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Coalition planning to oust Barron as state Senate leader

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY - State Sen. Jim Preuitt, a Democrat now aligned with Republicans, announced Thursday he had gathered enough votes to oust Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, which would give Republicans their greatest influence in the Senate since Reconstruction.

But one Republican said the announcement was premature, and another said it was more strongly worded than it should have been.

Barron, meanwhile, said no one should jump to any conclusions before the Senate's organizational session starts Jan. 9.

Preuitt announced Thursday that he had the votes "to successfully organize the Senate" with a coalition of 12 Republicans and six Democrats.

He said he's committed to having a mix of Democrats and Republicans as chairmen of Senate committees, and he believes Republican Gov. Bob Riley should get his bills considered on the Senate floor rather than stopping in committee.

"We'll organize the Senate on a bipartisan basis," Preuitt said.

Preuitt, 71, is a Talladega car dealer who is starting his sixth term in the Legislature. He was once one of Barron's allies, but they split last year and Barron helped Preuitt's opponent in the Democratic primary in June.

Now, Preuitt is a leader of six dissident Democrats who split off from the Senate's other 17 Democrats.

A negotiator for the Senate's 12 Republicans, Sen. Steve French of Birmingham, joined Preuitt in announcing Thursday that French's fellow Republicans are committed to organizing around Preuitt as president pro tem.

"Jim Preuitt represents a new era of fairness for the Alabama State Senate," French said in an announcement.

But then later in the day, French said he shouldn't have implied that all 12 Republicans had endorsed Preuitt.

"I don't see any problems with folks galvanizing around Preuitt, but we have to sit down and talk," he said.

The proposed coalition would give Preuitt 18 votes when the 35-member Senate meets for its next month.

Another GOP negotiator, Sen. Bradley Byrne of Montrose, said the announcement was premature because the Senate Republican Caucus had taken no formal action.

"There hasn't been a commitment made to anybody about anything," Byrne said. But he added that there may be one later after more talks with Preuitt and his Democratic allies.

Barron, D-Fyffe, said that Byrne's remarks undermine the announcement .

"What's newsworthy is the fact it's untrue," Barron said.

But another Republican senator, Larry Dixon of Montgomery, said the 12 Republicans had agreed to support whomever was recommended by the six Democrats for president pro tem, and they chose Preuitt.

Barron said he and Lt. Gov.-elect Jim Folsom Jr. are talking with the Democrats in Preuitt's group about switching over before the organizational session starts. "We still feel like we'll be able to organize," he said.

One of Barron's allies, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said that if the other group succeeds, "it would stop African American Democrats from being in meaningful leadership positions. The group has 17 whites and one African American."

Democrats have dominated the Senate since Reconstruction ended in the 1870s.

In 1998, when Steve Windom was elected as Alabama's only Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, the Senate transferred most of his power to Barron as the president pro tem and Democrats ran every major Senate committee.

Since then, Barron, D-Fyffe, has retained his power to help determine who serves on Senate committees and which committee considers each bill.

Republican Sen. Larry Dixon of Montgomery said Democrats will still be in the majority in the new Senate, but if Preuitt is president pro tem, Republicans will have more chairmanships and more seats on major Senate committees than at any time in his 28-year tenure.

"It's about time," he said Thursday.

Folsom will move into the lieutenant governor's chair next month. Preuitt said he foresees Folsom having about the same amount of power as his predecessor, Democrat Lucy Baxley.

During the last four years, Riley has complained about many of his proposals dying in Senate committees headed by Barron's allies and never getting to the Senate floor for debate.

Preuitt said the Senate shouldn't be a rubber stamp for any governor, "but a governor ought to have his plan heard."

Complicating the organization of the Senate are two lawsuits challenging the election of Barron and three of his allies, as well as Sen. Larry Means, D-Gadsden, who's on Preuitt's side. The litigation is still in the early stages.

In addition to Means, the other Democratic senators aligned with Preuitt are E.B. McClain of Midfield, Phil Poole of Moundville, Jimmy Holley of Elba, and Tom Butler of Madison.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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