State party’s executive committee rejects recommendation to disqualify lesbian primary winner and her opponent
MONTGOMERY, Ala. Openly gay candidate Patricia Todd was reinstated Aug. 26 as the Democratic Party’s nominee for a seat in the Alabama Legislature in a vote that turned more on the race of the candidates than sexual orientation.
The Alabama Democratic Party Executive Committee voted 95-87, mostly along racial lines, to reject the ruling of a subcommittee that had voted to disqualify Todd, who is white, and her black opponent, Gaynell Hendricks, in the race for the House seat from Birmingham’s predominantly black District 54.
Todd defeated Hendricks by 59 votes in the July 18 party runoff election.
Jo Wyrick, executive director of the GLBT group National Stonewall Democrats, applauded the Alabama Democratic Party for having “done the right thing by upholding the will of the voters.”
“This was never really about race or even sexual orientation, but about the personal, petty politics of individuals who sought to divide Democrats along those lines for personal gain,” Wyrick said in a written statement release Aug. 26. “It is in the best interest of all Democrats to build a party that is inclusive of all Americans and free of divisive politics.”
The subcommittee had voted 5-0 that both candidates should be disqualified because they violated a party rule requiring candidates to file a campaign finance disclosure report with the party chairman.
Party chairman Joe Turnham said Aug. 26 that no candidate has filed a disclosure report with the party since 1988 when a law was adopted requiring candidates to file the disclosure forms with the state.
“I am relieved this is over so I can get to work helping the people of my district,” Todd said after the meeting. She said she was not discouraged by the opposition to her nomination.
“This was a healthy Democratic vote,” Todd said.
The committee vote pitted vice chairman Joe Reed, a powerful black political leader, against other party officials. Reed had written a letter to black leaders in Jefferson County before the July 18 runoff asking them to support Hendricks so that a black would be elected from the majority black district.
The vote fell mostly along racial lines. Committee members were asked to stand to show their vote and no whites were seen standing to vote to uphold the subcommittee report, while a small number of blacks stood in support of Todd.
The vote came at the end of a tense meeting where supporters of both Todd and Hendricks crammed into a ballroom at a Montgomery hotel and frequently interrupted with cheers or shouts.
The loudest cheers from Todd’s supporters and boos from Hendricks’ side came during a passionate speech by Todd’s attorney Bobby Segall, who also often represents the Democratic Party.
Segall asked the committee members to forget race and politics and to do the right thing.
“I want to be able to walk down the street with my head held high and say I’m proud to be a member of the Democratic Party,” Segall said. “Real Democrats do not selectively apply the law against one person for the purpose of injustice.”
Segall pointed out none of the party’s nominees for the Nov. 7 general election complied with the party rule and that disqualifying Todd might encourage someone to file a lawsuit challenging the party’s nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, and other candidates.
There is not a Republican candidate in the District 54 race, which means it appears Todd will become the state’s first openly gay legislator. But one Hendricks supporter, Birmingham activist Frank Matthews, said he expects there will be a write-in candidate in the race in the Nov. 7 general election.
The appeal of Todd’s primary victory was filed by Hendricks mother-in-law, Mattie Childress. Her attorney, Raymond Johnson, said Aug. 26 that a decision had not been made on whether to appeal the executive committee vote in court.
Earlier, he urged committee members to uphold the decision to disqualify Todd because she did not follow the party rule and was also late filing her financial disclosure form with the Alabama Secretary of State. Hendricks has said that by filing late, Todd kept voters from knowing that she received a $25,000 donation from the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
“The voters want to have as much information available before they vote as possible,” Johnson said. The subcommittee had based its decision on the violation of the party rule. Party officials said the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that a candidate can’t be disqualified if he or she files a state disclosure form before the election.
In a written statement released Aug. 26 after the vote in Alabama, Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said that through the executive committee’s decision, “the voters have prevailed.”
“We are enormously proud of the courage and tenacity Patricia showed throughout this ordeal, and equally proud of her supporters in Alabama and beyond who stood by her unfailingly,” Wolfe said.
A dramatic point in the meeting came just minutes before the committee voted, when veteran legislator and civil rights worker Rep. Alvin Holmes stood and urged the committee not to use a technicality to disqualify Todd, a tactic he said has often been used in the South to disqualify black candidates.
Holmes and Reed are longtime allies and when Holmes first got up to speak some of Todd’s supporters grumbled and started to boo. But by the time he finished, they were cheering and clapping.
Reed said he was not upset with the vote: “I knew going in it was going to be very close and the party has spoken,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.