MONTGOMERY - Tobin Bernard "Toby" Roth rubbed elbows 18 years ago with President Reagan, Vice President Bush and other Republican stars such as Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm, and it changed his life.
The 16-year-old student volunteer at the Republican National Convention decided then and there that politics would be a big part of his future.
Last week he flew to Washington, where he met Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, Gale Norton, Christine Todd Whitman, Rod Paige and other top presidential advisers, including chief of staff Andrew Card
This time, he met them as a professional.
Roth traveled as Gov.-elect Bob Riley's new chief of staff to attend briefings that President Bush's Cabinet held for incoming governors. Page 2A 1A Roth said he and Riley are negotiating a salary, something in the $80,000 to $100,000 range, for when he takes his position next month.
But Roth, who also was Riley's campaign director, already is playing a big role in Riley's administration, helping him interview candidates for his Cabinet and other senior staff positions.
Riley said he wants Roth to act as his chief operating officer, "to make sure policy is implemented, that schedules are taken care of, and that communications allow you to get your message to the people."
He also said he wants Roth to be "an integral part" of setting policy.
"He's one of the smartest people I know," Riley said.
Roth has been a lawyer operating in private practice and has worked with the Business Council of Alabama and the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which bills itself as campaigning against "big government bureaucrats," "greedy trial lawyers" and "tax-and-spend liberals."
Roth calls himself a fiscal and social conservative who believes in limited government. He sees himself as Riley's co-pilot and right-hand man, the one who will chair Cabinet meetings in Riley's absence and oversee staff operations.
Once Riley decides on a position, after talking with top aides, Roth would be the one to step in if someone publicly broke with that view, he said.
"After we have talked through the issue of the day and reach agreement on what the administration's perspective will be, then that's when I expect harmony. When I need to drop the hammer, I will."
The age factor
So can a 34-year-old, young enough to be a son to Riley, who is 58, handle the day-to-day operations of a Cabinet and staff filled with dozens of talented, experienced people?
Roth says age has been an issue before when he's been hired for jobs, "and I've succeeded. There are more important issues, in terms of commitment, work ethic, your professionalism."
Bill O'Connor, who as president of the BCA in 2001 hired Roth to oversee membership and fund raising, said, "Toby was born old.
"While he has a sense of humor, he's serious-minded and pays attention to detail, all important assets for a chief of staff."
Roth's father doesn't think his age will be a problem, either.
"He's always been extremely mature, even when he was just a little kid," said Bob Roth, a New York Life agent in Muskogee, Okla. "You'd just tell him to do something one time. Nobody ever had to light a fire under him to do well. "
Montgomery trial lawyer and former lieutenant governor Jere Beasley, who has been at the other end of barbs hurled by Citizens for a Sound Economy under Roth, said Roth's relative youth could cause slight problems at first.
"It depends how he functions," Beasley said. "If he proves to be capable, I think everyone will say, 'OK.' If not, he won't be there long."
Born in Wichita, Kan., Roth moved with his family a few times before settling in Muskogee when he was 7. He said his father and mother, a stay-athome mom most of the years he and his older sister were growing up, instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in their children.
"I do think our society's sense of right and wrong has gotten a little gray," Roth said. "I'm very appreciative to my parents."
One of his great-grandfathers served in the Kansas Legislature. His dad's mother, a Democrat, ran in her 60s for mayor of Goodland, Kan.
Roth played trombone at Muskogee High School. His father said Roth was valedictorian when he graduated in 1986, winning a scholarship to the University of Alabama. He graduated in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Three years later, he earned a law degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Roth and his wife of 11 years, Michelle, live in Montgomery and have three daughters.
He and his family attend First United Methodist Church in Montgomery. Roth said, "I am a Christian. I am someone who holds my faith very dearly."
First Methodist senior pastor Karl Stegall said Roth chaired the church's work area on evangelism this year, sits on its administrative board and is active in the church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.
"He's very strong in his Christian faith," Stegall said, adding that Roth has a keen mind and warm heart.
After law school, Roth practiced with Birmingham lawyer Ottie Akers until October 1995, when Harold See hired him to be finance director of his successful 1996 run for the Alabama Supreme Court. Roth said he took a big pay cut but wanted to work in politics.
See called Roth "a fine young man. He works hard, he deals well with people. He's pleasant, he's considerate.
"He's a respectful, decent person," See said. "He's not going to work for someone he doesn't believe in."
Roth joined the Business Council as its manager of political affairs in December 1996. He left to be Alabama director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a job he held from January 1998 to January 2001.
Marty Reiser, vice president of public affairs for Citizens for a Sound Economy in Washington, was Roth's boss when he worked for the group.
"He'd find lots of different ways to get things done," Reiser said. "If we needed a rally on the state Capitol steps, he'd do that. If we needed letters from business leaders, he'd get that done."
Beasley said insurance, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies finance the group, which ran TV ads in Alabama that pounded Democrats and trial lawyers. CSE spokesmen said they don't publicize their donors.
Roth, Beasley said, is: "Capable. Smart. Apparently a hard worker. He was a hired hand for them. He just did what he was told to do.
"I don't think he was ever rude," Beasley said. "I think he was wrong."
Stands on issues
Roth said he still supports many of CSE's big issues. He would favor a flat federal income tax that imposed the same tax rate on the rich and middleclass alike, with the first $33,000 or so of a family's income exempt.
Roth said he supports school choice and the idea of state vouchers that could help pay students' private-school tuition. He opposes lotteries on moral grounds, saying they hurt the poor people who tend to play them most. He also favors lower taxes, less government and less regulation.
"I am an advocate of limited government," Roth said. But he said the problem of a big, intrusive government is much greater at the federal level.
"At the state level, I don't think it's to as great a degree an issue," Roth said. "But any attempt to raise taxes, any attempt to increase the size of government should be skeptically considered. That does not mean it should be ruled out."
When he left CSE in January 2001, Roth returned to the Business Council of Alabama as vice president for advancement, overseeing membership, endowment and BCA's political action committee.
"He's a very straight shooter," O'Connor said. "You have a question and you'll get a direct response. "
Roth left that job to become Riley's campaign director in June and agreed to be his chief of staff a few weeks ago.
"Toby's one of those unique people who come around every once in a while who has a great work ethic combined with a really bright mind," Riley said. "I'm excited about the potential he adds to our Cabinet."
Roth said he's committed to Riley, who has been in Congress since January 1997, and supports the changes on ethics, tax reform and other issues that Riley outlined in his "Plan for Change."
"I'm a realist," Roth said. "I know it's going to be difficult. I feel I do bring the background here of having a pretty good idea of how things work in and around Montgomery to help him navigate the shoals."
"It was an honor to be asked to do this," Roth said.