Home inFocus Agenda: America (Summer 2024) “Its All About the People”

“Its All About the People”

An inFOCUS interview with Senator Katie Britt

Senator Katie Britt Summer 2024

In 2023, Katie Britt became the first woman elected to the US Senate from Alabama and the youngest Republican woman Senator. Previously president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, she focused on workforce and economic development through tax incentives and addressed the state’s prison system. She also served on the Alabama Wildlife Federation board of directors and as chief of staff to Sen. Richard Shelby. JPC Senior Director Shoshana Bryen spoke with her recently.

Editor’s Note: After this interview, the Biden Administration blocked munitions shipments from going to support Israel. Sen. Britt has been a strong supporter of Israel and an outspoken critic of the Administration’s move. We went back and asked her why.

Senator Katie Britt: The United States must unequivocally, unceasingly stand with Israel as she fights to bring every single hostage home, eliminate the threat of Hamas, and ensure there is never another October 7.

President Biden has turned his back on Israel, and at the worst possible time. I was proud to cosponsor Senator Tom Cotton’s Israel Security Assistance Support Act, which would force the Administration to end their ill-advised blockade and send critical munitions to Israel. We must also stand firmly with our Jewish brothers and sisters here at home. The rise of virulent antisemitism we have seen play out on college campuses and city streets across America is disgusting and unacceptable. “Never Again” is now, both abroad and in our homeland. We must not become the first generation after World War II to break this promise.

inFOCUS Quarterly: Does re-industrialization in Alabama in particular, but also the South in general, tend to happen mostly as a result of private sector activity? Or is there a big helping hand from local, state, or federal government?

KB: In Alabama, we believe that it’s the government’s job to foster a pro-growth climate. But ultimately, it is the private sector, it’s entrepreneurs, it is small business owners that actually drive that growth. It takes both, and I think we’ve done a great job striking that balance.

The leaders in our state have been focused for several decades on pro-growth policies and building a business climate that is one of the best, not just in the South, but in the entire country. We do that by promoting small businesses, cutting red tape, slashing unnecessary regulations, and curtailing burdensome regulations that typically hit the small guy the hardest; those are the strongest impediments to growth. At the end of the day, we want every Alabamian to be able to realize their American Dream.

We also are big believers that no child’s Zip Code should determine their opportunity.

Education and Opportunity

iF: How can businesses help to ensure that our schools help students see what the future can hold for them? And what is the role of early childhood education? You need to create jobs but also create the pipeline so that students see the jobs coming in their future.

KB: We have the First Class Pre-K program in our state. We actually have been the highest rated in the nation for the past 18 years. I have seen as a mother, as someone who is passionate about making sure that no child’s Zip Code determines their opportunity, that the earlier children have an opportunity to learn and to grow and develop, the better. Look at the statistics: if a child is not reading on grade level by third grade, their chances of graduating high school is one-fourth that of children who DO read on grade level at that point. And then, if they don’t graduate from high school, their chance of being arrested is five times greater.

Third grade, eight-years-old, is crucial. A child traditionally starts kindergarten at five, so if a child – by no fault of their own – has never been taught colors, or letters, or that a cow goes “moo” and a dog barks, they get to kindergarten and they are behind in so many fundamental ways. And then, they’re treated as being behind from ages five to eight, trying to catch them up, or the vicious cycle continues.

We’ve worked hard on that in Alabama and it’s something that we’ll continue to do. We want to make sure that First Class Pre-K is available to any Alabama four-year-old and their parents who want to take advantage of that.

Drilling down and looking at elementary school is a first step. But then you get to middle school. We have several different programs, “World of Work” for one, where we’re going into classrooms and talking to eighth and ninth graders about the various tracks of success. And we are not of the belief that the only path to success is a four-year college degree. We have incredible community colleges that can send students into a career pathway that is fruitful for themselves and for their families.

There are many ways high school students can be given the tools to succeed, come right out of high school into the workforce, and have excellent and very successful careers.

We start them young to give them ownership in making those decisions. And we are really proud of the result. We have the #4 overall workforce development program across the fifty states.

Our education system, working with different programming at different levels, is what we hope to give students, young people, and all Alabamians the tools they need to be successful. And I would add, we have more HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) than anywhere else in the nation. We have to utilize all the incredible assets right there at our disposal.

Addressing Rehabilitation

Another way to address workforce needs is to make sure we work to rehabilitate our prison population; we don’t think of prison as just housing, it is a rehabilitation process. We have Ingram State Technical Community College, we have Calhoun Community College doing this. I have seen them first-hand. It’s just incredible what they’re achieving, giving men and women the opportunity to get the credentials they need to go directly into the workforce when they finish their time in prison, and give them an opportunity to have dignity and to be able to participate in society.

iF: One of the biggest problems in the prison system is how many people in it never learned to read. And so, you have people who never got the start you talked about. How do you deal with that in prison?

