|Political Boundaries No Limit to Glen Zorn’s Service|
Joins Former Adversary
Agriculture and public service have been two of Glen Zorn’s passions in life and he shows no signs of slowing down as he reaches Medicare age.
After serving six years as mayor of Florala, Zorn now is into his second hitch as Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture under two different directors.
It’s been quite a success story for a man whose ancestors arrived in Alabama not long after statehood and carved out enviable careers in farming.
He and two of his siblings continued the family’s agricultural connection in Covington County with a fertilizer facility before moving into peanut and grain production.
Glen remains a part of Zorn Brothers, Inc., but, for the past nine years, he’s also been concentrating on helping agricultural commissioners carry out their statewide programs.
His popularity has enabled him to cross political boundaries at times, but he hasn’t caught any flak because his efforts are aimed at improving Alabama agriculturally without regard to party preferences.
A Democrat, Zorn was beaten soundly by Republican John McMillan in the 2010 general election. Within a few days, the winner and the loser formed a partnership devoid of politics.
Republicans swept just about every major race in Alabama last year, so Zorn’s defeat wasn’t surprising. It seemed just about every Democrat who ran for statewide office lost, often by large margins.
"John called me two weeks after the election and asked me to come by to talk with him about the department and I was happy to do it," said Zorn, 65. "We may have been opponents during the campaign, but we became friends and I think that’s the important thing."
Both men are early risers and would often see each other as they walked, jogged or headed for coffee shops in the Cloverdale area of Montgomery.
"We identified with each other and had a lot of mutual respect," said Zorn. "Still do. I could always have gone back home and picked up where I left off at our business, but I jumped at the opportunity to help John."
McMillan said politics never entered the picture when he began looking for an assistant commissioner. He said he knew from the start Zorn was the right man for the job.
"I needed to have somebody who had institutional knowledge of this organization and whose philosophy was comparable to mine," said McMillan. "He was the one."
McMillan said having Zorn by his side during a very difficult year on several fronts has meant a lot to him.
"We had a tough time with one crisis after another including those deadly tornadoes as well as our economic problems," said McMillan. "Glen has been a real asset for our department."
The campaign occurred at a difficult time for Zorn because Mary Jane, his wife of 42 years, suffered a fatal heart attack as he was just getting started.
The shock has subsided since then, but not the grief, and he admits he still struggles with finding his way. Working with McMillan has been a way for him to focus his energies on something constructive.
"Mary Jane was the love of my life," he said. "I took a month off after she passed away to try and figure out what I wanted to do. My family urged me to run because she would have wanted me to."
McMillan and Zorn quickly discovered budget constraints represented huge roadblocks as the new administration took over in January.
It wasn’t long before the department’s 400 member staff had been trimmed by 100 and the budget of nearly $30 million had been cut by more than half.
The toughest thing for them was to inform loyal employees who knew when they entered their offices that their jobs were gone.
It was an emotional time for all concerned, but Zorn said he and his boss are hopeful funds can be found to recall at least some of those who were let go.
"We’ve had to phase out some programs and are looking at possibly privatizing others," said Zorn. "The commissioner and I both believe in less government, but also fair government and that’s what we’re working on."
Zorn began his career in state government in 2002 when then-Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks asked him to join his staff. He did and remained in that position until he decided to run for the department’s top spot.
Zorn became involved in state politics to be an advocate for agriculture which, he felt, had been taking a beating in the public arena.
"People were talking about what a negative impact agriculture was having on our environment and it upset me because I knew that wasn’t true," he said.
He began going into schools, speaking to civic clubs and anybody else who would listen, promoting agriculture’s positive aspects.
When continued flooding caused havoc in his county and surrounding areas, he decided to try his hand at politics.
Zorn was a success from the start. In 1996, he defeated the incumbent to become mayor of Florala, a little town of 2,000. He easily won a second term, but served only two years before resigning to become one of Sparks’ top aides in 2002.
He certainly didn’t want the job for the money, not at $300 a month. He wanted to help his town, pure and simple. His proudest moment came when he used his political clout to push for a nursing home in Florala.
"We desperately needed one," he said. "Families would be split, with people having to go to different nursing homes in cities with one."
He worked hard to get a Certificate of Need for an 80-bed nursing home. Then-Gov. Don Siegelman provided the final push to make it a reality.
"What the governor did was lift a moratorium on new nursing homes in Alabama," said Zorn. "That enabled us to build what we have and it’s been very successful from the day it opened."
Farming has always been in his blood and that includes Quality Co-ops in his area, including the Florala Farmers and Builders Co-op. Area Co-ops have also been supported by Zorn Brothers, Inc.
"I worked for a Co-op for five years," he said. "I make it a point to attend their annual meeting because I think I know just about everybody there."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.