Birmingham News - Campaigns for Jeff Sessions' U.S. Senate Seat have Been Lackluster
You would never know it given the level of activity, but state voters go to the polls in a week to cast ballots for candidates seeking their party's nomination for the U.S. Senate.
While the nominations will give two candidates the ticket they need to seek - or, in the case of incumbent Sen. Jeff Sessions, to keep - one of the most prestigious spots in the nation's political hierarchy, the race for them has been, at best, lackluster.
The biggest reason there hasn't been much of a campaign so far is because the candidates haven't been campaigning.
In the case of Sessions, he hasn't had to. He faces only token opposition from perennial candidate Earl Mack Gavin of Smiths Station.
In the case of Democratic frontrunner, state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile, she's been bogged down since February in the just-concluded legislative session. But, it's also true that Figures hasn't had much money to throw at the other two Democrats in the race - Johnny Swanson III of Birmingham and Mark "No NCAA" Townsend of Haleyville. Both of them are given little to no chance of upsetting Figures, who enjoys the institutional support of the state Democratic Party.
A year ago, there was much speculation that a number of state Democrats better known than Davis might join the effort to unseat Sessions, among them former governor and current Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom and state commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, Ron Sparks. But Sessions' incumbency, his lead in most polls and, especially, his war chest of more than $4 million, may have scared them off.
But not Figures, even though she has to date been able to raise only a little more than $100,000.
That amount dwarfs what her opponents have been able to raise - "I have six dollars and change in my pocket but I know a guy who owes me a hundred and fifty bucks," Townsend said - but it's just 4 percent of the amount Sessions has raised.
"Let's just say that, for now, we're going to take what we have and make what we need," Figures said. "But, in the meantime, we're going to keep the faith that we're going to get the money we need to do what we need to do."
What Figures said she needs to do is convince everyday Alabamians that Sessions is not on their side and is not his own man.
"He's big business and super-rich. That's who he represents," Davis said. "He has been someone who has marched in lock-step with George Bush in taking us into war in Iraq and into recession at home. He does not think for himself. He is not his own man and it's time we give this seat back to the everyday working people of Alabama."
Sessions' second six-year term has been defined by two prolonged battles that cast a sustained national spotlight on the junior senator from Alabama.
Technically, he won both.
But along the way he cemented his reputation as a hard-core conservative prone to digging in his heels and avoiding compromises.
First was the nearly two-year saga to get his former protege Bill Pryor confirmed as a federal appellate judge. Sessions led the defense of Pryor's record but, after it failed to persuade enough Democrats to support confirmation, the senator cheered when President Bush short-circuited the stalemate and appointed Pryor during a recess. In the end, Pryor was confirmed after 14 senators, Democrat and Republican, went behind closed doors and hammered out a compromise. Sessions was not among them.
Second was the struggle over immigration. After initially telling Alabama's agriculture industry that he might be open to a bill that would not threaten their legal labor force, Sessions determined the Senate legislation to be too soft and became a leader of the opposition. The position put him at odds with the farm lobby and the White House. Again, he avoided - even mocked - the closed-door negotiations on Capitol Hill that created the bipartisan bill. The bill died and the issue remains unresolved.
Sessions said the deal on the judges was possible only after the battlefield had been softened by himself and others, and that he had to stay out of the negotiations on immigration in order to remain objective.
"What you learn around here is, if you're not prepared to fight, then you're not in a very good position to negotiate," Sessions said in a recent interview. "I'm not up here to be a potted plant. I didn't come up here to do nothin'. As long as I'm here we're going to battle every day."
Both issues - judges and immigration - will figure prominently if Sessions wins a third term. But another is emerging - energy.
Long a proponent of more domestic production of oil and gas, including in Alaska's wildlife refuge area, Sessions also has become a leading Hill advocate for the expansion of nuclear power. And he's added energy conservation and alternative sources to his repertoire, advocating more of both.
He's got a comfortable $4 million in his re-election account and a campaign agenda that includes continued support for the war in Iraq and robust spending on defense.
"I know this state really well and I'm proud of Alabama and the values we share and I believe those values are critical right now for America," Sessions said. "And I'm thankful I am from a state that allows me to be active in promoting those values."
