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Battle continues for control of Senate

By By Steve Flowers
Last week's organizational session of the Legislature played out with as much drama as expected. A few weeks ago it was an understatement when I suggested to you that it was anybody's guess what the final result of the battle for control of the State Senate would yield. It remained a mystery up until the roll call vote was taken shortly after noon on January 9.
In the lore of Alabama politics this drama surrounding the Senate battle royale will be played out for years to come. To Alabama political observers this play will equal Shakespeare's Hamlet or any mystery that Edgar Allen Poe ever penned.
The stage was set eight years ago when the Senate stripped some of the powers that the Lt. Governor had enjoyed for close to a century. The Constitution calls for the Lt. Gov. to preside over the Senate but the Senate had also allowed the Lt. Governor to appoint committees and set the rules and agenda. This is the core of the influence, not the yielding of the gavel. In 1999 the Senate took that control back and rested the scepter in the hands of one of their own, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Their monarch has been northeast Alabama Democrat Lowell Barron.
Two Lt. Governors, Republican Steve Windom and Democrat Lucy Baxley, have come and gone with very little say so in the operations of the Senate. Now a third Democrat, Jim Folsom Jr., will be rendered toothless. However, Folsom will not be alone. The outcome of the vote has left Gov. Riley powerless in the process for the second time. His programs and budgets were ignored in his first four-year term and the Democratic victory for control of the Senate will result in his being left out of the budgeting process for a second time. His budget will simply be tossed into the nearest trash can when it arrives in the Legislature and his much heralded 2010 Education Proposal will be dead on arrival in both the Democratic dominated House and Democratic controlled Senate.
The stakes were high for the Senate shootout. The Governor and Republicans thought they had the victory in their grasps, but it was yanked away at the last minute.
As soon as the dust settled from the November 8th general election, the jockeying and arm twisting began. You would assume that the Democrats would easily be in control of the Senate since the election resulted in a 23 to 12 Democratic majority. However, five Democrats quickly sided with the Republicans. Democrats Jim Preuitt, Jimmy Holley, Tom Butler, Larry Means, and Phil Poole announced their intentions to organize with the Republicans to make a bipartisan coalition and give the Republican Governor and Senators a voice in the Senate process. They needed one more, so a week later Democrat Roger Smitherman said he would join their team thus giving this potential coup an 18-17 majority.
Everything was eerily quiet for the three weeks leading up to the organizational vote. Something or somebody got to Democrats Phil Poole and Roger Smitherman. In a stealth move they bolted the coalition team and came home to the Democrats. Thus giving the Democratic majority an 18-17 victory.
The Democrats coalesced around Sand Mountain Democrat Hinton Mitchem. Mitchem has been in the Senate for nearly three decades. He is knowledgeable, well respected, and well liked among his peers. He has a very conservative pro business voting record.
Most astute observers speculate that the somebody who snatched the victory away from the Governor and the Republicans at the last minute was the omnipotent power of Goat Hill, one Dr. Paul Hubbert, showing once again that the elected Governor, Bob Riley, is no match for the Real Governor, Paul Hubbert, when it comes to the legislative branch of government. Hubbert's power may be greater because the Legislature controls the state's purse strings and those that have the gold make the rules.
The House of Representatives organization was less dramatic. Seth Hammett was elected Speaker for a record third term. The Democrats have a comfortable majority and Dr. Hubbert has an ironclad lock on the lower chamber.
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/>.