KB: In addition to colleges and some of the technical schools that provide opportunities for credentialing people in prison, there are also volunteer programs where people work with inmates on reading and other things. It is a combination of things that we, as a community, do our part to give people the tools. We have programs that are faith-bashed, as well. There is a lot of work between the faith communities and the imprisoned population.

Corporate Responsibility

iF: What is the role of the corporate community – the end of your pipeline. Do they expect you to turn out these guys ready to go, or do they work with you?

KB: My first visit to Ingram State Technical College was during my time as president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama. We felt it was critically important not only to go and see, to support and encourage, and to spread the word, but also to be a voice saying, “Look at what the prison population has been able to achieve. Look at the rehabilitation. Look at the opportunity for credentialing.” The business community has done an excellent job as a true partner, giving more people the opportunity.

I would add – we’ve talked about education and young people, and we are rehabilitating them at prison population, but we also see a more mature population looking to get back into the workforce. We also have programs within our state, both partnerships and giving the more mature population the skills and the tools they need for the 21st century work environment. We are doing all of those things.

It is a comprehensive approach whether you’re four years old or 65 years old and wanting to get back into the workforce.

All of this creates a better business climate, and the climate and infrastructure allow business to flourish.

Looking at the Future

iF: I’m a Northerner. I admit it. We never thought of the South as a bastion of high-tech, or manufacturing, or anything. Beautiful for sure, but have we been missing something?

KB: I’m so glad you asked. Someone said to me last week, “If you told me the youngest Republican female ever elected to the US Senate and simultaneously, the only Republican female with school-aged kids… if you asked me what state that person was from, I would not have guessed Alabama.” The fact that Alabama gave me the opportunity to represent her and her people says a lot about who we are and where we’re going. We believe in creating opportunity for any and all citizens.

We are, in fact, a very diverse state. Mountains in north Alabama to the white sandy beaches on our coast and everything in between. We have filled that with opportunity. The state government passed incentives to create more of a tech and innovation hub in our state, and we’re seeing that foothold take place in places like Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. We look at what is happening in Huntsville at Redstone Arsenal – everything from NASA with Marshall Space Flight Center to Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), and other things that are important to our defense. National defense means a great deal to Alabama, and Alabama means a great deal to national defense.

There are some people who overlook us, but if you take a second glance, I promise you, you’ll be impressed by what you see.

High-Tech Alabama

iF: Clearly, the US Space Command was impressed because it wanted to be in Huntsville.

KB: Senator Richard Shelby – the seat I fill – was truly a visionary leader. He always thought down the road and around the corner and we’re going to continue that. I have to be my own senator and stand on my own two feet, but he always worked to connect the talents and opportunities in the state and with the needs of our nation. I’m going to continue to be an advocate for that every single day.

Look at the potential. We have Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center. Army Material Command, Army Space and Missile Command, Aviation and Missile Research Center, and the Missile Defense Agency. And we have resources for all of them.

The View from the Senate

iF: You are not just senator from Alabama, but part of the Senate. One of the things that concerns everybody that does business, and everybody who lives in this country, is government debt.

KB: Our national debt is unsustainable. The position we are in right now is not only fiscally irresponsible, but also morally irresponsible. We are placing this debt not just on the backs of our children, but on our children’s children. We must do better. I often say, you balance your budget, your magazine balances its budget, but the federal government, for whatever reason, believes that it is above that. It is not, and the American people deserve better. We have to get back to actually living within our means, but then taking a look at the abuse of entitlements. We want people to have a safety net, but you don’t want them to have a hammock. And that’s what it’s turned into. Things that are supposed to help people get through difficult times, unfortunately, is where some people have chosen to stay.

We look at our labor participation rate in Alabama; it’s 57 percent. If you’re an able-bodied, working-aged American without dependents, you should be working to receive government benefits. In the original debt ceiling negotiations, it said those people should be working, or volunteering, or learning 20 hours a week.

There is a dignity in an honest day’s work, not to mention contributing. We’ve got to get back to a place in this country where people realize that we are all called to contribute, to be a part of this economy and this country.

iF: We had that once. We had a Republican Congress and a Democrat president, and Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton figured out how to do welfare-to-work. Do you see any possibility of that again?

KB: I absolutely do. We’ve got to speak directly to the American people about it and explain to them that moving just 4 million Americans from welfare to work would boost the economy by almost $150 billion and it would grow Social Security and Medicare revenues significantly. We have to communicate that.

iF: Any bipartisanship on this issue?

KB: I have hope. As long as we continue to talk and work, I think we’re right on this issue. It makes sense. And I am hopeful that the more that we speak about it, the more people will come to the table in a bipartisan way and realize that it is one of many things that we need to be doing to get this country moving in the right direction.

iF: When you came to the Senate, did you find more bipartisanship than you thought you might – or less?

