Steele’s decision respected by most

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 12, 2004

Reaction was mixed across the Black Belt on the news that State Sen. Charles Steele would leave the Legislature in favor of the vice-president’s role at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think the position he’s taken with SCLC is a national position and it touches people all over the country,” said State Sen. Hank Sanders. “He couldn’t take that position and do the one he had, and he didn’t want to take a chance on not doing either job good.”

Sanders, who said he’d talked with Steele several times about the move prior to Tuesday’s announcement, wished Steele well in his endeavors, echoing the sentiments of other officials around the region.

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“Much of his life has been dedicated to civil rights and he wants to [do the job],” he said. “I certainly hate to see him go, but I understand. Opportunities to serve on a national basis don’t come along for most folks, and only come along once in a lifetime for a few people.”

Demopolis City Councilman Woody Collins said the news came as a surprise, but knew of Steele’s long involvement in civil rights.

“I wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors,” he said.

Also surprised by the news was Eutaw Mayor Raymond Steele

Eutaw and Greene County had been a major focus for Sen. Steele, who pointed to opening bingo play at Greenetrack as a major accomplishment, providing need funds for local coffers.

“That is news to me. I just don’t understand it. I know he’s doing the right and best thing for him to do. I’m kind of shocked and surprised [of the resignation],” he said.

Raymond Steele said the three-term senator from Tuscaloosa struck him as the sort of man who wanted to see local leaders as “serious” about their work. Once that was determined, Steele said the senator was wiling to help.

“He helped me with one of the most controversial things someone could – annexation,” he said. “He’s the kind of senator who wants to know you’re serious and if sees that you’re serious and committed, then I felt he’d always stick with me.”

Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell said he was happy to see Steele have an opportunity to progress with the SCLC.

“Sen. Steele, during his tenure, has been here on a number of occasions, but obviously feels he needs to spend full time with the SCLC and I think it was a wise move on his part to give up his Senate seat,” he said. “I look forward to whoever is elected being some help to Demopolis.”

That, of course, is a wide open question about who may step into Steele’s vacant seat when the governor sets a special election.

Caldwell didn’t know who might win such an election, but felt that a candidate from Tuscaloosa County could likely win the seat.

“Without looking at the numbers, my personal feeling is that the majority of the votes are in Tuscaloosa County … it probably would be someone from [there],” he said.

Uniontown Mayor Phillip White doesn’t buy that theory all the way.

Steele represented White prior to the legislative redistricting.

“I wish him the best and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how long it takes the governor to call for a special election,” he said.

State Rep. Bobby Singleton, White said, “might be the most electable.”

“Whoever can carry Perry and Hale counties will win,” he said, adding he believed Riley might draw out a special election in order to force Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley into casting tie-breaking votes with a nearly even split among Republican and Democratic senators.

While there may be a partisan impact in the Senate, Sanders said Steele’s departure would also create a momentary void of leadership for the region in Montgomery.

“He was a strong person, so it’s definitely going affect the Black Belt, but within a few months there’ll be an election and a new senator,” he said. “We’ll certainly suffer from his lack of leadership for some time, but good people will come forward and the Black Belt will be all right.”

Sanders said possible contenders for the seat might be State Rep. Bobby Singleton, State Rep. Bryant Melton and Demopolis City Councilman Thomas Moore, but stopped short of endorsing anyone.

“I don’t know and I can’t say what’s going to happen in that,” he said.