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A knack for confrontation
By Jay Reeves
Associated Press
January 12, 2002

Alabama investment banker Donald Watkins has expressed an interest in buying the Minnesota Twins. He was a guest on MPR's Midday on 12/19/01. Listen

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Donald V. Watkins is notable enough in Alabama as a rich black businessman. But he is better known in his home state as an outspoken lawyer with a knack for confrontation.

From his stormy days as a Montgomery city councilman to his role in bringing down a prominent college football coach and most recently rankling state Democrats, Watkins has never shied away from taking on Alabama's power elite, white or black.

Through it all, Watkins made millions as an attorney with cases in the public spotlight. Now a businessman, banker and investor, Watkins says he has the wealth and desire to take on a new challenge - becoming the first black majority owner in major league baseball.

Watkins has announced plans to purchase the Minnesota Twins in cash and finance construction of a $350 million stadium through private investors in Europe and the South Pacific.

Price estimates for the team have ranged from $99 million to $150 million in published reports. "I intend to dominate this sport, as I did law," said Watkins, both legs slung over the arm of a chair during an interview in his office on Monday. "I want to win the World Series."

Such bold pronouncements aren't unusual for Watkins. The 53-year-old father of five is quick with a boyish grin that flashes broadly when he talks about his courthouse victories.

But he can turn stone-cold moments later when the talk turns to money. Watkins admits he isn't a huge baseball fan yet he wants the Twins, a franchise threatened with going out of business because of contraction.

"I have a passion for this project," he said. "I think it's a wonderful vehicle to create some additional value, and I like to get in something while the market is down."

The idea of Watkins joining George Steinbrenner & Co. is amazing to people who have followed his improbable rise from civil rights attorney to wealth.

"It doesn't compute to me at all," said Emory Folmar, a former Montgomery mayor who often fought with Watkins. "I find it a little bit out of character for him to want to buy a baseball team 1,000 miles away."

"Watkins made more than $8 million in legal fees representing the city of Birmingham and its first black mayor, Richard Arrington. The roles have since reversed: Arrington, who left office in 1999, is now part of Watkins' team pursuing the Twins. "


But Folmar, who was mayor for more than two decades, added that Watkins has repeatedly proven he can do most anything he wants.

"He's smart as hell," Folmar said with grudging respect. "He's got one of the fastest minds I have ever seen."

Watkins was born into a family steeped in education. Father Levi Watkins was president of Alabama State University, a historically black college in Montgomery, and all six of his children graduated college in a state where as many as a third of all blacks don't even graduate high school.

Watkins received his law degree from the University of Alabama law school in 1973 and went to work for Fred Gray, the state's leading civil rights lawyer at the time.

They represented both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Gray and Watkins readily took on segregated school systems and blacks unjustly accused of crimes in white-controlled Alabama.

"That was the birth of the controversy," said Watkins. "Nationally, it was the right thing to do. Here, it was, `They're agitators."'

Moving into the political arena, he served on the Montgomery City Council for four years beginning in 1979. While Folmar was a law-and-order white Republican who backed police during a string of shootings and brutality complaints, Watkins was on the other side and very vocal.

"He wanted to pick a fight all the time. It didn't matter if it was Mother's Day," Folmar said.

But Watkins was good at what he did, Folmar said. In a nod to Watkins' skills and tenaciousness, Folmar later hired him to represent the city in several annexation cases before the Justice Department.

Watkins took on a much higher profile when he represented Eric Ramsey, a former defensive back at Auburn University who shook the state's sports world when he accused boosters and an assistant coach of doling out cash and other gifts while he played for the Tigers.

With Watkins orchestrating, Ramsey produced secretly taped recordings of conversations to back up his claims. The charges resulted in NCAA penalties against Auburn in 1993 and prompted the resignation of Pat Dye, who took the Tigers to four Southeastern Conference football titles during the '80s.

The charges also led to a vengeful Auburn booster backing a player who made similar claims against archrival University of Alabama, which was placed on NCAA probation in 1995.

Dye laid blame for the whole mess at Watkins' feet. "He's delivered a mighty blow to both schools," Dye said in a 1995 interview.

Watkins doesn't deny that he is polarizing at times. He also doesn't apologize. "I'm not trying to win popularity contests. But whether you like me or don't like me, I think I'm respected," he said.

Many people still haven't forgotten Watkins' role in the football debacle. But Watkins didn't stop pushing: He just went on to the next project.

Watkins made more than $8 million in legal fees representing the city of Birmingham and its first black mayor, Richard Arrington. The roles have since reversed: Arrington, who left office in 1999, is now part of Watkins' team pursuing the Twins.

There was one publicized deal he couldn't pull off, though.

As a member of the board of trustees at Alabama State, Watkins spearheaded a plan to raise more than $90 million to build a new football stadium and make ASU the first historically black school to move up to NCAA Division I-A. There were even plans for a national black college football hall of fame at the Montgomery campus.

But Watkins, feuding with other trustees, quit the board in May after eight years, saying his dream for Alabama State was unlikely to succeed.

"Any further time spent by me on the project would merely be an exercise in futility," Watkins wrote in his resignation letter to the governor, whose mansion is just four doors down from Watkins' home in Montgomery.

It was around the same time that news of Watkins' interest in baseball surfaced. Watkins first expressed interest in purchasing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, then settled on Minnesota after being flooded with e-mail from Twins fans fearful of losing their team.

A key question is whether Watkins has the money to buy the Twins: He says he does, but he has refused to detail his finances publicly.

Watkins remains a lawyer, but he describes himself as a businessman first. He is a founder and chairman of Birmingham-based Alamerica Bank, with more than $36 million in assets, and he owns Watkins Pencor LLC, which holds his considerable energy investments.

Watkins also has stayed active politically, forming an Internet site that consists mainly of commentary written by Watkins and his relatives, friends and aides. A large section is devoted to tracking his pursuit of the Twins.

Watkins describes himself as a Democratic foot soldier-turned-political independent. Punctuating his split with the Democrats, Watkins spent about $45,000 for a half-page advertisement in The Washington Post supporting the confirmation of conservative Republican John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Alabama politicians haven't heard the last of him, either.

Watkins says his "friendship circle" that backs Voter News Network will donate $1 million to candidates this year in Alabama and will spend an undetermined amount on voter education and get-out-the-vote activities in the general election.

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