In this my inaugural post, I will take a look at the upcoming (Aug 27) showdown as Doug Jones and Joe Turnham vie for the chairmanship of the AL Democratic Party.
Though we should know who the next chair will be over the weekend, there are still a few points to be made about the process itself. Contrast the Democratic race with the coronation of Twinkle Andress-Cavanaugh by the AL GOP in February. Now that is not to say that Twinkle will ultimately be a better chair, but the GOP process sure was alot neater and nicer. Twinkle's uncontested ascension is even more impressive given the assumed looming Riley/Roy bloodbath staring down the GOP in 06, not to mention the intraparty unpleasantness that took place in the 04 primaries (Parker/Brown and Zeigler/Hooper, anyone?). So I am not sure what it says about the two parties, but there is something to be learned from their respective chair races.
But on to the upcoming. Though former state legislator Tom Radney is keeping his name in the mix, the two serious candidats for state Democratic chair are former state chair and twice defeated congressional candidate Joe Turnham and former US attorney and Siegelman friend Doug Jones. Turnham has been running hard for the position since Pitt announced his resignation in mid July, while Jones just declared for the position a little more than a week ago. Unsuprisingly Turnham has had a chance to accrue a good deal more public support in that time. In fact, I've seen some reports of Turnham claiming 41 members of the state legislature (among them Speaker Hammett) and various county committees. This would seem like a pretty significant headstart for Turnham. However, Jones seems likely to assume alot of the support that erstwhile candidate Giles Perkins had lined up in his aborted bid. Perkins and Jones are friends and more importantly are both usually identified within the Siegelman camp.
Yes, even though Siegelman has been out of elective office for two and a half years, he seems to be the defining issue in the chair race. During Turnham's previous term as state chair he and Siegelman were not viewed as allies, whereas Doug Jones has assissted the Siegelman defense team in the ex-governor's legal battles. Indeed, for Democrats this chair race seems to be shaping up as a dry run for the 2006 governor's primary with an anti-Don camp and a pro-Don camp. Turnham would seem to be well positioned to snatch power away from the Siegelman forces, but they have been ruling the state party for the last 6 years and seem unlikely to go down without a fight.
However, I would not be especially optimistic about my new chairman if I were a Democrat. I should say that I don't really think the state chair has much impact positive or negative on actual electoral success. Certainly fundraising is a primary responsibility and navigating the minefields of a major political party requires a certain level of acumen, but in reality electoral fortunes are only minimally affected by who is the state party chairman. That being said, Democrats should want the strongest chair possible, and I just don't see much to get excited about in the Turnham/Jones race. It is fundamentally a matchup of a slightly bitter retread (Turnham) and a Redding Pitt clone (Jones). Now both are loyal Democrats, accomplished, and bright, but I don't see a transformational leader in there anywhere. This seems like a race of Status Quo #1 vs Status Quo #2. Now for some political parties that might be ideal (GA GOP or IL Dems maybe) but for the Alabama Democrats the last thing they need is more status quo.
It is no secret that Joe Turnham already served one term as state chair. But I've seen no mention of his actual perfomance during that time. Indeed, an Alabama Democrat with a long memory probably won't remember Joe Turnham's previous term with much fondness. Turnham was state chair during the 1996 elections which saw Democrats lose a US Senate seat (Heflin), two US House seats (Bevill, Browder) and saw GOPer Harold See win a high profile state Supreme Court race to become the first elected GOP supreme court justice ever. Now, as I said above probably very little of this debacle can be attributed to Turnham, but it seems foolish to totally gloss over arguably the worst election cycle the AL Democratic party has ever seen when one if its architects wants to run the show again.
Democrats should also not forget Turnham's 2002 bid for Congress. In most ways his run was a valiant one, though he ultimately lost to Mike Rogers. However, in the aftermath of his loss he blamed the national Democratic party and its various committees for not offering more financial support. I think his criticism is probably warranted and had the party funded his race more fully he'd probably be a member of Congress. Yet it is a little disconcerting that his Achilles' heel in that race was a lack of funding when fundraising is probably the most important fucntion of a state chairman. More than that though, Turnham still seems a little bitter over his 2002 loss. Just take a look at his appeal to Democratic Executive Committee
members (who actually vote on the chair):
"With less than two weeks to go in the 2002 General Election, I stood on the corner near my home in Auburn, Alabama as Marine One landed 2 miles away. President George W. Bush walked onto the campus of Auburn University in full regalia for the purpose of helping and endorsing my republican opponent for Congress, Mike Rogers. Ironically, only days before, the national Democratic Party (DCCC) pulled campaign ads, money and support for my campaign. In the end,I lost a close election by 3,800 votes out of 190,000 - in part as a result of these two occurrences."
And while I don't disagree with his analysis, I do think he still carries some bitterness from that campaign. I can fully understand such an emotion, but I don't think most Democrats want a chairman with an ax to grind against his own party.
Lest I be accused of favoritism let me link to Doug Jones' appeal to the SDEC as well. Jones' letter is pretty standard stuff with a few generic "ideas" by which to strengthen the party. Since Jones has had a limited role in Democratic politics (other than an aborted Senate run in 2002 and a member on the SDEC), he is more of a blank slate than Turnham. As I said above, I am sure both of these candidates are solid Democrats and only want the best for the party, but neither of them strikes me as the type of chair that will bring anything new to the help the Democratic party regain some of the traction it has lost since the mid 1990s.
My prediction is that Turnham will win and do a serviceable job. Ultimately the next chair will be judged by elections won and lost. Certainly the governor's race will be an opportunity for the next chair to prove himself. And he, and all Democrats, should take comfort that the governor's office does seem within Democratic grasp.