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State Democrats have chance for payback
Alabama House makes assignments; Senate is more complicated

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

MONTGOMERY — If you are a politician, you win some, you lose some and sometimes it’s payback time.

It’s payback time for bipartisan leadership supporters who lost in the Senate and Republicans in the House. The payback typically comes in the type of committee assignments, or lack of them, for the dissidents.

Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, a leader of a group that lost in its bid for bipartisan Senate leadership last week, predicted his next office might be a broom closet at the end of the hall and his committee assignment — the Resolutions Committee.

This year, experts say payback may look a little different. The narrow win by Senate Democrats for the body’s top position, and raw feelings left by the fight, demand consensus building, not just retribution.

In the calmer atmosphere last week in the House, members got the committee assignments that help them know where they sit in the pecking order for perks to bring back home. While not everyone was happy, House members from the area said they are pleased with their assignments. The Senate is a little more complicated.

Members of the Senate, including Tom Butler, D-Madison, and Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, may wait for days or weeks to learn where they will concentrate their committee work and build influence over the next four years.

Senate leaders say they plan to calm troubled troops before making final assignments.

“The legislative process is a lot like wrestling. It’s all fake,” quipped retired Rep. Tommy Carter, D-Elkmont, who served 36 years in the House and faced plenty of tough challenges in 12 years as chairman of the committee that chose which bills the House took up each day.

“It is tough in Montgomery,” said Carter, who stepped down in November. “They are big boys down there. They get mad about politics and they fuss, but they will get over it. Most of it is not personal.”

Some of it is.

Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, won his race for Senate president pro tem by a vote of 18-17 in a battle that one area senator described as bruising. But Mitchem has a reputation for reaching out to Democrats and Republicans alike. He said his Senate district is the most Republican of all Senate districts.

“He is less partisan than some others in the body,” said Athens State University political science professor Jess Brown. “Even though the leadership team is similar, my guess is they will seek to do business differently than in the last four years.”

This year’s leadership battle and the four previous years of infighting brought a message to Mitchem and other Senate leaders.

“The message is that you cannot effectively do business with 17 members who feel disenfranchised,” Brown added.

Brown predicted that Mitchem will build broader consensus through committee assignments and not through a heavy hand.

He believes the assignments will include, not exclude, members of a Senate coalition that wanted bipartisan leadership under Preuitt, who grew up at Danville.

Brown predicts that some Republicans in the Preuitt group may fare better than some of the Democrats in committee assignments.

A new Republican lawmaker like Decatur’s Arthur Orr, who has no political history and spent his first days in Montgomery introducing himself to colleagues in both parties, may get good committee assignments as a result, Brown said.

Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman, said the body’s committee on assignments will work with Mitchem on final choices.

Little said he expects choices to include significant committee assignments for Republicans.

Preuitt coalition’s fate

As for the fate of the Democrats who organized the Preuitt coalition, including Butler, Little said this is the time to reach out.

“There are 22 Democrats and 23 committees,” Little said. “I would like to see a Democrat chairing every committee, but there is a possibility for Republicans as well.”

Butler and Mitchem have been friends for years and once shared a Senate office suite. They disagreed on the leadership issue.

Mitchem said he and Butler talked repeatedly before the leadership vote and will talk more in weeks ahead. Butler said he gave his word to support Preuitt and he did so, but hours after the vote, he met with Gov. Bob Riley and began discussions with his Senate colleagues.

Little; Mitchem; Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.; Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler; and Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, are on the assignments committee, Little said. That group makes recommendations to Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee, who then makes appointments.

If the leadership makeup seems like more of the same to some observers, Brown said one difference this year is Folsom.

“What is driving him is four years from now, his last chance to run for governor,” Brown said. “He will not want the Senate locked into four years of disagreement.”

A Montgomery political science professor believes the Senate fuss is part evolution.

“I think what it shows is that the state is still in the throes of developing a full two-party system,” said Brad Moody of Auburn University Montgomery.

“Watch the committee assignments,” Moody said. “The message will be in the committee assignments.”

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