Alabama Senate Race In-Play – Contrary to Analysis

I just read the Analysis on the Alabama Race which has been dedicated as Tier III by your site.  I will offer my own analysis as to why that is incorrect and hope to encourage readers and bloggers to take note and possibly even donate a little pocket change.  

First of all there are several reasons why this race should be more closely examined

1. There have been a lot of campaign activities since March 27, contrary to what the report read. There have been fundraisers and grassroots events all over the State. Perhaps the main reason that there has not been more notice is that Vivian Figures has been involved in the state legislative sessions much of the past few months. Furthermore, Senator Figures has received a lot of attention for her sponsorship of a bill to ban smoking in most public places. This is a very important health issue and extremely popular with citizens over the state.

2. Sessions voted against the GI Bill.

As a article from the Tuscaloosa News said today, “In doing so, Sessions, who is up for reelection this year just may have handed his likely opponent, state Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, a campaign issue on a silver platter.

Bush and his die hard congressional supporters contend that passage of the bill would hurt retention of troops by giving them incentives to leave the military earlier than otherwise, since they currently don’t qualify for educational benefits until longer stints in the military.

Proponents say it is just the opposite — by promising tuition aid after only three years, more patriotic young men and women would be more likely to enlist since they could realize their dreams of attending college sooner than is now the case. Such enlistments would more than make up for those who leave service “early” under the new benefit package, both the Congressional Budget Office and the supporters of the bill say.

Veterans benefits are becoming very important nationwide and especially the South.

3. There has been a lot of movement in Southern races as evidenced by the special election races. This will be further helped by Obama increasing turnout as well as rising gas prices and a troubled economy.

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AL-Sen: This Is What a Democrat Looks Like

The Associated Press picks up on what could be a surprisingly lively Senate race in Alabama next year, profiling the potential candidacies of three Democrats: state Sen. Vivian Figures, retired Jefferson County District Judge Pete Johnson, and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.

Of all the potential candidates, though, it’s Ron Sparks who seems like the most fearless campaigner:

Sparks, who’s serving his second term as agriculture commissioner and can’t run again, said he’s received lots of encouragement to seek the office and is giving it serious thought.

Sparks said a review of Sessions’ voting record indicates there would be plenty for a Democrat to talk about, including Sessions’ push for a repeal of the estate tax.

“Only 1 percent of Americans would have benefited; 99 percent would not have,” Sparks said.

In one breath, Sparks makes it clear why he’s a Democrat, and lets it be known that while on the campaign trail, he won’t be tempering his core Democratic principles of economic fairness and progressive populism.  That’s what a Democrat looks like, and that’s the kind of scrappy, tough campaign that will be needed if Democrats hope to reconnect with Southern voters.  Recall that Sessions attempted to exploit the deaths of Katrina victims in order to build support for repealing the estate tax, so a Democrat could be well-poised to expose Sessions’ perverse values.

If Ron Sparks decides to run, the article also notes that he has a leg up on the competition:

As agriculture commissioner, he has been in the news more than some of his predecessors, including promoting agricultural trade with Cuba and showing he can cross party lines to work with Republicans on pushing alternative fuels and improving child nutrition.

Sparks said he will decide in a few months whether to enter the race. But if he does, he’s not concerned about ending up like [2002 candidate Susan] Parker did with fundraising.

“From six years ago, the atmosphere has changed completely,” he said.

Indeed, the atmosphere has changed dramatically in six years.  Six years ago, there was no collaborative Sack Sessions blog, or a Facebook group with over 200 members dedicated to unseating the Senator.  And while Dick Cheney recently stopped by the state to help fill Sessions’ coffers with an extra $500,000, I bet there wouldn’t have been this many negative letters to the editor had Cheney visited in 2002.

Race Tracker: AL-Sen

AL-Sen: Ron Sparks Reacts to Blog Buzz

Good news travels fast.  Ron Sparks, our potential challenger to Republican Senator Jeff Sessions next year, is already addressing questions in the local media about the recent blog buzz surrounding his rumored bid:

Sparks was elected to his second term as commissioner last year, winning 62 of the state’s 67 counties. Recently, several political blogs have begun pointing to Sparks as the leading contender to challenge Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions in the 2008 elections. Sparks acknowledged he was aware of the speculation and said he was not ready to rule anything out regarding his future political ambitions.

“We’re not taking out any possibilities,” Sparks said. “The people of Alabama know my record … and what I stand for versus the people in office now.”

Sparks said he would discuss the possibility of a Senate run with his advisors and hopes to make a decision in a “few weeks or months.”

Feisty.  And speaking of blog buzz, let’s take a moment to survey some of the Alabama netroots’ takes on a Sparks for Senate bid.

Captain Plaid:

Ron Sparks can serve up some genuine populism that would give him a serious shot in Alabama. If the damned consultants don’t Dino him to death I really expect he could take old Jeffy out. Run Ron Run!

The Haze Filter:

Can Ron Sparks defeat Jeff Sessions?

I think he can if we can show enough Alabama citizens how he is more progressive for the everyday concerns of Alabamians. For me this is a beginning for my support for Ron Sparks to run against Jeff Sessions and I want to emphasize that this is nothing more than a beginning with high hopes!

