Race in 7th Congressional District could eventually send first black woman from Alabama to Capitol Hill
By Thomas Spencer, Birmingham News
Arguably one of the most consequential races on Tuesday’s ballot is the Democratic run-off between lawyer Terri Sewell and Shelia Smoot, the Jefferson County commissioner who is giving up her seat for a shot at representing Alabama’s 7th District in the U.S. Congress.
Though Republicans Don Chamberlain and Chris Salter also face off Tuesday for a shot at the seat, the winner of the Democratic contest will more than likely win November’s general election and become Alabama’s first black congresswoman. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic: 84 percent of the voters in the district, which covers sections of Birmingham, Bessemer and Tuscaloosa along with most of the counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, selected the Democratic ballot in the June primary.
Sewell is a Selma native who was educated at Princeton University and Harvard Law School and now is a bond lawyer at Birmingham’s Maynard Cooper and Gale. The political newcomer hopes to continue the momentum that took her from political unknown to the top vote getter in the June primary, when she garnered 37 percent of the vote.
Stressing the need for further health care reforms, including a public option insurance plan, Sewell said she would support President Barack Obama’s agenda in Congress. “The president needs a partner,” Sewell told a crowd this week at a town hall meeting at the West End branch of the Birmingham Public Library.
Her opponent, Smoot, is running on her “Smoot On your Side” slogan, hearkening back to her days as a television news reporter who worked on a consumer advocacy segment. She hopes her name identification and record in Jefferson County will help her add to the 29 percent of the vote she got in the primary, by picking up the 22 percent of voters who went with Earl Hilliard Jr. She’s also trying to turn Sewell’s massive fundraising advantage into a negative.
Sewell has raised more than $1 million, compared to Smoot’s $150,000. Smoot charges that Sewell’s money is coming from out of state, from the same “Republicans” that supported Artur Davis. Davis, the four-term congressman for the district, voted against Obama’s health care initiative in the midst of his ill-fated campaign for Alabama governor, a vote that many staunch Democrats viewed as a betrayal. Davis was soundly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor by Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
Smoot calls Sewell, “Artur Davis in a dress.” Alluding to the allegations during a West End town hall meeting, Sewell said she has been a lifelong Democrat, helping her mother in a successful campaign to be the first black woman elected to the Selma City Council. She also was prominent in Obama’s Alabama campaign and served as one of his delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
“The citizens of the Seventh Congressional District want us to focus on the issues. So that is what I have been concentrating on,” Sewell said. “I’m focused on solutions.”
In the final week leading up to Tuesday’s vote, accusations and counter-accusations have been flying. Sewell sent out a mailer that featured a state audit’s finding that Smoot was issued a county car while also drawing a car allowance. Smoot said the county has disputed that audit finding, saying the county-issued car was never driven by her but instead was driven by someone on her staff.
Smoot has charged that Sewell attended a dinner gathering of Republican women after leaving a Democratic function. Sewell’s campaign said Sewell ate with her mother that night at a gathering of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Margie George, a member of the Republican group in question, said she doesn’t recall Sewell ever attending an event.
Smoot also alleges that Sewell only registered to vote in recent years. Sewell did change her registration to Birmingham two years ago, Sewell’s campaign said, but she long ago registered in Dallas County and voted there in person and absentee. The Sewell campaign provided a copy of her voter registration from 1984, when she was 19.
The candidates do agree, however, on the vital role turnout will play in deciding the election. Turnout was depressed in the primary and is expected to be even lower in the runoff. An effort to mobilize members of the teacher’s union to vote in the Republican gubernatorial runoff also may have an unpredictable effect.