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Sen. Mitchem says he's uninterested in labels

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The new leader of the Alabama Senate, President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem, doesn't fit into a neat Democratic box.

He's fought with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, two generally stalwart Democratic Party allies. He's drawn big campaign contributions from business groups normally aligned with Republicans.

When he wraps up a day at the Legislature, he often goes out to eat with Republican senators.

Mitchem, who's serving his ninth term in the Legislature, says he's never been one to get too concerned about party labels.

"When I ran for the House in 1974, there was no strong Republican Party, so I ran as a Democrat. I've stayed a Democrat, but my philosophy coincides with Republicans," he said Wednesday.

Mitchem, a semiretired businessman from Union Grove, represents all of Marshall County and parts of Madison and Blount counties in North Alabama. His district is largely white, but it's an economically diverse area that ranges from small row-crop farmers on Sand Mountain to millionaire retirees on Lake Guntersville to NASA engineers in southeast Huntsville.

"I have the most Republican district that has a Democratic senator," Mitchem said.

Mitchem, 68, has been one of the closest friends of outgoing President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe. They were buddies before either got in the Legislature and they shared a residence in Montgomery for 15 years.

But they had a falling out eight years ago when Barron supported Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman and Mitchem aligned with Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom. They got back together four years ago, and Mitchem emerged as a contender for president pro tem when Barron, amid a party split, decided not to seek a third term.

Barron describes his friend as "a moderate" whose "reasonable approach" allows him to maintain good relationships across a broad political spectrum.

Mitchem was able to bring back some Democrats who had planned to support Republican Gov. Bob Riley's choice for president pro tem, and the Senate elected Mitchem 18-17 Tuesday. It was the second time Democrats succeeded in stopping the Republican governor from organizing the Senate.

Incoming Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., who defeated Mitchem in the 1986 race for the lieutenant governor, helped reunite Democrats so Mitchem could win.

Mitchem "has the support of the body," Folsom said.

Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, agrees.

"He's been a consensus builder during the 32 years I've known him in the Alabama Legislature," Little said.

The coalition that elected Mitchem did it with the understanding that he won't serve a normal four-year term. He's supposed to step down in two years and be replaced by Sen. Rodger Smitherman of Birmingham, who was one of the Democrats who went to the governor's side initially and then came back to the Democratic fold on Tuesday.

Mitchem said as president pro tem, he has no legislative agenda other than healing the wounds from the 18-17 vote and getting the Senate to be productive.

"Being down here this long, I've pretty well been able to pass what I wanted to pass. My priority is to get the Senate — Democrats and Republicans — back together and working," he said.

Mitchem said he's been able to work both sides of the aisle throughout his legislative career because he never fit neatly into any category.

When he ran for lieutenant governor in 1986, he had strong support from Alfa insurance and its sister organization, the Alabama Farmers Federation. But they fell out a few years later, when then-Gov. Guy Hunt nominated Alfa vice president Phil Richardson for a seat on the Auburn University board of trustees. Mitchem helped block the appointment in the Senate because he wanted Montgomery banker Bobby Lowder to get the position.

Biographical capsule

Biographical information on Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem:

Political party: Democrat.

Date of birth: May 18, 1938 (68).

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: Semiretired businessman who previously owned Hinton Mitchem Tractor Co. in Albertville. Currently is a partner in Adventure Island family entertainment center in Orange Beach and has WJBY radio in Gadsden.

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.

The Associated Press

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

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