Senate suit questions elections, complicates leadership
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — One vote from a senator with an election battle of his own could determine who leads the state Senate for the next four years.
A vote of a different kind from Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price may determine whether the senator, Larry Means, D-Attalla, will have legal authority to vote when the Legislature begins its organizational session Jan. 9.
The judge could decide to throw out the case, which now includes questions about the validity of elections for over one-fourth of the Legislature.
"When I first heard about it, I thought somebody was playing a joke," Means said of the last-minute write-in campaign that retired Etowah County Sheriff's Department investigator Jack Lowe Jr. ran against him in the general election.
The retiree began his write-in campaign after Means failed to file campaign finance reports that showed his contributions and expenses on time before the general election. A lawsuit before Price alleges that Means' election is not valid because he filed his paperwork late.
Lowe is active in the Alabama New South Coalition. One New South leader, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, is aligned with Sen. Lowell Barron, a Fyffe Democrat who served eight years as pro tem and is jockeying for the job for another term.
Means aligned with a six-member conservative Democratic coalition of senators that includes Tom Butler, D-Madison. The conservative coalition wants Sen. Jim Preuitt, a Talladega Democrat who grew up in Danville, to be the next Senate president pro tem.
Means contends the write-in campaign and suit are because he backs Preuitt. Today, Means' vote gives Preuitt's group a one-vote majority in deciding who will be in charge in the Senate.
Butler, who worked with Preuitt to help put the conservative coalition together, said the group continues to seek other allies in the weeks leading to the organizational session, and he believes the current group is solid with enough Republican support to swing the vote to Preuitt. But the question about Means' election is still unanswered.
"I learned a long time ago only to worry about the things I can do something about," Butler said. "I can't do anything about a judge's decision."
The Means suit is now part of a larger case that began when Republicans filed suit against Barron, Sanders and two other Senate Democratic leaders who worked with Barron — Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Zeb Little, D-Cullman.
The original suit alleges that the four senators had campaign activity before the June party primaries but did not file campaign finance reports. None had party opposition and under longstanding election practice, candidates without party opposition did not file campaign finance reports during the reporting period for the primary. Other members of the House and Senate from both parties were added to the suit later, bringing the total in question to over one-fourth of the Legislature.
The suit against Means is different because he had no opposition for the general election and did not file paperwork connected with the general election on time.
Nobody knows yet what Price will do, but attorneys in the Means case are an indication that both parties consider it important.
Means' lawyers are Matt Lembke and former Supreme Court Justice Terry Butts. The duo represented Gov. Bob Riley when former Gov. Don Siegelman sought a recount of the 2002 gubernatorial election. Mark White, who represented Bedford in his 2003 extortion case, is the attorney for Lowe.
But the Senate staff member responsible for tracking lawmaker eligibility information said unless the judge rules differently, all 35 members of the Senate are eligible to vote and all 35 already took the oath of office.
"If the Senate went into session today, there are 35 members who could vote," said Dave Avant, administrative assistant to Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee.
As of Monday afternoon, none of the cases were scheduled on Price's court docket.
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