MONTGOMERY - State Rep. Lynn Greer, of Rogersville, has been elected to office off and on since 1974. He’s in his fourth term in the Alabama House and spent nearly a decade on the Public Service Commission.
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“You basically had liberal Democrats, middle-of-the-road Democrats and conservative Democrats, which probably should have been Republicans,” Greer said of his earlier political career.
He was not alone.
“If you were going to get elected, you had to run as a Democrat,” said Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, a former chairman of the state GOP who is credited with orchestrating the Republicans’ 2010 takeover of the state Legislature.
After Democrats dominated state and local government for more than a century, today there are mostly Republicans in the state Legislature, a supermajority, in fact. A Republican holds all the constitutional offices elected by statewide vote — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer, and state judgeships are among those. Both U.S. senators from Alabama are Republicans as are six of the seven U.S. representatives — the lone exception represents the state’s only majority black district.
Now, GOP leaders hope they’ve created for the Democrats the same situation in the Legislature they faced for decades.
“I believe the days are coming that you are going to have to be a Republican, unless you are in a minority district,” to get elected, state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R- Anniston, said.
Republicans are raising money through a variety of political action committees to protect their stronghold in Alabama politics.
“I’ve watched the Democratic Party in Alabama over the last generation have a gradual going-out-of-business sale,” said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University. “The Democratic Party’s position is weaker than it’s been since Reconstruction.”
Clearly, the party that dominated Alabama politics for more than a century is on the political ropes, experts say.
“It’s an iffy future,” said Glen Browder, a former Democratic U.S. congressman, Alabama secretary of state and state legislator. “In the short term, it is going to be very difficult (for Democrats). In the long term, there is a chance they can come back and restore themselves as a party in Alabama.”
Republicans’ dominance in state politics didn’t happen overnight; it was decades in the making.
Many political observers point to the 1986 gubernatorial election as the turning point. That’s when conservative Charlie Graddick defeated longtime Democrat Bill Baxley by 25,000 votes in a runoff, presumably winning the party’s nominee in the process. State party executives, however, reversed the vote and made Baxley the nominee because Graddick campaigned on getting Republicans to cross over and vote for him in the Democratic Party runoff.
Republican Guy Hunt won the general election that year. Don Siegelman is the only Democrat elected governor since. He served from 1999 to 2003.
Many Republicans argue that the power switch was inevitable, saying Alabama Democrats have become increasingly more liberal like their counterparts in Washington.
Another popular theory held by some Democrats is that the party has experienced “white flight” much in the manner that some larger cities in the South experienced during the forced school desegregation of the late 1960s. The numbers of white Democrats elected seem to, at least in part, support that thought.
From the Democrats’ viewpoint, it’s not quite time to turn out the lights. Any nominated statewide Democrat could still get 36 to 37 percent of the vote, Brown said. “That’s a bigger base than Republicans had in the 1950s.”
In November, Democrat Lucy Baxley lost her re-election bid for Public Service Commission president to Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, who took 54 percent of the vote. Bob Vance lost the state Supreme Court chief justice race to Roy Moore, who got about 52 percent of the vote.
“The problem is that if (Democrats) only nominate people who appeal to the base, they will get creamed,” Brown said. “Democrats are basically without a message and without a messenger. Their stable is empty.”
Brown said two R’s — race and religion — have played a major role in Alabama politics in recent decades. From the 1950s to the 1980s, when the Democratic Party stopped promoting segregation and began attacking it, whites started to leave it, Brown said.
Then, in the 1980s, Republicans began to campaign on social issues like abortion and school prayer — all of which fall under the religion category for most Alabamians.
“(People) started to say, ‘The Republican Party, they see God as I see God,’” Brown said.
The political shifts in Alabama apply to much of the South.
Browder recently wrote a series of blog posts about the state of Democrats in the South for the website www.huffingtonpost.com. In one, he said:
“Even as the Southern electorate shifted toward GOP candidates in the 1990s and at the dawn of a new century, Democratic politicians, organizations and voters continued as robust players in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. Throughout, Southern Democrats have conducted themselves as a stubborn, contrarian version of their national party.”
Some say one man helped keep Alabama blue, while other Southern states transitioned to red.
“Basically, Alabama is behind other states in switching to Republican because (George) Wallace stayed around so long,” said political science professor Shannon Bridgmon.
Wallace, a Democrat and symbol of segregation, served four terms as governor from 1963 and 1987.
“Wallace was so popular in Alabama, he was able to keep this idea alive that there was a difference between an Alabama Democrats and national Democrats,” Brown said. “The minute Wallace’s sun set in the ‘80s, that was over for Democrats.”
Switching parties like Greer did is nothing new for former conservative Democrats. Several prominent Republicans used to have a “D” by their names, including state Sen. Jabo Waggoner, of Vestavia Hills, and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, who switched parties in 1994.
Waggoner is entering his 40th year in the Alabama Legislature, the first 17 of which he served as a Democrat.
“It was all white, the Senate was all male and I think there was one female in the House,” he said about his first term.
In 1984, he changed parties.
“I was always a conservative person, so it was an easy change for me,” Waggoner said. “I think the letter by my name changed. I don’t think my politics have changed.”
For years, experts say, politicians were comfortable saying ‘I’m an Alabama Democrat,’ and that was enough to distinguish them from more liberal Democrats on the national scene.
