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TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007

Democrats say their focus is party building

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — An Alabama Democratic Party spokesman said the state party is focused on the future, but still will address current issues of national importance.

That was the response to two political scientists who said state Democrats need to get beyond former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman's court battles and concentrate on building the party for the future.

Even as presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shook hands at fundraisers in Birmingham and Huntsville on Monday, party leaders said the experts' recommendation is already their focus.

Political science professors Jess Brown of Athens State University and Brad Moody of Auburn University Montgomery said state Democrats should focus on women and young people.

State Democratic Party spokesman Jesse McDaniel said, however, that the party is working to recruit people at the grassroots level, including women and younger voters, but that may not be readily apparent.

"Our last gubernatorial candidate was a woman," said McDaniel.

Former Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley was the Democrats' nominee for governor in 2006. While she lost her race against incumbent Gov. Bob Riley, three other female Democrats won statewide races.

Sue Bell Cobb became the state's first female chief justice, and Democrats also elected two members of the Public Service Commission, Susan Parker and Jan Cook.

But since President Bush commuted the 30-month prison sentence of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, state Democrats have compared Libby's favorable treatment to what they say was the politically motivated prosecution of Siegelman.

The former governor received an 88-month sentence following his conviction in federal court on bribery charges related to his 1999 campaign for a state lottery.

Siegelman maintains his innocence and says the federal investigation that led to his conviction was intended to derail his political career.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, called on Congress to investigate alleged political prosecutions, including Siegelman's.

In a written statement, Davis said selective prosecution in the Siegelman case is "not beyond the realm of possibility."

Moody said it is appropriate for Alabama Democrats in Congress to call for investigations but the state party needs to focus its energy on building the party instead of revisiting Siegelman's problems.

McDaniel said the party would still speak out on issues of national importance, but he doesn't anticipate additional statements on Siegelman right now.

"We have put out all we really want to say," he said.

McDaniel said the state party is doing a lot to attract young people and teach campaign skills to people interested in running for office.

Grassroots organizing in all Alabama counties and a recent Emerging Leaders Conference are examples of ways the party reaches out to young people, young professionals and others on a local level, he said.

"We want to bring people into the political process," McDaniel said.

He pointed to a recent New York Times/CBS poll that showed young people favor the Democratic Party 54 percent to 34 percent over Republicans.

With Alabama's 2008 presidential primary in February instead of June as in recent years, McDaniel said voters are "energized" about the national campaign.

"Now that we have Barack Obama, he is really energizing young people," McDaniel.

He also cited a Birmingham-area town hall meeting for Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., which drew almost 300 people this spring.

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