Talks about Sessions:
On the Democratic side, Swanson disagrees that Figures is the frontrunner.
"They might know her in Mobile but that's it," Swanson said.
Like Figures, Swanson talks only about Sessions.
"He's not done anything for Alabama but be a rubber stamp for George Bush," Swanson said.
Swanson said that, as senator, he would support pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in a way that does not leave the country in what he called "topsy-turvy" shape
"Iraq was not part of 9/11 but going to war there has now turned it into a place that is growing terrorists," Swanson said."
Swanson charged that too often Congress has supported trade agreements that have resulted in Americans losing jobs.
"We need to take care of our own country first. I'm not a free trader," Swanson said.
As for Townsend and Gavin, they don't pretend that they have a chance to win in the June 3 primary, just that they would be a better senator than Sessions. Townsend made news earlier this year when he created a Web site dubbed "Jeff Sessions is a sissy."
"It's not a personal attack, I didn't say he wasn't a good Christian or good family man," Townsend said. "I just told the truth: Jeff Sessions is a sissy in that he won't stand up to George Bush, won't stand up to big oil, won't stand up to special interest."
As for the "No NCAA" part of his official ballot name, Townsend explained that he's been battling that organization for years and said he's not alone in his dislike for the group.
"There are a lot of redneck tobacco chewers in this state who, when they go into the ballot box and see that `no NCAA' part of my name, just might vote for me because they hate the NCAA just about as much as I do," Townsend said.
As for Gavin, he's making his fifth try for elective office but his first as a Republican, and he's just about concluded that, like actor Lloyd Bridges in the old movie "Airplane," who constantly bemoaned that he picked the wrong week to give up drinking or glue sniffing or drugs, Gavin said he picked the wrong time to change parties.
"I think the Democrats are going to kill the Republicans come November," Gavin said. "But I had to change parties. There just became too many powerbrokers to pacify with the Democrats."
Vivian Davis Figures:
Date of birth: Jan. 24, 1957; 51 Residence: Mobile Political experience: Elected to Mobile City Council in 1993; elected to state Senate in 1997 to replace her late husband, Michael Figures, and re-elected in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Professional experience: Managed a weekly newspaper, The New Times, and ran a print shop until 1996; managed the summer lunch program and directed the foster grandparents program for Mobile Community Action immediately after college. Education: Bachelor's, University of New Haven, 1980; attended Jones Law School. Campaign: figures2008.com
Johnny Swanson III:
Date of birth: March 31, 1953; 55 Residence: Birmingham Political experience: Tried to run as independent for the U.S. Senate in 2002, but couldn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot; registered to run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in 2004, but was disqualified by the party. Professional experience: Disabled veteran who served four years in the Army; retired from private security business. Education: Bachelor's, The Citadel, 1975; law degree, LaSalle University, 1999 Campaign: www.swansonforsenate.com
Mark `No NCAA' Townsend:
Date of birth: Nov. 10, 1958; 49 Residence: Haleyville Political experience: Ran for state Board of Education, 2000, as Republican; ran for mayor, Bear Creek, 2000; ran for Democratic nomination for governor, 2002 Professional experience: Truck driver; formerly self-employed carpenter Education: Attended Itawamba Junior College, Fulton, Miss. Campaign: www.sessionsisasissy.com
Earl Mack Gavin:
Date of birth: March 11, 1941; 67 Residence: Lives in Smiths Station, grew up in the Union community in Geneva County Political experience: Ran as a Democrat for president of the Public Service Commission, 1976, Russell County tax collector, 1978, and state auditor, 2002; switched to Republican Party, 2008 Professional experience: Retired postal worker; served nearly four years in the U.S. Navy Education: Bachelor's, Auburn University, 1970
Date of birth: Dec. 24, 1946; 61 Residence: Mobile, grew up in Hybart community near Camden Political experience: Elected to U.S. Senate, 1996 and 2002; elected attorney general, 1994 Professional experience: Private practice, 1993-1994; U.S attorney, Mobile, 1981-1993; assistant U.S. attorney, 1975-1977; began law practice in Russellville Education: Bachelor's, Huntingdon College, 1969; law degree, University of Alabama, 1973 Campaign: www.sessionsforsenate.com