KB: I approach it as an opportunity to earn the trust and respect of my colleagues no matter what side they sit on. You don’t have to agree with someone to show them respect. And unfortunately, I think we’ve seen a change in that in our culture, in our country, where if you don’t agree with someone 100 percent of the time, then you can’t possibly respect them. That’s not how you forge solutions. I have been intentional about getting to know colleagues on both sides. And whether that’s building a great relationship with Senator [John] Fetterman [D-PA] and my freshman class, or Senator Tom Cotton and me joining with two Democrats to work on a social media bill to help protect children.

We have to do more of that and have to have more honest conversations. To move this country in the right direction, we have to have a lot of tough conversations. And the only way to do that is by having relationships built on trust and respect.

iF: I’m glad to hear it because from the outside, it looks hopeless.

KB: I have tremendous respect for my colleagues, and this is what we owe the nation. The American people deserve our very best and that includes being able to have a conversation with someone that you may not agree with.


iF: Let’s turn to China. Leaders of American industry and finance paid a fortune to have dinner with Xi Jinping when he was in San Francisco. They’re looking, clearly, for business opportunities. But China is an adversary, not a friend. How would you characterize the American business community?

KB: China is our greatest geopolitical adversary. And economic security is national security. The public and the private sectors need to be working together to safeguard and bolster our domestic supply chain. If we learned nothing else from COVID, it was that we needed to onshore jobs and shore up our supply chains. I’m hopeful that our business community will continue to understand and do that. We also must be very smart about the theft of intellectual property that occurs from China every single day.

The last three years, I think, have opened the eyes of many across our nation. We have to continue to talk about it and safeguard against it. I find TikTok a particular menace – an infiltration into an entire generation.

iF: Are there people in the Senate who share your concerns?

KB: Absolutely. This is one of the areas where you find the most bipartisan agreement: the economic, military and social threat of China. We may have different postures or different ideas on how we solve the problem, but I think we both very clear-eyed and seeing China as the threat that it is.

The Defense Budget

iF: Do we need to increase our defense budget? Are we behind the curve when it comes to the Chinese threat?

KB: I’ve seen the reports, particularly when it comes to INDOPACOM [The US Indo-Pacific Command], and the number of ships in China’s navy versus the number that we have. They are continually ramping up their defense budget. We have to ensure that we are modernizing our capabilities and putting dollars in the right places. I am a big believer in peace through strength, which means we make sure that our warfighters are the best prepared, equipped, and trained in the world.


iF: why should companies consider moving to Alabama? And second, where do you see the state going over the next decade? Is this endless progress or do you see snakes on the way?

KB: I am so glad you asked. We want to create opportunity for our state and for the citizens of our state, and we work diligently at it. I mentioned railways, waterways, airports and interstates. We’re serious. And we have business incentives that we want people to know we value their business, and we value the opportunity that they create for our citizens.

But it is also important to say that Alabama is not only a great place to do business but a great place to live.

Huntsville comes out at or near the top of the best places to live in the United States. And that is about our people – and we have a lot of great people in the state – working, worshipping, and raising their families. More and more people are finding that out. And as long as I am in the Senate, I’m going to fight every day to bring opportunity to the state, and the nation, and make sure that our kids can be safe and secure and have a pathway to success.

iF: Expand that thought to the rest of the country because everybody wants the same thing. What would be the main thing that Alabama can show other states? If I live in Indiana or Oregon, what am I supposed to see that makes me say, “I want that”?

KB: It is about people. Elections have consequences and I really believe we have people from top down in our state who believe in the country, and believe in the state, and believe in fighting for the next generation. Alabama is filled with people who understand that the most important things in life are faith, family, and freedom. It is a cold glass of iced tea on somebody’s front porch. It’s your neighbor bringing in your garbage cans when you didn’t even ask them to. It is random acts of kindness at the grocery store that catch many Northerners off guard.

iF: Sometimes.

KB: It’s a way of life in the South; treating people with dignity and respect, valuing the Golden Rule, being willing to give the shirt off your back to someone who may need it more. Alabamians have a whole lot of heart. We love the nation, we love our state, and we believe both are worth fighting for.

iF: It’s not top-down. Sometimes we tend to look at Washington and expect Washington to solve our problems for us. But what you did was lay out this great case for the fact that it’s bottom up.

KB: Exactly. It starts in the home, it starts with the family, and it filters out to community, to local elections. People in DC often get it wrong. They think that the electorate sent them up here because they have all the answers. The truth is the best thing that we can do is turn right back around and sit in front of the people who deal with these issues every day.

iF: That was a great answer. As a citizen, it makes me feel good.

KB: Wherever I am, the question is, “How is this going to affect every day Americans?” People in Washington often get caught up and they forget to ask that question. That’s where we lose our way. We have to do better and be better. And I’m certainly trying to bring that approach to the Senate office.

iF: Senator Britt, thank you for a great interview and Roll Tide!

KB: Roll Tide!