That doesn’t work anymore.
“More and more voters get their political information from national sources,” Brown said. “Their impression of national Democrats is transferred to (local) Democrats.”
And the GOP is cashing in on that, drawing comparisons to “Pelosi Democrats” locally, Bridgmon said.
Not all Democrats mind the comparison. Rep. Patricia Todd, of Birmingham, calls herself an “Obama Democrat.”
“I’m probably the only white Democrat who has embraced him as much as I have,” Todd said.
Montgomery political science professor and expert in minority politics D’Linell Finley said it’s OK for Alabama politicians to say they’re Alabama Democrats, “but they also must make it clear that there are some national programs that are good for Alabama and the nation.”
Bridgmon describes the “top down” transition from Democrat to Republican in Alabama. After 1956, Alabamians only voted for one Democratic presidential candidate, Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The state favored GOP challenger Ronald Reagan in Carter’s unsuccessful re-election bid even though Carter kicked off the campaign in Tuscumbia.
Alabama Republicans’ successes in congressional and statewide offices are impressive even in the minds of most Democrats.
Bridgmon said in the 1970s Republicans started heavily targeting every available office. Democrats weren’t prepared to fight back, she said.
“Democrats started to count on those old New Deal Democrats as the base of the party, while Republicans went for younger voters,” she said. Now, those New Deal Democrats are fading.
“In northeast Alabama, as those voters die off, they are not being replaced,” she said.
The Black Belt counties of central Alabama, Jefferson County, where the Alabama Democrats just opened a second headquarters, and counties in extreme northwest Alabama are essentially the last Democratic strongholds in the state.
Much of the Shoals delegation — state representatives Marcel Black, of Tuscumbia, and Greg Burdine, of Florence, and Johnny Mack Morrow, of Red Bay, and state senators Tammy Irons, of Florence, and Roger Bedford, of Russellville, are all white Democrats. Greer is the lone Republican among the delegation.
For the first time, however, local courthouses in Colbert, Franklin and Lauderdale counties are seeing Republicans elected.
Burdine said when he ran for the first time in 2010, he didn’t think he’d be part of the minority party, and that’s made it harder to get things done in Montgomery.
But, he said he will run again in 2014.
“I’m a Democrat because I grew up with southern conservative Democrats,” he said. “I’ll be a conservative southern Democrat, and I’ll either be in office or I won’t be.”
In Morgan County, the legislative delegation is now all Republican. In 2010, Terri Collins, of Decatur, beat a Democratic challenger for the seat Democrat Bill Dukes held for four terms. Rep. Ed Henry, of Hartselle, became the first Republican to represent the District 9 House seat after defeating Democrat Kathy White Goodwin.
Henry said he’s sure he’s the first Republican some of his constituents voted for, but he sees that as a reflection of changing parties, not Alabamians.
“My grandfather was a staunch Democrat and if he didn’t know what the Democratic platform was today, he’d be shocked to see an ‘R’ by my name.”
But people need to stop thinking just in terms of “R’s” and “D’s,” Goodwin said.
“People need to start thinking on their own instead of letting parties think for them,” she said.
Last year, Republican challenger Jennifer Howell defeated 18-year incumbent Morgan County Circuit Judge Sherrie Paler with 56 percent of the vote.
Paler last week said she attributed her loss to the state GOP’s mass mailings and promotion of straight-ticket voting, where a voter can select all the candidates from one party on the ballot by checking one box.
“As long as the state party is going to pump in for straight-ticket voting, it is what it is,” Paler said.
William Stewart, a retired chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said an influx of blacks into the state Democratic Party is at least a partial cause for whites leaving the party.
“Whites would not openly say, ‘I’m switching to Republican because blacks are the majority of my party,’ but it is a factor,” Stewart said.
Finley says “exodus” is a good word to use. He attributes the political swaps of the 1980s to something more strategic than a personal choice.
“It was the conclusion of the Nixon Southern Strategy to help build a Republican majority by going after conservative whites,” he said. The movement capitalized on the uneasiness of whites about the Democratic Party’s push for civil rights.
More recently, he said the Republicans popularity in Alabama has to do with the election of Barack Obama and “white resentment.”
“Once you see a Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton heading up the (national) Democratic Party, I expect to see some whites warming back up to the party,” he said.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, agrees. In 1983 he was one of four blacks elected.
He said the Republican “tsunami” of 2010 was, in part, a reaction to a bad national economy, but also a reaction to Obama.
Stewart said blacks will continue to dominate the Democratic Party in the future, especially because of recent redistricting in the state House and Senate, which critics says stacked blacks into a limited number of districts.
“The prospect of electing a white Democrat is not good,” Stewart said.
Sanders said he doesn’t think his party has become one of only black members.
“There are still significant numbers of white Democrats and they vote for Democrats on local levels,” he said. “But on state and national (races), they have been voting
Republican. We have to stop that.”
In the Tennessee Valley Caucus, made up of 14 counties, there are 30 representatives and senators. Seven of them are Democrats; 23 are Republicans. Five of the Democrats are from the Shoals.
“My parents and grandparents were Democrats,” Greer said. “But time has changed things. I think the Shoals is changing, but not as rapidly as I’d like to see it.
“The Republican Party is almost there on the local level. In 2014, I predict that we can win all that we run for.”
Mary Sell covers state government for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.