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Punch gives state black eye
Senate incident feared to reinforce negative Alabama image

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A Republican senator slugging a Democratic senator gave the Alabama Legislature a national black eye, much like what happened eight years ago when the lieutenant governor urinated in a jug, discreetly, at the front of the Senate chamber.

Both incidents occurred during battles between Democrats and Republicans over Senate operating rules. And both became popular fodder for TV comics and commentators.

“It’s something everyone is talking about and some people are laughing about. It’s a black eye,” said Glen Browder, a political science professor and former member of the
Alabama Legislature and U.S. House.

“It feeds into the stereotype of the rural South,” said Merle Black, an expert in Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

Browder, who teaches political science at Jacksonville State University, and Black agree about something else: Alabama’s one blow wasn’t nearly as bad as some fights in foreign governments, including the large brawl last month in the Taiwan Legislature.

“These are just two guys. It didn’t get any more involved,” Black said.

On Thursday, the last day of the Alabama Legislature’s annual session, Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, and Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, were having an emotional exchange when Bishop hit Barron in the side of the head, knocking him over a desk. Senate security and other senators pulled Bishop away
before another blow could be landed.

On Friday, Barron was still considering whether to file charges, an aide said.

Feuding senators

Tensions between Senate Democrats and Republicans had flared since the session began in March, and security officers had stepped between feuding senators before. But the tension had never resulted in violence until Thursday.

The ensuing national attention was a repeat of 1999, when then-Lt. Gov. Steve Windom urinated in a jug that was hidden from view behind his desk. A Republican, Windom had remained at his post at the front of the Senate chamber because he feared Democrats would strip him of power as the presiding officer.

During one long meeting day, Windom urinated in the hidden jug rather than go to the
restroom — an event that still dogged him in 2003 when he ran for governor and got beaten badly.

Windom, now a lobbyist, declined to discuss the Senate’s latest incident.

David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said both incidents caused the state great embarrassment, but there is a major difference with the latest one.

“The difference is we have the video and we are in the age of You Tube,” he said Friday.

For Alabama, a state that still struggles with negative images created during civil rights battles of the 1960s, the Senate incident generated more national attention than the state got a month ago for something positive — beating out 20 states for a $3.7 billion German steel mill that was one of the largest industrial projects ever announced in the United States.

“For a lot of people, their image of Alabama is stuck in 1965,” Lanoue said. “When something like this happens, it plays into their image of Alabama.”

Tarnished reputation

House Speaker Seth Hammett, who traveled to Germany to help recruit the Thyssen
Krupp steel mill, said the Senate slug tarnishes an international reputation that Alabama has struggled to build by recruiting companies like Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai.

“There’s no question it’s going to dominate talk in the state, around the nation and unfortunately around the world,” Hammett said. “There’s no way you can condone that action.”

Windom’s jug incident eight years ago caused the Senate to take stock and Democrats and Republicans began cooperating.

It remains to be seen whether Bishop’s blow will have the same impact. But Browder said, “I suspect people are already taking steps to keep it from happening again.”

Associated Press writer Bob Johnson contributed to this report.

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

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