are so numerous, the person who handles them has limited time to work on other issues.

As chief of staff, Hammett’s job is to make sure that those operations are handled as expeditiously as possible, while still keeping other members of the staff working on future projects.

At present, he is guiding more than a dozen special projects for his long-time friend Bentley, with whom he served in the House.

“Seth’s been my friend a long time,” Bentley said Thursday. “We trust each other.”

Hammett is mostly mum on the projects, some of which are being put together for Bentley’s consideration. What he will say is that they involve making state government more efficient, and making sure Alabama’s economic incentive program is truly competitive.

Much, he said, has to do with information technology.

“There’s a lot of balls in the air,” he said.

And the mutual trust built on years of having worked together is important, too. Hammett works with each of the 22 cabinet members, but they report to the governor. Still, much of the information for the governor comes first to him.

“If you have a prisoner escape, someone needs to know that,” he said. “The same if you have a problem that closes a major state road.”

The 40 members of Bentley’s staff -  smaller than governors’ staffs in recent administrations – report directly to Hammett. An agenda from a recent weekly staff meeting with the governor is reflective of the chief’s penchant for organization and timeliness. Each item is assigned a time limit. A quick survey of the time allotted for a dozen or so items to be discussed tallies 34 minutes.

Is that possible?

“We have to fit into the governor’s schedule,” he said, adding with a smile, “I like for the trains to run on time.”

“My job is to make things as easy for him as I can make them, and provide him with options to consider,” Hammett explained.
In many ways, it’s like the work he did for a dozen years as Speaker.

“It’s similar in that it involves many of aspects of state government. It’s very similar in terms of constituent services and our approaches to problems,” he said. “It’s different in that the Speaker is out front, either because he is recognized as head of the House or because the legislature is in session and he is presiding.

“Here, that is completely reversed,” he said. “We are more behind the scenes.”

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