Herbert (Sonny) Leon Callahan Jr. (1932- ) served 18 years as a Republican representative to the U.S. Congress from 1985-2003. Although generally fiscally conservative, during his political career he was committed to funding public education and improving ports and inland waterways. He was known among his congressional colleagues for his charisma, intellect, leadership, and self-deprecating humor. He has also been a businessman, Navy veteran, state representative and senator, and a lobbyist. Several sites and building have been named in his honor including a bridge near Foley, an airport in Fairhope, a building at Mercy Medical Center, and a Boys and Girls Club in West Mobile.
Callahan was born in Mobile, Mobile County, on September 11, 1932, to Herbert L., a switch man in the railroad industry and shipping clerk in a warehouse and transfer company, and Fannie B. Callahan. He attended local public schools and graduated from McGill Institute High School in 1950, then served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1954. He attended the University of Alabama's branch campus in Mobile from 1959 to 1960 but did not graduate, instead pursuing a career in the trucking and warehousing industry at his family's Finch Companies, a residential and commercial moving business. Following the death of his uncle Tom Finch in 1964, Callahan assumed the presidency and chairmanship of the board of Finch Companies. In January 1969, he married Karen Ruth Reed, and the couple had six children together. He became a member of the Alabama Movers Association, Alabama Trucking Association, Boy Scouts of America, and the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
In 1970, Callahan ran successfully as a Democrat for the Thirty-seventh District in the Alabama House of Representatives and in 1978 ran successfully for a seat in the Alabama Senate. During his time in the state legislature, he was committed to funding public education and supported a tuition tax credit to assist providing scholarships at private higher-education institutions, including Spring Hill College, Birmingham-Southern College, and Huntingdon College. In 1980, he was voted Alabama Legislator of the Year. In 1982, Callahan led the effort to establish the Alabama Heritage Trust Fund, essentially an endowment paid for by revenue from oil and gas leases and used to fund education and other state services. That same year, he ran for lieutenant governor but lost the election to Bill Baxley.
When Alabama representative Jack Edwards retired from the U.S. Congress, he suggested that Callahan switch from the Democratic to Republican Party and run for his seat. In 1984, Callahan narrowly defeated Democrat Frank McRight by 4,000 votes and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama's First District, which consists of Washington, Monroe, Escambia, Baldwin, and Mobile counties and part of Clarke County. Republican Ronald Reagan's presidential run and a heavily Republican constituency in Baldwin County likely assisted Callahan in his successful election. Callahan continued his support for improvements in infrastructure and transportation and on June 1, 1985, spoke at the dedication of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, praising the commitment of those involved in the decades-long project. From 1986 to 1996, he ran successfully for reelection and overcame Libertarian challenger Richard M. Coffee in the 2000 election.
During his congressional career, Callahan secured tens of millions of dollars for the Mitchell Cancer Center at the University of South Alabama, obtained funding to restore the historic GM&O building in downtown Mobile, and ensured that Mobile Bay was included in the National Estuary Program, a conservation effort related to the Clean Water Act. He also obtained money to help refurbish the historic old Monroe County Courthouse and funding for the Foley Beach Express, a four-lane artery connecting the city of Foley with the oceanfront city of Orange Beach. Other projects supported by Callahan include the construction of the child development center at the University of Alabama. In 2001, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health established an endowed student scholars program in honor of his support of public health programs in Alabama and abroad.
In 1994, after the Republican Party won a majority in Congress, Callahan became chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs. He assured that discretionary non-military aid was reduced by $2.4 billion in 1996 and by $700 million in 1997. He served on numerous committees and caucuses, including the House Republican Steering Committee, Biomedical Research Caucus, Steel Caucus, Travel and Tourism Caucus, Forestry 2000 Task Force, Mainstream Conservative Alliance, and Older Americans Caucus. Callahan seldom voted for foreign aid bills, even as chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, but the Asian financial crisis of 1997 required him to approve an $18 billion infusion into the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In 2000, Callahan pushed for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to delay foreign aid to Israel after learning of Israel's plan to sell airborne radar systems to China and ultimately helped force Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to cancel the shipment. In 2001, Callahan was named chair of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee and sponsored the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Acts of 2002 and 2003, which funded civil functions of the Department of the Army regarding rivers and harbors, flood control, beach erosion, and related purposes. On March 20, 2002, he received the First Annual Leadership Service Award for years of commitment to improving ports and commercial waterways across the U.S. from Waterways Work for America!, an organization based in Arlington, Virginia, that promoted a positive image of the inland waterways system on Capitol Hill. Callahan retired in 2003 and was succeeded by one of his congressional aides, Josiah "Jo" Bonner.
Following his congressional career, Callahan founded a lobbying firm, Sonny Callahan and Associates LLC, and represented more than 50 firms, including Dawson and Associates Inc., a private water resources business based in Washington, D.C.; Lyons Pipes and Cook PC, a Mobile law firm; and aerospace company Lockheed Martin Corp.
In 2004, local Alabama veterans honored Callahan as Patriot of the Year, and Governor Robert "Bob" Riley appointed him to the Board of Directors of the Alabama State Port Authority. In the summer of 2004, Callahan filed a complaint
with the Alabama State Lands Division accusing Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo and City Attorney Larry Sutley with misuse of
grant money provided through the federal Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. An investigation by the U.S. Department
of Justice found Callahan's complaint to be well-founded and resulted in the conviction of both men. Callahan received the
Distinguished Service Award from the University of South Alabama in 2006 and in 2009 was recognized with the Mobilian of the
Year Award from the Cottage Hill Civitan Club. In 2010, he was campaign chairman for Tim James's unsuccessful bid for the
Republican nomination for governor of Alabama.
Herbert Leon Callahan Papers, 1985-2003, University of South Alabama Archives, Mobile, Alabama.
Brett J. Derbes
Published August 10, 2012
Last updated February 7, 2013