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Politicians say no answer to power struggle before votes

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com· (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — One state senator called the current fight for Senate leadership the ultimate political Rubik’s cube.

A political expert said the first law of politics applies to the current struggle: With politics, you never know the outcome until people cast their votes.

Stir in a court case that could affect the legality of some elections, and you have a recipe for a busy Christmas season in the land of politics.

Among longtime members of the Senate and newcomers alike, the consensus Friday was that Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, leader of a conservative Democratic Senate coalition, has enough bipartisan support to win election as Senate president pro tem. But the votes are not formal yet.

Preuitt is a Moulton native. He and his wife, the former Rona Millsap, graduated from Danville High School. Conservative Democrats aligned with him are Tom Butler of Madison, Jimmy Holley of Elba, E.B. McClain of Midfield, Larry Means of Attalla and Phil Poole of Moundville.

But political experts say questions raised by the court case, along with the usual jockeying for power that goes on before an organizational session, will play a part in how the votes go Jan. 9.

One looming question is whether Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price will rule on a lawsuit. The suit contests the legality of the election of senators in the center of the Democratic power base during the last eight years and other lawmakers from both parties whose campaign paperwork came into question after the original suit.

“Judges are pretty reluctant to get in the middle of this kind of thing. They don’t like to overturn voter choice,” said David J. Lanoue, chair of the Political Science Department at The University of Alabama.

“The precedent is that the judges would be overturning the will of the voters on a technicality, something they are particularly reluctant to do when there is widespread violation of the technicality,” Lanoue said.

Republicans originally filed suit to throw out the elections of Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron of Fyffe, Majority Leader Zeb Little of Cullman, Senate Education Budget Chairman Hank Sanders of Selma and Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville.

The suit alleged that the four did not file required campaign finance reports for the Democratic primary in June, a common practice among candidates who have no opposition from their own party before a primary. The campaigns of all four contributed to other campaigns, including Democratic opponents of Preuitt and other sitting Democrats running

questions raised by the court case, along with the usual jockeying for power that goes on before an organizational session, will play a part in how the votes go Jan. 9.

One looming question is whether Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price will rule on a lawsuit. The suit contests the legality of the election of senators in the center of the Democratic power base during the last eight years and other lawmakers from both parties whose campaign paperwork came into question after the original suit.

“Judges are pretty reluctant to get in the middle of this kind of thing. They don’t like to overturn voter choice,” said David J. Lanoue, chair of the Political Science Department at The University of Alabama.

“The precedent is that the judges would be overturning the will of the voters on a technicality, something they are particularly reluctant to do when there is widespread violation of the technicality,” Lanoue said.

Republicans originally filed suit to throw out the elections of Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron of Fyffe, Majority Leader Zeb Little of Cullman, Senate Education Budget Chairman Hank Sanders of Selma and Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville.

The suit alleged that the four did not file required campaign finance reports for the Democratic primary in June, a common practice among candidates who have no opposition from their own party before a primary. The campaigns of all four contributed to other campaigns, including Democratic opponents of Preuitt and other sitting Democrats running for re-election.

A separate suit against Means is now part of the mix as well.

Lanoue said he expects the court to keep its hands off, and if that happens, then leaders of Senate Republicans, Senate mainline Democrats and conservative Democrats will spend the rest of December hunting the weak link in the other side to persuade their colleagues to switch alliances.

Lanoue said he sees a greater likelihood that Democrats will switch than Republicans, but on either side, members will look for appointments to chair committees, be on key committees or take home special favors for their home districts.

Shift in power base

If the Preuitt coalition’s alliance with the Senate’s 12 Republicans holds until the Senate votes on a new president pro tem, then the power base will shift from hard-line Democrats for the first time in a century.

“If they can drag over one or two more disgruntled Democrats, then it will be the first step toward a Republican Senate,” Lanoue said.

Lanoue said the role of incoming Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. is also important as the sides look for consensus.

“Folsom will look for compromises to help maintain Democratic control of the Senate,” Lanoue said. “Most people expect him to run for governor in four years, and he will want a Democratic Senate.”

Preuitt said Thursday that his coalition has 18 votes, the minimum needed to put him in the pro tem’s chair, but he said the coalition is firm and will organize the Senate in a bipartisan manner, including committee assignments.

Butler, who served as majority leader during Barron’s first term as president pro tem, echoed Preuitt’s opinion Friday. The coalition is talking with Folsom, whom Butler called a friend.

Barron said when the Senate convenes for organization, the leader of the Senate will be a Democrat whom the majority supports.

“The key will be that whoever leads the Senate will have to work across party lines, give up-and-down votes on key issues and know how to work through personal issues with various senators,” Barron said.

While Barron stopped short of saying he wants the seat for a third term, he pledged to support whomever the majority elects.

“In my opinion, it will be a fluid situation until January,” Barron said.

Longtime Barron ally Bedford concurs.

“There will be a lot of meetings, a lot of phone calls, a lot of rumors between now and Jan. 9,” Bedford said.

Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said his party’s discussions with the Preuitt coalition are still informal, but there is interest in the group’s proposals.

“I have talked to just about everyone in the past 24 hours and I can say there is interest, but no one has made a commitment,” Byrne said.

The Republican Senate caucus must meet before making such a decision, he said.

“This is about more than who the president pro tem will be,” Byrne said.

Senate operating rules, committee assignments and committee chairmanships are all part of the negotiation, Byrne said.

“This is the ultimate political Rubik’s cube,” he added.

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