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Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville, left, talks with Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe before Mitchem was elected as president pro tem of the Senate on Tuesday at the Statehouse.

State Senate showdown: Democrats come out on top
Bipartisan coalition loses as Mitchem voted president pro tem

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — High drama, high political stakes and high emotion marked the opening of the Senate’s organizational session Tuesday as Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville, became the new Senate president pro tem.

The vote maintained control of the Senate for the traditional Democratic majority and derailed plans of a bipartisan Senate group to put former Danville resident Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, in the pro tem seat. Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, will continue as majority leader.

Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, was one of the organizers of the Preuitt coalition, which included Democrats and Republicans and was aligned with Gov. Bob Riley. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, also supported Preuitt.

Two senators pledged to the coalition, Phil Poole, D-Moundville, and Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, defected hours before the vote and pushed the Mitchem forces into the lead.

Mitchem hugged his wife, wiped a tear and pledged to work with senators of both parties after his election. The vote was 18 to 17.

After the vote, Lt. Gov.-elect Jim Folsom Jr. , D-Cullman, said he believes his role will be to unite factions that fought hard and still had strong feelings Tuesday.

“I have been here before. 1986 was at least as acrimonious,” Folsom said of a previous tenure in the job. “I think I can do that, provide that leadership.”

Folsom said he supports the operating rules that the majority group adopted Tuesday and is confident that he can work with senators in both parties.

Members of the defeated coalition nursed feelings of another type as they saw their chance for a bipartisan leadership team headed by Preuitt fall apart.

“I did what I thought was best for my district,” said Poole, whose district includes Tuscaloosa, Hale and Pickens counties and major colleges and universities.

For Smitherman, the decision came after he read the coalition’s proposed Senate operating rules Monday night. Smitherman said he had concerns about plans to take additional authority away from the lieutenant governor and give key budget committee leadership to Republicans. Some education forces, including teacher lobbyist Paul Hubbert, say Riley’s plans could affect education trust fund income.

“I delivered a grant to one of my schools yesterday and saw the conditions where they do not even have an intercom system,” said Smitherman. “We should channel all of our education money to schools.”

Smitherman said Mitchem also offered to step aside from the pro tem position and support Smitherman for the position in 2008. “It was not a promise, but he offered to do it,” Smitherman said. “He said he only wants to serve two years.”

Coalition members Butler and Orr wanted a different outcome.

“My concern is that they be fair,” Orr said. “But I will work for Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties as the people elected me to do.”

Butler said he was sorry to see two members defect from the bipartisan group at the last minute, allowing Mitchem’s win. “As a young boy, I was taught to keep my word,” Butler said. “I am disappointed when others do not. I always worked for my district, and I will continue to do so.”

Gov. Bob Riley’s communications director Jeff Emerson said while the governor supported the Preuitt coalition, both sides in the Senate pledged in recent months to give Riley’s bills a hearing. Riley complained during the past four years that his bills died in committee before ever having the opportunity for Senate debate.

“All along, the governor has asked for a chance for debate,” said Emerson. “He is pleased that both sides have promised that chance.”

Auburn University Montgomery political science professor Bradley Moody called Mitchem’s election a surprise but said the next story will be how Mitchem and his leadership team give out committee assignments and choose committee chairs.

Former President Pro Tem Lowell Barron said he will chair the powerful rules committee, which assigns bills to different committees, and Smitherman said he expects to remain chairman of the judiciary committee.

Mitchem at a glance

Biographical information on Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem:

Political party: Democrat

Date of birth: May 18, 1938

Hometown: Born in Oconee County, Ga.; now lives in Union Grove.

Educational background: Bachelor’s degree in physical education from University of Georgia in 1961.

Professional background: Retired businessman who previously owned Hinton Mitchem Tractor Co. in Albertville, a family entertainment center in Orange Beach, and several other businesses.

Political background: Elected to Alabama House in 1974. Elected to Alabama Senate in 1978 and 1982. Ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1986, losing to Jim Folsom Jr. Re-elected to Senate in 1987, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006.


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