Between the Links (non-partisan):

I do, however, plan to vote for Alabama’s senator in 2008, and I would rather write in my cat, “Spook E. Cat” than vote for Sessions. I don’t know a whole lot about Ron Sparks except that his name is on gas pumps, but if he’s at all intelligent, I’ll welcome a Democrat I can vote for.

Birmingham Blues, and Doc’s Political Parlor also chimed in.

Additionally, a site called Sack Sessions has just sprouted up, and they’re looking to recruit local bloggers for “a collaborative effort of the Alabama netroots created to assist in the electoral defeat of Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III (R-AL)”.  Sounds like it could be fun to me!

Race Tracker: AL-Sen

AL-Sen: Sparks Continue to Fly in Alabama

On Monday, we profiled the potential Senate candidacy of Alabama Agriculture and Industry Commissioner Ron Sparks against Jeff Sessions in 2008.  As you know, we feel that Sparks may be the one guy who can make the Alabama Senate race an interesting, and perhaps even competitive, race next year.  The response so far has been very encouraging–both from the netroots and from state and national Democratic leaders.

The Swing State Project doesn’t want to let up.  I’ve asked Trent over at the Alabama Democratic Party to see if he could dig up any old Ron Sparks campaign commercials, and he kindly obliged with these two TV spots from his 2006 re-election campaign:

As you can tell, Ron Sparks has built up a record of results for the people of Alabama, something that will be an asset to him should he take on Sessions.  There was one comment in the DailyKos discussion of a potential Sparks bid that caught my eye, from countrycat:

Another aspect of his grassroots support that many people aren’t familiar with is this little newspaper that goes out from the Alabama Ag Department every month.

It’s called the “Alabama Farmers & Consumers Bulletin.”  You can get free subscriptions if you live in a rural area (which we do)- and it’s a hoot.  People can place free ads for mules, farm equipment, swap heirloom seeds, etc.

The front page of each paper contains a personal letter from Sparks about what the department has been doing to help farmers and consumers. They’re great and focus on food safety, new markets, the dangers of uncontrolled growth, etc.

This is just the kind of “under the radar” stuff that helps a candidate build a statewide organization.  People know his name, know him, and like him.

The bulletin, which can be viewed online here, reaches 50,000 readers a month.

In a lot of states, Democrats running in statewide races have to overcome severe deficits in rural areas.  While Sparks would still have his work cut out for him in a Senate campaign, he already has built up a relationship with the rural and agrarian constituencies in Alabama through his populist approach.  That name recognition and positive association gives Sparks a leg up over virtually any other potential Democratic challenger to Sessions.

Will Sparks take the plunge and throw his hat in the ring against Sessions?  I can’t give you an answer there, but I can tell you that Monday’s netroots buzz was warmly received by the Alabama Democratic Party, the DSCC, and even Sparks himself.  Stay tuned.

AL-Sen: Introducing Ron Sparks

Alabama’s junior Senator, Republican Jeff Sessions, hasn’t made the usual shortlists of targeted Republican incumbents in most of the preliminary “battle plans” for the Senate Democrats’ 2008 campaign strategy for obvious reasons: with rare exceptions, Democrats have fared pretty poorly in Southern Senate elections, and even worse in the Deep South.  But mounting serious challenges to Senators like Sessions can pay off with dividends elsewhere, even if such campaigns don’t score explicit victories.  Lighting brushfires behind supposedly Republican lines has the potential to stretch NRSC and RNC resources to the breaking point, all in a critical Presidential election year.  And, of course: you can’t ever expect to win if you don’t even show up.

Let’s start with Jeff Sessions of Alabama.  Sessions, as you may recall, is an extremely conservative Senator whose career highlights include being a staunch advocate for the partial privatization of social security as well as attempting to exploit the deaths of Katrina victims in order to build support for his pet cause, repealing the Estate Tax. 

So where do we go from here?  Is there an Alabama Democrat credible enough to mount a respectable challenge to Sessions–a challenge that’s strong enough to turn some heads on the national scene, and maybe, just maybe has an outside shot of delivering a deep South victory for the Democratic Party?  Meet the man who could make it happen: Ron Sparks.

Ron Sparks has been Alabama’s Agriculture and Industry Commissioner since he was elected in 2002 over his Republican opponent by a 51-46 margin.  In 2006, he was one of Alabama’s top vote getters, enjoying a 59-41 victory while winning 62 of the state’s 67 counties.  During his first term in office, he secured new trade markets for the state in Cuba, improved Alabama’s school lunch system from a grade of F to a B-plus (you can see Sparks’ video message on YouTube), moved to protect Alabama’s water resources, and generally served as a hard-nosed consumer safety advocate.  His successful tenure allowed him to build a broad coalition of support, from the Alabama Education Association, to the conservative Alabama Farmers Federation (which endorses very few Democrats), to the AFL-CIO and the Business Council of Alabama.  And he was able to build this coaltion all while being a fiery, populist Democrat.

