Alabama 3 Gets a Race

Fuller, Former Legislator and Commissioner, to Take on Rep. Rogers

Posted April 5, 2004 at 6:21pm

Amid a collective sigh of relief from state and national Democrats, former Alabama Department of Human Resources Commissioner Bill Fuller (D) filed paperwork to challenge Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) on Friday, the last day for candidates to qualify.

The last-minute recruitment of Fuller plugs a key gap for House Democrats in this cycle’s battleground map and averts the embarrassing potential for a virtually uncontested race against a freshman lawmaker only narrowly elected in the swing 3rd district two years ago.

Still, strategists say that Fuller is much more than just a warm body and are quick to tout his profile as a conservative Democrat who has the ability to raise the funds needed to make the contest competitive.

“He’s a top-flight candidate,” said John Anzalone, a Montgomery-based pollster who is helping Fuller get his campaign off the ground. “Here’s a guy with a very solid résumé. When you have a solid résumé you actually have the solid potential for fundraising.”

Anzalone said that Fuller had been considering the race for some time, and ultimately he decided that the confluence of Rogers’ freshman status and the demographics of the district created a situation too good to pass up.

“He saw this as a good opportunity,” Anzalone said.

And while Rogers’ aggressive off-year fundraising is among the factors credited with keeping several top-tier Democrats from making the race, his sizable war chest did not dissuade Fuller. Among the Democratic names floated in the district over the past year were Calhoun County Circuit Judge Joel Laird, state Rep. Richard Lindsey and Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright.

So far, Rogers has raised an estimated $1.4 million since coming to Congress. And while Republican acknowledge that Rogers won’t have a cakewalk in the rural, socially conservative district that was initially drawn to help elect a Democrat, they are also confident in his re-election prospects.

“The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] failed to get a top-tier candidate into this race,” said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Carl Forti. “This is Mike Rogers’ race to lose.”

In one of the closest open-seat races of last cycle, Rogers, a former state Representative and state House Minority Leader, defeated former state Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham, 50 percent to 48 percent.

National Democrats never enthusiastically embraced Turnham’s candidacy, and spent their resources accordingly in the final weeks before the election.

While Turnham’s showing was aided by a higher-than-average black voter turnout — spurred by the state’s hotly contested 2002 gubernatorial race — the outcome also reinforced the district’s Democratic underpinnings. The 3rd district has a 32 percent black population.

But while Turnham’s fundraising was a consistent source of disappointment for the national party, Democratic strategists expressed confidence in Fuller’s ability to bring in the needed resources.

“He has a great profile for the district and strong ties across the state that will help him put together the resources in order to make this a very competitive campaign. We’re very confident in that,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed. “Rogers had all the resources he could ask for last time and it didn’t prevent him from winning only by the skin of his teeth. This time around, Bill Fuller has a clear shot at Mike Rogers and plenty of time to put together the resources to win this seat for Democrats.”

While Turnham was forced to spend money in a competitive primary, neither Fuller nor Rogers have primary opponents this year.

Anzalone estimated Fuller would need to raise $1.5 million to be competitive in a district that spans three media markets: Montgomery, Birmingham and Columbus, Ga. Rogers spent $1.6 million in 2002; Turnham spent $1 million.

Fuller, who hails from LaFayette, Ala., served 18 years in the Alabama state House before being appointed Human Resources Commissioner by then-Gov. Don Siegelman (D) in 2000. While in the state Legislature Fuller chaired the House Judiciary Committee as well as the Ways and Means Committee, a factor that Anzalone and national Democrats believe will help him raise more in-state money than previous Democrats have.

“He has a huge credibility factor here that’s going to enable him to raise huge sums of money in a short period of time,” he said.

At the same time, his legislative record may also provide ammunition for Republicans.

“He’s also got a voting record and all state Representatives have things in their voting record that they’re not proud of,” Forti said.

Democratic strategists are quick to brandish what they see as Fuller’s bipartisan appeal and his reputation for working across party lines. He was first elected to the state House in 1983 as an Independent, and after now-Gov. Bob Riley (R) ousted Siegelman in 2002 Fuller was one of two Cabinet holdovers in the new Republican administration.

Fuller has already been in contact with the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, a group he hopes to join if elected.

Since stepping down from his Cabinet post in December 2003, Fuller has returned to private law practice and is also a candidate for divinity school at Samford University in Birmingham. Fuller has been a lay minister in the Methodist church for several years. The ability to continue his divinity education was one of the factors that led to his delayed decision on the campaign.

Elsewhere in the state, the filing deadline brought to light two potentially interesting primaries, even as the 3rd district contest is the only competitive general election Congressional race across the state this cycle.

In the 6th district Phillip Jauregui, the one-time defense attorney for Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, filed to run against six-term Rep. Spencer Bachus (R).

In announcing his bid, Jauregui said Congress has failed to protect the Constitution “from the lawless decrees of federal courts,” the Birmingham News reported.

Moore gained national notoriety last year when he erected a statue honoring the Ten Commandments in the state’s judicial building and then refused to move it.

If Jauregui is able to tap into Moore’s popularity with Christian conservatives — as well as his national fundraising base — Bachus could see a competitive race.

Still, Bachus has done little that would appear to leave him vulnerable to a challenge based primarily on Moore’s crusade to promote religion in government and against federal judges.

Bachus is the co-sponsor of legislation that would prohibit lawsuits challenging government displays of the Ten Commandments and to stop federal judges from hearing cases that question government’s acknowledgement of God.

Meanwhile, in the 7th district, Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. (D) will challenge freshman Rep. Artur Davis (D) in the primary. Turner is the son of a longtime civil rights activist.

Davis ousted Rep. Earl Hilliard (D) in a nasty 2002 primary battle, but at this point there is little evidence to suggest that Davis is vulnerable to defeat in the majority-black Birmingham-based district.

Last year, he released two polls conducted by Anzalone showing his re-election strength in the district.