Who will be next senator?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Nearly as soon as State Sen. Charles Steele announced his resignation, speculation about a possible replacement began.

The name already receiving a great deal of consideration is Bryant Melton Jr., a state representative from Tuscaloosa. Calls placed to Melton on Tuesday were not returned immediately, but his name is not the only one surfacing as a potential candidate.

State Rep. Bobby Singleton and Greene County Commissioner Donald Means have been mentioned. In Demopolis, City Councilman Thomas Moore’s name has hit the rumor wave of possible contenders.

Moore, who ran against State Rep. Lucius Black in the 2002 elections, said Tuesday that he has been approached about the now-vacant state senate seat. He did not elaborate on his position or whether he will seriously consider making a run in a special-called election.

For Moore, Means and Singleton – or any other candidate from the rural communities of Senate District 24 – winning the election would be quite difficult. The district covers much of Marengo, Hale, Greene, Perry and Bibb counties, all of Sumter County, and the southwestern part of Tuscaloosa County.

Steele, like Melton, is from Tuscaloosa where a large concentration of voters is based.

According to the 2000 Census, Senate District 24 has 88,000 eligible voters, though that number likely has shifted in the past four years. The census numbers, however, paint a vivid picture of where a candidate must perform well.

In the Tuscaloosa portion of District 24, more than 35,000 people are eligible to vote. In Marengo County, 11,950 are eligible, and Sumter County has 10,493 eligible voters.

In all, Tuscaloosa has nearly 40 percent of the total voter base of the district, which means a candidate from Tuscaloosa has the best potential of winning an election.

Michael Ciamarra, who worked in former Gov. Fob James administration and is vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, said it’s fair to predict that Steele’s replacement will come from Tuscaloosa.

“Look where Charles Steele lives,” he said. “The population base is so great there, and the concentration of voters would give someone [from Tuscaloosa] a decided advantage.”

Ciamarra also believes Melton is in a prime position to capture Steele’s resigned seat.

“[Melton] would be very organized because he’s got experience running for and winning a legislative seat,” he said. “It also would be very difficult for someone from a smaller town to raise the amount of money needed in such a short time. That’s just the nature of a special election.”

According to Gov. Bob Riley’s office, a timeframe has not yet been placed on when a special-called election will be held to fill the vacant State Senate seat. As in most West Alabama elections, this one would be a lock for a member of the Democratic Party, and it is up to the party to decide when the primary would be held.

A spokesman for the Alabama Democratic Party could not say when a primary will be held. He did say qualifying for the seat would take anywhere from three to four weeks, and state law dictates that there be at least 60 days between the end of qualifying and the primary election.

If that’s the case, it would be almost impossible for the primary election to be held on Nov. 2, the same day voters will go to the polls to elect the next President.

In all likelihood, the special election for Steele’s vacated seat will be held sometime in late November or December, and traditionally, voter turnout is quite low for special elections.

Dr. D’Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University-Montgomery, believes that – and a solid campaign strategy – could spell a victory for a small-town candidate like Moore, Singleton or Means.

“I really believe voters look for an individual who will go to bat for them, and it doesn’t matter where they live,” Finley said. “If a person has a reputation of being active, and if that person is from a small town, that person can win the election.”

In West Alabama – Demopolis in particular – the desire to have local representation in Montgomery could serve as a boon for someone like Moore, if he sought election.

There are a number of factors that could help Moore in a mid-term special election.

First, a low special-election turnout would hurt a candidate from Tuscaloosa more than another, rural community in the district.

Second, voters in Marengo County could become energized at the thought of having local representation, which would bunk the low-turnout trend.

Third, someone like Moore – who has already run a legislative race in much of this senate district – already has a network of supporters who likely would work hard to get voters to the polls.

Finally, the early favorite in this race, Melton, does not have a great deal of name recognition in any of the rural towns that make up District 24. In that sense, someone like Moore would have as much potential to win voters as would Melton.

In Black Belt politics, the key for any candidate will be finding the right group of highly visible supporters. State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, will have strong pull among voters in Greene, Hale, Perry and Sumter counties, and his backing would provide a tremendous boost to a small-town candidate.

Most important, though, will be a candidate’s ability to garner support in Tuscaloosa County. For a small-town candidate, that would mean building a strong team of volunteers who would go door-to-door and help provide name recognition for a person who will have little money in the campaign war chest.