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Folsom gears up for fight on control of state Senate

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Jim Folsom Jr. used a clever ad about three dogs and four shotguns to capture the lieutenant governor’s office. Now he’s got to figure out how to preside effectively in a state Senate where his fellow Democrats are fighting like dogs.

Folsom, who served as lieutenant governor from 1987-1993, has seen his share of political fights, and he will likely see another when the Legislature’s organizational session begins Tuesday.

Tension is high because some Democratic senators spent large sums last year to try to defeat other Democratic senators who sometimes voted with Republicans.

Folsom realizes it won’t be easy to bring Democrats together, but he predicted, “Eventually, we’ll have a working majority.”

When Folsom takes office Jan. 15, he knows that nearly every move he makes will be evaluated for its possible effect on the 2010 elections. After all, he served as governor from 1993-1995 following the ouster of Gov. Guy Hunt for an ethics conviction, and every lieutenant governor for 40 years has sought higher office.

“I think he will be a great lieutenant governor and a great candidate for statewide office in the future, whether it’s governor or U.S. senator,” said Democratic Sen. Zeb Little, who’s from Folsom’s hometown of Cullman.

David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at The University of Alabama, predicts Folsom will be much more involved in day-to-day politics than outgoing Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, and that involvement will have a purpose.

“The new lieutenant governor will be positioning himself for a run at the top job in 2010,” Lanoue said.

Downplays talk

Folsom tries to downplay such talk.

“I have no master plan or no long-range plan at this point. I don’t know if I’ll even run for lieutenant governor again,” he said.

Folsom, 57, is a transitional figure in Alabama politics.

The son of two-term Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, he was elected to the Public Service Commission in 1978 when politicking was largely done at old-fashioned political rallies and civic clubs.

He won re-election in 1982 with another old-time campaign.

But in 1986, he defeated two incumbent state senators in a race for lieutenant governor that relied heavily on TV ads. He spent $1.2 million — a figure that he said shocked his father, who spent $23,000 on his first race for governor.

Folsom won re-election in 1990, but served only half his term before he moved up to replace Hunt. He ran for a full term as governor in 1994, but was defeated by Republican Fob James.

12 years out of politics

Folsom stayed out of politics for 12 years, building a lucrative investment business. But on the last day for candidates to qualify in April, he signed up for the lieutenant governor’s race and found himself in a tough contest with Mountain Brook lobbyist and lawyer Luther Strange.

Folsom campaigned with clever TV ads that portrayed him as an average Alabamian with three dogs and four shotguns, who would rather be hunting than playing tennis at the Mountain Brook Club.

On the day before the election, the oldest of his three dogs died, but it wasn’t a bad omen. Folsom won with 51 percent of the vote, even though his $2 million campaign was outspent by his Republican opponent.

Folsom said he’s glad to be back in the lieutenant governor’s office rather than the governor’s office.

“I think overall I enjoy the legislative side of government more than the administrative side,” he said.

Folsom said succeeding in the Legislature requires building strong relationships with legislators and having lots of patience — two strengths he says he possesses.

In 1986, when he was first elected lieutenant governor, his patience was tested every day in the Senate.

Most senators had been aligned with the two senators Folsom defeated for lieutenant governor, and Folsom came to the Senate without any legislative experience. Some veteran lawmakers tried to trip him up or make him lose his temper. He became the Senate’s Rodney Dangerfield — someone who could never get any respect.

Folsom never lost his temper, and by the second year, his patience had earned him the Senate’s respect.

Folsom will need that patience in the new Senate.

When the Legislature’s organizational session begins Tuesday, seven dissident Democrats are hoping to team up with the 12 Republicans to elect Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, as president pro tem. He would replace Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, who has held the post for eight years.

High emotions

Emotions are raw in the Senate because Barron and some of his allies raised large sums for candidates who ran against Preuitt and other dissident Democrats in the Democratic primary in June.

For Folsom, trying to intervene in the fighting is difficult because Preuitt was one of only a handful of senators who helped Folsom when he first became lieutenant governor in 1987.

Folsom finds the fighting much different from his previous two terms, when Democrats dominated the Senate and Republicans were so few that they made little difference.

“The Senate is more divided now,” he said. “We have two factions of Democrats and the Republicans.”

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

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