Sparks is generally regarded as one of the Alabama Democratic Party’s strongest stump speakers.  Sparks is an authentic son of Alabama, and you can see it in his upbringing: he didn’t just come from a family of mill workers, he was one himself, working alongside his grandmother in the local sock mills while in high school.  During a stump speech, he easily weaves in themes of progressive populism that strike the right chords with Alabama’s grassroots, reminding them why their daddies and granddaddies were Democrats–and why, even though the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee since 1976, Democrats have a three-point edge in partisan identification according to the latest Gallup polling.

Just to give you a taste, here’s Sparks on issues of economic justice during the fall of 2006:

“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the $3 a gallon gasoline. I’m tired of seeing Exxon-Mobile bringing out these $10 billion profits. I’ll tell you something: There’s something wrong when you pay an executive, a CEO of a large company, $28,000 an hour,” Sparks said to applause. “We haven’t increased minimum wage in this country since 1997. We had a minimum wage in Washington, and they tied the estate tax to it.”

He said the estate tax would give Vice President Dick Cheney a $61 million break and President Bush a $6.2 million break. Meanwhile, 7.3 million people work for minimum wage and 8.2 million work for a dollar over minimum wage, he said.

“It’s not about the working people when you tie those two types of legislation together,” Sparks said.


“Pour it on, brother,” someone shouted, starting applause.

“The cost of living has increased 8.1 percent,” Sparks said, adding that Americans are not saving anymore and that people are only saving at a pace that is the slowest since the Great Depression. 

“The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer,” Sparks said.


The nation is No. 1 among developed nations in poverty – and in billionaires, he said. Sparks said 37 million Americans live in poverty and 25 million go through food banks every day.

“That’s wrong,” he said, saying Democrats have to get that message out and what they stand for.

On treating America’s veterans with respect:

“Things are not getting better in this country. You know, we’ve got a president who marched us off to war with no plan. I’m a veteran. I served this country. But there is something wrong when you carry your soldiers into battle and won’t give them the tools to fight with,” he said to applause.

“Don’t send these young men and women across the water to fight for our freedom in this country when you won’t give them a gun to fight with and you won’t give them a bullet-proof vest.

“Then when they come home, you don’t want to give them what they deserve. That’s wrong, ladies and gentlemen,” Sparks said, starting more applause.

And on dealing with the dreaded “L-word”:

“Sometimes people say, `Commissioner, why do you get so emotional?’ Because I’m sick and tired of people taking a simple word and spinning it and making us look like we’re bad. Let me tell you something: I’m not ashamed of people saying, `Commissioner, you’re a liberal,'” Sparks said, creating more applause.

He said he was taught by his grandmother that when people were less fortunate, you should help them and that everyone deserves the same education and healthcare.

“If that’s a liberal, then I’m a liberal. They need to quit spinning it, folks, and we need to step up to the battle,” Sparks said to more applause.

Like what you hear?  So do I.  And so does General Wesley Clark, who has become close friends with Sparks over the past several years–so much so that Clark agreed to preside over Spark’s swearing-in ceremony earlier this year.  His comment at the time:

“Ron Sparks is the epitome of a true public servant,” said General Clark.  “In the four years he’s been in office, Ron has transformed the Department of Agriculture and Industries into a cutting edge, consumer oriented agency.  He’s a real innovator and I am proud to be a part of this ceremony for such a forward thinking leader and dedicated servant of the people of Alabama.”

Sparks’ name has popped up in the past few months as a potential opponent to Sessions, but my sources at the Alabama Democratic Party tell me that such a run is looking more and more possible.  While Sparks would love to be Governor of Alabama some day, Folsom is the favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2010 and Sparks would never want to challenge his friend and colleague in a primary.  Since Sparks is term-limited as Agriculture & Industry Commissioner, his other option would be to run for the Lt. Governor’s office and wait out a hypothetical Folsom administration.  Since the position is largely ceremonial in Alabama, such a course might be unappealing to a man of action like Sparks.  Another possibility would be to keep his powder dry on the national scene next year and run for Richard Shelby’s Senate seat in the event of a retirement in 2010, but he could face stiff opposition from Artur Davis in the primary and possibly Gov. Bob Riley in the general.  Insiders have been persuading Sparks that a run in 2008 would be a good move, and I’m inclined to agree.  For one thing, even if Sparks loses, a valiant effort would raise his profile and could earn him the right to a clear path to the Democratic nomination should Shelby retire in 2010.

While it would be one hell of an uphill battle, Ron Sparks is just the kind of guy we need to put Republican defenses to the test in even the reddest of the red states next year.  And Sessions is hardly an institution in Alabama: his 52-35 approval rating is solid on the surface, but it’s still nothing remarkable–especially when you consider that he scores a 46% approval rating from African-Americans, and it is virtually guaranteed that Sessions will score far less than 46% of the black vote in November 2008.  While national Democrats have not had much success in Alabama, Sparks’ brand of economic populism and down-home authenticity could potentially deliver a rare spectacle: a competitive Deep South Senate race where the Republicans are forced to play defense.  If you happen to agree, please consider name-dropping Sparks on the new Senate recruitment form on the DSCC’s web site.

Race Tracker: AL-Sen