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Congressional races will be worth watching this fall

By By Steve Flowers
Congressional seats are almost equivalent to federal judgeships. As you know, federal jurists are appointed for life. Congressmen run every two years but in reality they basically have lifetime tenure. Members of Congress stay practically as long as they want. The system heavily favors incumbents. With the inherent advantages congressional incumbents enjoy they are seldom seriously challenged. Therefore, it is rare when a seat comes open and is doubly rare that we have two seats open in Alabama this year.
Republican Congressman Terry Everett announced in the fall that he was leaving the Second District open this year, after sixteen years of occupying the seat. However, the big surprise was Bud Cramer’s quiet and unexpected decision not to seek reelection only two weeks before the qualifying deadline.
Cramer, who won the seat in 1990, has held the seat as a Democrat for eighteen years. The Fifth District is made up of the North Alabama counties bordering Tennessee. This Tennessee Valley area is the last bastion of New Deal Yellow Dog white Democrats left in Alabama. This seat has never been in the Republican column. There will be a battle to keep it in the Democratic ranks. Huntsville is the hub of the district and most of the candidates hail from the Rocket City, as did Cramer.
The Democrats have fielded retired physician, Parker Griffith, and Huntsville physicist, David Maker. Dr. Parker Griffith is a retired cancer doctor who is also a first-term State Senator from Huntsville. Griffith is handsome, articulate and financially secure. This last attribute of having his own money, is the reason he is the hands on favorite to be the Democratic nominee and is probably the favorite to win all the marbles and go to Washington.
It is an impossible hurdle for a candidate to raise the money needed to finance a winning race on such short notice. Griffith can finance himself in the primary and general election. The only problem is Griffith is old by congressional standards. His is 66 years old, an age when most congressmen are retiring. Cramer is retiring at age 60, after eighteen years in Washington. Griffith, if elected, will be given very little deference with his committee assignments. The optimum age for a freshman congressman is about 42. Griffith will be able to hold the seat for a few more years for the Democrats if successful.
The Republicans fielded a bevy of candidates for Cramer’s open seat. None of them are marquee heavyweights. The late exit of Cramer caught the GOP off guard. There are six people vying for the Republican nomination. The favorite would appear to be Wayne Parker, who has run against Cramer twice and lost. This region’s Democratic tradition has not allowed the GOP to cultivate a farm system or stable of legislative players.
The Second District is another story. You have three Republican legislators, in the six person field, seeking a seat that has been Republican for forty-four years. Bill Dickinson won the seat in the 1964 southern Barry Goldwater landslide and Everett kept it in the GOP column for sixteen years. The early favorites in the race were Montgomery Legislator Jay Love and Wiregrass State Senator Harri Ann Smith. These two were favored because they, like Griffith, have some personal money they can pump into the race. Love has shown signs that he is serious about infusing money into the contest from the sale of his sixteen Subway franchises.
In the past, Senator Smith has also shown a propensity for spending her own money. She won her Senate seat by that method. However, she has gotten off to a slow and rocky start. She has been embroiled in a controversial local issue and has also been undercut on her own turf by Dothan oral surgeon Craig Schmidtke’s early heavy spending on Wiregrass television.
The wildcard sleeper could be Montgomery businessman David Woods who has some personal money. He is the son of Dothan businessman and perennial gubernatorial candidate, Charles Woods. David is photogenic and has roots in Dothan and Montgomery. The winner of the GOP primary will have to spend a lot to get the nomination and then will face Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright who will be the Democratic nominee in November.
This will be a good race in the fall but the Republican nominee will be favored to win. The Wiregrass has become one of the most Republican areas in the state in presidential years and the Elmore and Autauga areas over the river from Montgomery are two of the most Republican counties in the state. These two counties comprise a lot of the votes in this race. These two congressional races will be worth watching. Our other five congressmen are either unopposed or have nominal opposition.
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.