Long Line Waits for a Davis Decision

Hilliard Jr. Among Those Who Might Run for Alabama Seat in 2010

Posted January 28, 2009 at 6:08pm

With Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (D) expected to announce his intention to run for governor as early as next week, speculation is already under way as to who might run to replace the four-term Congressman in his west-central 7th district.

Davis has said that he will make an announcement about his political future in early February, but a gubernatorial bid is viewed as increasingly likely, especially after his camp released a poll Monday night that showed the Congressman running ahead or very close to three credible Republican candidates in hypothetical matchups.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) has served two terms and can’t run again in 2010. If elected, Davis would be Alabama’s first black governor.

But while potential Davis successors have kept a low profile while the Congressman has pondered a gubernatorial run, a few candidates are already laying the groundwork for an open-seat race.

The 7th district is a Democratic stronghold deep in the heart of Dixie, which means the real race for the seat will take place in the primary.

The majority black district was created in 1992 and was represented for five terms by Rep. Earl Hilliard (D), until Davis beat him in the 2002 Democratic primary. Davis did not face a Republican challenger in his last two general elections.

Of the several members of the state Legislature who have been mentioned as possible Davis replacements, the most intriguing may be state Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr. (D), the son of the former Congressman.

The younger Hilliard was elected to his Birmingham-based seat in 2006. An attorney who has also dabbled in filmmaking, Hilliard attended the University of Alabama School of Law.

In an interview Wednesday, Hilliard acknowledged his interest in running in an open-seat race in 2010.

“We are definitely looking into it. It is an exciting opportunity,” he said.

Davis’ office declined to comment on Wednesday about any of the potential candidates who might follow the Congressman in the 7th district.

The 2002 primary was a heated and nasty affair with overtones of the Middle East conflict between Arabs and Jews. Also during that race, Davis made the case that the incumbent Congressman had done little to help the economically disadvantaged “Black Belt” in west Alabama.

But the younger Hilliard said he bears no residual animosity toward Davis from that campaign.

“We don’t have any bad blood to my knowledge,” he said. “I’ll admit we don’t have necessarily a political relationship, but there have been several times when we’ve been on the same team,” such as their work in the state during the 2008 cycle to get President Barack Obama elected.

Other Democratic state legislators whose names have been floated as possible candidates in the 7th include state Rep. Merika Coleman and state Sen. Rodger Smitherman, who both hail from Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located. State Sen. Bobby Singleton, whose senate district includes parts of Tuscaloosa and rural counties south and west, has also been mentioned.

But the list of names doesn’t end at the Alabama Statehouse.

Birmingham attorney Terri Sewell, a longtime associate of Davis’ who attended Princeton University at the same time as first lady Michelle Obama, is expected to run in an open-seat race in the 7th.

Sewell “is in if the Congressman is running for governor,” said a source close to Sewell’s campaign. “She’s already gathering a campaign team.”

Another candidate mentioned in Democratic circles is Sheila Smoot, a two-term Jefferson County commissioner who is also known for her work as a former television news anchor.

“I am definitely considering … making a strong run for [Davis’] seat,” Smoot said on Wednesday.

She praised the work Davis has done as a Congressman and said she and others wish he would stay put. But if he goes, she said she is ready to step up and is already putting together an exploratory committee for a Congressional bid.

“If he leaves, we need a strong person and strong advocate for those folks in the Black Belt and the 7th Congressional district,” she said.

A spokesman for the Alabama Republican Party said the GOP won’t completely ignore an open-seat race in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, but a Republican field has yet to emerge in the 7th district.

“It’s a little too early for us to tell,” Communications Director Philip Bryan said.

In the 2004 presidential election, the 7th voted overwhelmingly for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by nearly 30 points. Former Vice President Al Gore won the district by an even larger margin in 2000.

“Past history tells us Republicans don’t have a shot in that district,” state Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Spearman said Wednesday.