AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Alabama. The state has a new governor after Republican Robert Bentley was forced to resign. He was embroiled in a sex scandal and campaign violations. The new leader is Kay Ivey. She was Bentley's lieutenant governor. She'll serve out the nearly two years left in his term. As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, she's under pressure to restore the public's trust.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Republican Kay Ivey is a longtime political figure in Montgomery. So when the 72-year-old placed her hand on a Bible to be swiftly sworn in as Alabama's 54th governor, friends and allies rallied around.
ELLIOTT: She acknowledges the task ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KAY IVEY: I ask for your help, your patience, as together, we steady the ship of state and improve Alabama's image.
ELLIOTT: Ivey the second woman to serve as Alabama governor. Democrat Lurleen Wallace was elected in the 1960s when her husband, George, was prevented from seeking another term.
Ivey grew up in rural Camden, Ala., raised on a farm. She's been a high school teacher, a banker and a reading clerk in the Alabama House. In 2002, she became state treasurer, the first Republican elected to the post since Reconstruction. It was a sign that Alabama, like other southern states, was shifting from solid Democratic territory to Republican rule.
Ivey has a folksy, no-nonsense demeanor and has been a steady hand at lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial post, presiding over the state Senate. Republican State Senator Cam Ward says don't expect flash, but a more deliberate approach.
CAM WARD: She asks a lot of questions and thinks it through. She's not rash, which is good. And honestly, right now, I think one of the things we need in state government is a little more boring. Boring is not a bad thing.
ELLIOTT: But her tenure in the usually quiet treasurer's office was not without controversy. Ivey came under fire when the state's prepaid college tuition program went bust during the recession. Here's what she told NPR member station WBHM in 2009 when she was running for governor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
IVEY: Is this a heart-rendering, disappointing situation to the purchasers? You bet your sweet bippy. It's the market.
ELLIOTT: She defended her leadership.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
IVEY: You see, I'm the only candidate running for governor that has truly been tested. How do you handle a crisis?
ELLIOTT: Now Kay Ivey enters a political corruption crisis, tasked with restoring credibility to state government. Political columnist Steve Flowers spent 20 years in the Alabama Legislature and has been watching the scandal unfold.
STEVE FLOWERS: We used to be able to look at Louisiana and say Louisiana's the most corrupt and debaucherous state in the South 'cause of Huey Long and the heritage they had down there. But I doggone if we don't put us next to them over the last decade.
ELLIOTT: What's different here, Flowers says, is that Alabama leaders portray themselves as religious conservatives. Yet in the last year, three top elected officials have been removed from office, Governor Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Chief Justice Roy Moore.
FLOWERS: You think about it. The most right-wing members of the Republican Party have all been removed. You know, you ride a white horse, you better not get mud on it. That's an old political saying.
ELLIOTT: Flowers does not expect Ivey to land in the same kind of ethical quagmire that brought down three of Alabama's last six governors. As she took the oath of office, the new governor promised as much, saying the Ivey administration would be transparent and honest. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery.