Sewell's committee assignments emerge as campaign issue
WASHINGTON – Rep. Terri Sewell's legislative portfolio has undergone dramatic changes during her last two years in Congress.
Instead of agriculture and science, Sewell's homework assignments now deal with banking and the nation's intelligence agencies. The changes reflect Sewell's move to new committees — and they have a lot to do with why she faces a challenger in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Former Birmingham city attorney Tamara Harris Johnson says Sewell, running for a third term, is focused too much on corporate interests and not enough on the economic struggles of the majority-black 7th Congressional District.
The district, which includes portions of western Montgomery County, part of Birmingham and most of western Alabama, is one of the poorest in the country. Unemployment rates are persistently high and the district's rural areas lack access to health care and public transportation. The district is heavily Democratic, and there are no Republicans running for Sewell's seat.
Sewell, who moved in January 2013 to the Financial Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is now immersed in issues ranging from the National Security Agency's bulk collection of communications data to monetary policy.
She has sponsored legislation to create tax-exempt savings accounts for small businesses and tax credits to encourage businesses to hire more apprentices, but the legislation hasn't gotten traction. So she's shifted to a more local approach, sponsoring job training workshops and job fairs around the district.
"It's a way to connect the job seekers with the employers," Sewell said in a recent interview while visiting churches in Montgomery.
Median unemployment in the district's 14 counties was 13.9 percent when Sewell took office in January 2011. Today, it's 9.8 percent. Unemployment in several counties, however, remains over 10 percent. That includes Wilcox County, at 15.5 percent, according to the most recent data from the Alabama Department of Labor.
"It's not where we want to be, so I hope to go back to Washington to continue to make progress," said Sewell, an attorney from Birmingham and the sole Democrat in Alabama's congressional delegation.
Johnson, who was city attorney when Bernard Kincaid was mayor of Birmingham, says job fairs aren't the answer to unemployment.
"Her job is not to be the employment agency, it's to bring jobs to your district," Johnson said of Sewell. "There are not enough jobs for the people who want to work."
Chinese-owned Golden Dragon Copper is about to open a new manufacturing facility in Wilcox County and is expected to hire about 300 people. State officials provided incentives to lure the company to the area, but Sewell said her office also has a role to play — in making sure job candidates are adequately trained.
"I'm making sure that Golden Dragon actually holds to its word that the majority of folks hired are from Thomasville, Camden, and that area," Sewell said.
Johnson calls farm policy the "life blood" of the 7th District and says Sewell was wrong to leave the House Agriculture Committee after only one term. Sewell also left the Science, Space and Technology Committee last year.
Still, she has won the endorsement of the Alabama Farmers Federation and continues to work on farm issues, especially those related to proper labeling of imported fish that compete with catfish raised in the U.S. She supported the five-year farm bill that was signed into law in February.
Sewell and Johnson, who are both black, differ most prominently on the issue of diversity in the federal courts. They agree there aren't enough black federal judges in Alabama — there's only one black judge on active status in the state — but disagree on whether Sewell has done enough to change that.
A judicial vacancy in Birmingham last year was filled by a white woman who was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Alabama Democratic Party recommended the White House appoint Johnson to the seat, but Sewell did not recommend Johnson.
Johnson said her candidacy isn't a case of "sour grapes," but instead is about why a state that's more than one-quarter black has only one black federal judge.
Two district court seats in Alabama are vacant (Huntsville and Montgomery), as well as an Alabama-seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Sewell said she has recommended African-Americans for all three slots. She also has joined other black members of Congress in urging the White House to nominate blacks for the vacancies.
Sewell is the only member of Alabama's delegation who supports the Affordable Care Act and she's sponsored events to help uninsured constituents enroll.
Sewell also is among those in Congress who want to restore the portion of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out last year. Without it, Alabama and other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer have to submit all election-related changes to the Justice Department for pre-approval. Sewell wants that oversight restored.
Sewell's voting record in her second term has been largely supportive of Obama's agenda and the Democratic Party.
She voted for legislation in January 2013 that increased taxes on the wealthy but made several tax cuts permanent for most Americans. The compromise legislation avoided the "fiscal cliff" of massive tax increases and deep, indiscriminate spending cuts across government, including in defense.
Sewell opposed deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) proposed by House Republicans. She voted for the deal that ended the government shutdown in October and for a bipartisan two-year budget agreement that passed in December.