Rural east Alabama race key to Democrats' 2014 strategy; Wounded party hoping to blunt GOP supermajority
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Aug 31, 2013 | 6690 views |  0 comments | 75 75 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY – Senate District 13, the sparsely populated stretch of eastern Alabama from Smiths Station to Spring Garden, is far from the halls of power in Montgomery.

But it could become a key battlefield in the 2014 campaign.

The district, now represented by Sen. Gerald Dial, is one of five Senate seats targeted by a prominent Democratic group in its strategy to bring Alabama Democrats back from near oblivion. And it's the only Senate district where a Democrat – Heflin resident and union representative Darrell Turner – has so far emerged to challenge a sitting Republican.

"This is doable," said Mark Kennedy, leader of the group Alabama Democratic Majority. "It's not a mountain too steep to climb."

Alabama's Democrats are drawing battle lines – and trimming back their hopes – as statewide elections approach in 2014. The party was soundly defeated in 2010, when Republicans won every major statewide office and supermajorities in the Senate and House, breaking a 136-year streak of Democratic rule. Earlier this year, a much publicized dispute over finances left the Democratic leadership splintered and the Alabama Democratic Party flat broke. As late as April, the party was struggling to pay rent and utility bills for its headquarters in Montgomery.

No one in the party is predicting that the Democrats will take back either house 2014. But Kennedy, who formed Alabama Democratic Majority after being ousted as party chairman, has a plan to take at least some of the strength out of the Republican grip on the Legislature.

Kennedy says there are five Republican members of the 35-member Senate who are vulnerable to a Democratic challenge. Dial is one, he said. The rest – Sens. Shad McGill of Scottsboro, Phil Williams of Rainbow City, Bill Holtzclaw of Madison and Paul Sanford of Huntsville – hail from a band of districts across the northern end of the state.

If four of the five can be defeated, and if Democrats can hold on to their current seats, the Democrats wouldn't gain the upper ground in the Senate — but they would end the Republican supermajority there.

"At least we'd have a chance to speak," Kennedy said.

Squeezing pennies

Nancy Worley, acting chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said she's glad the party is simply paying its bills.

Worley took the reins after the party's executive committee sent Kennedy packing, saying he should have handled the party's crushing debt.

Worley and Kennedy don't agree on all aspects of the dispute, but both tell the same basic story. The party borrowed money back in 1999, to help pay for then-Gov. Don Siegelman's campaign for a vote to establish a lottery. The money was never fully paid back. When the party lost power on Goat Hill, and the donors that came with it, the debt became a serious problem.

"I've squeezed every penny until it squealed," she said. Unable to hire a receptionist or a janitor, Worley answers her own phone and does her own vacuuming. She's often the only person in the office.

Like Kennedy, Worley said Democrats hope to blunt the Republican supermajority this year. She won't speculate on how long it will take the party to once again mount a serious bid for control of the Legislature.

Worley said she's also focusing on the one area where Democrats still have a strong foothold – county-level positions such as circuit clerks and sheriffs.

"Your average Alabamian cares more about electing a good county commissioner than electing a congressman," she said.

In races for statewide offices, though, Democrats face a tough climb. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley now has $1.1 million in his war chest – and a challenger to face him in the Republican primary. There's already a Republican candidate for every statewide office, and in some races there are more than one.

State auditor candidate Miranda Joseph is so far the only Democrat in contention for a statewide office. While the general election is a full 14 months away, Worley said earlier this year that she'd be worried if there weren't a candidate for governor by Labor Day.

A late start

Former agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor, now works for Bentley as director of rural development. He said he won't run, and doesn't know who might be planning a run. He started working on 2010 run nearly two years before the election.

"I can't imagine waiting much later than it is now," he said.

Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, is one of the few Democrats who've openly expressed an interest in a run for governor. He said Thursday that he's still studying the idea.

"We're still looking at all our options," Ford said.

Ford’s House campiagn has about $110,000 to spend, including a $50,000 donation made by A-VOTE, the Alabama Education Association’s PAC, last week. Ford said the money could be transferred to a gubernatorial campaign if he decided to run.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb is often mentioned as potential candidate, though party leaders wouldn't comment on whether she's planning a run. Attempts to reach Cobb were unsuccessful.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance headed the Democratic ticket in 2012, running against Republican Roy Moore for chief justice, the highest state office contested that year. Vance ruled out a run for governor earlier this year.

Anyone who does jump into the race on the Democratic side should be prepared to bring their own money to the race, Montgomery-based political consultant David Mowery said.

"The best scenario is a self-funder," said Mowery, who has worked on campaigns for both parties, including Vance’s Supreme Court bid.

Muddling through

“They need to define success as something less than retaking the governor’s office,” Mowery said. Georgia’s Democrats are just beginning to field serious challengers in statewide races, he said, 10 years after losing their supremacy there.

Glen Browder, a Jacksonville State University emeritus political science professor and former Democratic congressman, said Democrats will at least temporarily “have to accept muddling through” in elections while building a party infrastructure that can help them win in the future.

“They’re going to have to try their best where they can win one, here and there,” he said.

Kennedy says spoiling the GOP supermajority is a goal the Democrats can indeed achieve this year. He said his organization will focus on the five targeted Senate races, and on four or five House races as well. They’re still looking for the best House races to challenge, he said.

Kennedy said his group would be happy to support independents or even moderate Republicans if it helps move the Legislature toward the center. The group’s not even looking toward the governor’s race.

“What excites people, at least the ones we’ve been talking to, is the fact that this is not an impossible task,” he said.

One for June

Dial, the Republican incumbent in District 13, said he’d already heard of Kennedy’s plan to target his district.

“I wear it as a badge of honor,” he said.

Dial served the district as a Democrat for multiple terms before being defeated in a primary. He returned in 2010, as a Republican, and won.

Kennedy refers to Dial, who sponsored a bill to put “right-to-work” wording in the Alabama Constitution, as a “right-wing Republican.” Dial is also facing a primary challenge from Heflin resident Tim Sprayberry, who has criticized Dial — who was first elected in the 1970s — as “a Carter Democrat.”

Dial said he doesn’t think Democrats can beat him in a general election. But he does worry, he said, that Democrats would vote for Sprayberry in the primary, just to knock him off the ballot. Alabama allows people to vote in the primary of either party, and crossover voting is common.

“They’ll try to get rid of me because (Sprayberry’s) an easier candidate to beat,” he said.

Dial said he didn’t think Sprayberry was courting those votes. Still, Sprayberry struck back.

“It’s kind of funny that a Carter Democrat and an Obama Democrat would accuse me of stealing Democratic votes,” he said.

Attempts to reach Turner, the Democratic candidate in the race, were unsuccessful Friday.

Turner, a Heflin resident, works as a representative for the United Alliance of Plumbers and Pipefitters, an Oklahoma-based labor union. In past interviews, he criticized the Legislature for siding too often with big corporations and too rarely with working people — but he declined to criticize his opponents directly.

Still, Democratic organizers describe him as a “bulldog" in a campaign.

“He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks,” Kennedy said.

Turner is also chairman of the Cleburne County Democratic Party — and he was treasurer of the statewide party, officials say, for several months leading up to the split in the party leadership.

Kennedy said Turner wasn’t responsible or the party’s financial problems, which existed long before he held the office.

Asked if he would use the Democrats’ financial problems against Turner in a future election, Dial said he’d deal with that after the primary.

“That’s one for June,” he said.

Capiton and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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