Democratic runoff for 7th Congressional District seat could be historic
WASHINGTON -- The Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District will be something brand new in Alabama congressional politics: a black woman in her 40s, educated up north, with Black Belt roots.
The question is, which one?
Birmingham lawyer Terri Sewell and Jefferson County Commissioner Shelia Smoot were the top two vote-getters in the four-way primary Tuesday, beating out state Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr. and Martha Bozeman. Their runoff is July 13, meaning the pair will have the next six weeks to appeal to voters in the massive 12-county district that includes parts of Birmingham and most of west Alabama.
Sewell led the field with 37 percent of the vote. Smoot was second with 29 percent. Either would be the first woman to represent the state in Congress since the 1970s, and the first black woman ever.
While their biographies are similar, their campaign strategies were starkly different. Sewell, 45, was the least known candidate in the field but leaned on her legal and political connections, especially through Emily's List, and raised vast sums from across the country to finance an extensive and positive series of television commercials.
Smoot, 46, is a familiar face in the district, a former television journalist in Birmingham who was twice elected to the Jefferson County Commission. She ran a shoe-leather, low-budget campaign.
The congressional seat, drawn to increase the chances of electing a black to Congress, came open when U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, ran for governor. It was the only congressional district in the state to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and is considered a Democratic stronghold.
Smoot and Sewell both said in interviews Wednesday that they were trying to contact third-place finisher Hilliard. The son of the former congressman received nearly 23,000 votes and the backing of many labor groups and organizations representing forestry and farmers, and his endorsement could be a significant factor.
"I think his voters are my voters," said Smoot. Although she was critical of Sewell's out-of-state fundraising, Smoot said she would be ramping up efforts to expand her donor base for the runoff, too.
"Nothing against national money, but my opponent has sizable dollars coming in from around the country and that's great, but technically Alabamians want to know if you can raise money here," Smoot said.
Smoot also revealed an emerging strategy -- challenging whether Sewell, a bond lawyer, is qualified to serve in Congress.
"You can bill people. I build things," Smoot said about her work as a county commissioner. "My opponent talks about what she can potentially do, well, I've already done those things. I've done job creation; I helped keep Coo
per Green Hospital open . . . I was the commissioner responsible for pulling in federal dollars." Sewell in an earlier interview said she specifically focused on bond work to help Black Belt communities finance infrastructure projects that, in turn, help recruit businesses.
On Wednesday, Sewell complimented the field for running a positive campaign and said her success was not based on high-dollar advertising alone. "We've gone door-to-door and church-to-church and that will continue," Sewell said.
She is mindful of the history-making potential to be the first black woman from Alabama in Congress; her mother was the first on the Selma City Council.
"At the end of the day it's about the people of (the) 7th District and making sure their voices are heard, and making history takes a backseat to being able to effectively represent the district," Sewell said.
In Tuesday's primary, 84 percent of the voters in the district selected the Democratic ballot and the Democrat is the heavy favorite in the general election. But there also is a runoff in the Republican primary between Don Chamberlain, 63, and Chris Salter, 29.