It’s been almost 12 years since a Democrat held a major office in Alabama. After a recent tidal wave of elections of Republicans, many have written off the Democratic Party in Alabama. But, recently, there seems to be new energy among Democrats.
In April of last year, Mark Kennedy resigned as chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. He created a new foundation, the Alabama Democratic Majority. Kennedy’s split with party leadership wasn’t pretty, but the new foundation has political leaders talking. Les Lovoy reports on how Kennedy plans to get more folks who share his political philosophies elected, whether they’re Democrats or not.
Every Friday, about 10 to 30 local democrats attend an informal lunch at a local cafe in Inverness, a small community South of Birmingham. They chat about issues affecting the state and their party.
“Different factions if you will of the Democratic party, will solve itself,” says gathering regular Tom Owens. “But I think some of it comes with finding issues and solutions which resonate with people and help people in their daily lives.” Owens is referring to the ugly break between Mark Kennedy and the Alabama Democratic Party. Owens wonders if the acrimony between the two will ultimately help or hurt the party.
“Could we have a better relationship with the Alabama Democratic Party, absolutely,” explained Mark Kennedy, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Majority. But, I tell folks all the time like I tell my kids, when the house is on fire, that’s not the time to go out and plant flowers in the garden,” he continued. “Right now, the house is on fire for working class families in Alabama. And, we must seek and demand a change, and if it takes doing what I need to do, to support candidates that will create a new vision for the state, whether they be republican or democrat than I reserve to do what’s in the best interest of the family, rather what’s in the interest of any political party”
Kennedy’s first order of business is to elect a few Democrats to break the Republicans’ super majority. Beyond that, it’s to broaden the party’s base to include more young professionals, students and families of all races. He believes the current leadership of the party is ill equipped to reach these new potential voters. Political experts say an obstacle in expanding the party’s base is Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black wing of the party. Blacks comprise more than half of the voting public in a primary.
And, since Republicans have very little outreach to blacks, according to Natalie Davis, “The power in the Democratic Party has been wrested from white leadership to black leadership.” Davis is a professor of Political Science at Birmingham Southern College. “And, while Joe Reed, leads the Alabama Democratic Conference, is not the chair of the Democratic Party of Alabama, his power inside the party is vast, it’s deep and he has a hold on it.”
Nancy Whorley replaced Kennedy as the chair of the Alabama Democratic Party. She believes the discord between some power brokers in the Democratic Party and Reed is personal. She says the only people who consider him a hindrance are those who envy his position of influence within the party.
“I know there’s some jealousies there. I know there’s some people that can’t live with someone that’s built a very fine, very well tuned, well-oiled political organization,” Whorley explained. “And maybe my predecessor is one of those people who just can’t deal with somebody else having power. Maybe he wants all power himself.”
Joe Reed scoffs at those who complain about his clout within the party. But, as he sits behind his desk, he leans back in his chair, and smiles as he sizes up Kennedy’s new foundation.
“They call themselves the Democratic Majority. Majority of what?” Reed asks. “Where is he going to get his votes from? He’s going to elect Democrats. He says he going to help some independents. Say he going to help some republicans. So, where are your votes? In politics you have two things important. There’s votes and money. He’s begging money from other folks, and where are his votes? I don’t know.”
Not all democrats are focusing on this rift between Kennedy and the party.
“Mark Kennedy picking off a couple of seats in the legislature is a temporary fix. It’s like spraying bug spray on a couple of termites. It’s not getting into solving the problem,” explains Ed Saleva, the Alabama State Coordinator for the Progressive Democrats of America. He says anyone getting wrapped up in the Kennedy/Party saga is missing the big picture. He thinks the way for Democrats to gain a majority in state government lies in ending petty bickering and working as a team, for long-term success.
“Let’s get the progressives, let’s have a truce between the various factions, and let’s look at this as a 4, 6, 10 year thing,” Saleva says. “There’s no way Democrats are going to win in 2014. The only way they can do it is by educating the electorate and getting more voters on their side.”
Whether the rift between Kennedy and the party broadens or is bridged, some observers believe this is all just inside baseball for political junkies. Most voters are not interested in inter-party squabbles. What Alabama Democrats are seeking is some wins at the polls, no matter who may lead them there.