Speaker of the House seat crucial, pivotal
By By Steve Flowers
The selection of Speaker of the House will not be as volatile and contentious as the race for President Pro Tem of the Senate next year. Nevertheless it will be just as crucial and pivotal. Seth Hammett will be the odds on favorite to be reelected to his third 4-year reign as king of the House of Representatives. Hammett, a conservative Democrat from Andalusia, is a 28-year veteran of the House with eight of those as Speaker. He was Pro Tem the four years prior to being head of the 105 member lower chamber.
Special interests play a major role in the election of the presiding officer of both chambers. Hammett appears to be in good shape with most of the powerful groups regardless of philosophy. AEA likes him as well as most business groups, including the Business Council and Alfa. Hammett has done his homework which is his cardinal and best attribute. He is extremely organized. He is meticulous when it comes to detail and organization and it shows up in the orderly way the House operates and functions. The organization of Hammett's House becomes apparent when you compare it to the complete disarray, chaos, and continuous acrimony in the Senate.
Hammett has his ducks in a row with the powerful lobbying forces which is probably all that is needed to stay in the Speaker's chair. However, he has to contend with the growing partisanship within the House. The number of Republicans has grown to 43 and they are feeling their oats. Led by Riley ally Rep. Mike Hubbard from Auburn the GOP members would love to have one of their own, but until they get to about 55 seats that will not be possible. Currently most of the Republican House members are more loyal to their business lobby allies than they are to their party label. They will "dance with those that brung them" when it comes to their vote for Speaker in 2007. However, all Republican legislators were forced to sign a loyalty oath to support a Republican for Speaker.
In addition, there could be some ill will and fallout from an avalanche of ferocious negative ads being leveled at Hammett in his campaign for reelection to his House seat in Covington County. The State Republican Party is spending a lot of money lambasting Hammett in his district which votes heavily for GOP candidates in state and national elections. Hammett is considered a safe bet for reelection because of his personal popularity at home, although the seat will probably go Republican if and when he retires.
There is also a certain tension within differing factions of the Democratic House Caucus. It is within this group that Hammett also has to walk on egg shells. There is friction among the white and black Democrats. Of the 62 Democrats in the House, 27 are African American. The remaining 35 white Democrats are relics and they believe among themselves that they are a dying breed much like dinosaurs. Hammett himself comes from these ranks. These white Democrats resent the demands that the Republicans make as a group and they resent just as much, if not more, the demands and favors that the black Democratic Caucus makes and is able to extract from the Speaker. In the past quadrennium Hammett was able to take care of many of the white Democrats with good committee assignments. However, it is among this group that the Republicans have targeted and their numbers will continue to diminish.
Hammett had to make a tough call in January that might have miffed the Black Caucus. When Jack Venable died and left the Rules Committee Chairmanship vacant. Hammett did not promote veteran black Mobile Rep. William Clark who was Vice Chairman. Instead Hammett placed the ambitious House Democratic leader Ken Guin in the powerful seat. The black caucus currently has the Pro Tem position with veteran Demetrius Newton of Birmingham. They will demand no less than an African American in the second spot and probably a lot more.
Hammett will have to walk a tightrope but should remain Speaker of the House in the next quadrennium regardless of who is Governor.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us <http://www.steveflowers.us/>.