After days of speculation and a spoiler announcement by the Alabama Democratic Party, the senator from Sylacauga announced in a Statehouse press conference that he was joining the GOP.
“My political philosophy and moral values are much more aligned” with the Republicans, Fielding said in the Statehouse’s joint briefing room, flanked by Republican senators.
Fielding, a Sylacauga lawyer, was elected in 2010 as a Democrat. Before entering the Senate, he served as a circuit court judge in Talladega County for more than 20 years, and was first appointed by Democratic Gov. George Wallace.
His party switch is part of a sea change in the Alabama Legislature, which for 136 years was dominated by the Democrats. The 2010 election and subsequent defections by Democrats gave the GOP a supermajority in both houses. Counting Fielding, the Republicans hold 23 seats in the Senate. There are 11 Democrats, and one independent, Sen. Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb, who was once a Republican.
In a press release handed out before the start of Thursday’s press conference, Fielding criticized the Democratic Party’s stances on same-sex marriage, abortion and gun control. The statement also made reference to the debate, at the Democratic National Convention, over the mention of God in the party platform.
“I couldn’t sit by and watch the Democrat Party adopt such an extremely liberal agenda,” Fielding said in the release.
That’s almost exactly what University of Alabama political science professor William Stewart predicted Fielding would say, in an interview the night before the press conference.
“If I were his adviser, I’d tell him to say he watched the convention and felt the Democrats had become too extreme,” Stewart said.
But at the press conference itself, Fielding didn’t stick to that script. Without mentioning specific issues, he said the Alabama Democratic Party, once distinct from the national party, had begun to sound more like the nationwide organization, which he described as “moving further and further to the left.”
“You can no longer say you’re an Alabama Democrat,” he said.
Fielding said he didn’t think voters who chose him as a Democrat would feel let down by the switch.
“I think the people who voted for me did so because of me,” he said.
Stewart, the political scientist, said Wednesday that the shift marks a growing racial polarization in Alabama politics, with white voters overwhelmingly supporting the GOP and black voters siding with Democrats.
There are no black Republicans in the Senate. Only four of the remaining 11 Democrats are white.
One of the four, Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, said the GOP is actively courting white Democrats.
“There’s probably not many, or any, Republicans in Montgomery that haven’t talked to me about switching,” Keahey said. He said he had no plan to change parties.
Earlier this year, Keahey helped filibuster against a Republican-drafted redistricting plan for the Senate. The plan passed, and it made some majority-white districts more heavily white.
Before the redistricting, Fielding’s district included part of Calhoun County, all of Talladega and Coosa counties, stretched south to areas east of Montgomery, and was about one-third black. After the plan passed, blacks made up only one-sixth of the district; Coosa and Talladega were drawn out, replaced by parts of St. Clair and Shelby counties to the west.
Fielding said his party switch was about values, not about his chances for re-election.
“I haven’t decided if I’m going to run again,” he said.
Democrats challenged that explanation, claiming that Fielding had voted consistently against Republican policies before the change.
Senate records indicate a fairly independent voting record for Fielding, who sided with Republicans on charter schools and abortion restrictions.
Asked whether the party switch would improve his position on Senate committees, Fielding pointed out that Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, has been elected as a judge and will leave the Senate in January, opening some committee positions.
Brooks serves on seven committees, and is co-chair of the Judiciary and Energy committees and vice-chair of the Banking Committee. As a Democrat, Fielding was a minority member of Banking, Judiciary and two other committees.
State Democrats managed to steal some of the Fielding’s thunder before the Thursday press conference. Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy issued a press release Monday that announced Fielding’s switch and criticized him for leaving the party. For two days, Fielding played coy with reporters, neither confirming nor denying the party change.
At Thursday’s meeting he took Kennedy to task for the press release, saying Kennedy had “put party above friendship.”
Attempts to reach Kennedy on Thursday were unsuccessful.
But Democratic Party director Bradley Davidson said Kennedy had known about the switch for some time.
“We’ve known about it for a couple of weeks,” he said. “We couldn’t pass up the chance to get it out and spoil his party.”
Tim Lockette, Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.