Bright and Love in dead heat for votes

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By Ian Sherr

MONTGOMERY, AL – Since Bobby Bright was asking for his vote, Roger Gaither thought this would be the perfect opportunity to ask the Democratic congressional candidate what might be the most important question of the campaign.

“People around here talk about how when you were asked if you support Obama, you raised your hand and said ‘yes.’ Is that true?”

Gaither, the owner of the Gallery antique shop in Wetumpka, about 20 miles north of here, had recently seen a television ad designed to portray Bright as out of step with Alabamans because of his support for Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Now, here was the Mayor—campaigning right at Gaither’s counter.

“They manipulated that clip,” Bright said. “I originally said I would support whoever won, but then they asked again and I said ‘yes, I support Barack Obama and John McCain.’ But they cut the clip.”

Politics in Alabama are changing, but for Mayor Bright, they can’t change soon enough. The conservative mayor who is liberal by Montgomery’s standards is fighting for a congressional seat that has been in Republican hands for 40 years.

Once considered unattainable for a Democrat, the seat being vacated by Republican Terry Everett seems to be within Bright’s reach this year. That’s partly because of the economy, partly because of people’s disenchantment with President Bush, and partly because of Bright’s support in Montgomery’s large black community after restoring bus routes that had been discontinued by his predecessor.

Republican Senator Jay love is also vying to replace Everett, and as is often the case with an open congressional seat, the race is highly contentious.

Love, a former Subway sandwich shop owner and two-term State Senator, has relied heavily on his business background to influence his legislative decisions—such as tax cuts to make healthcare more affordable for small business leaders. In response, Bright points to Montgomery’s nationally-recognized prescription drug plan for city employees and retirees.

Still, with a constituency that will vote overwhelmingly for Republican Senator John McCain as president—there isn’t an official Obama office anywhere in the district—Mayor Bright’s biggest challenge is the “D” next to his name.

And so, his campaign is covering as much ground as it can, starting early and ending late, visiting all 16 counties in Alabama’s 2nd congressional district in the last 16 days of the race to have the Mayor meet as many people as possible.

“It would be easier socially if we were Republican,” Lynn—the mayor’s wife and a retired judge—explained as she rode in the SUV trailing behind the Mayor’s truck on their way to the next small town. “But he couldn’t do that because of his history—he defeated a sitting Republican to become mayor of Montgomery.”

Recent polls commissioned by Democratic groups are showing the Bright-Love race essentially tied—a success that the Mayor’s staff attribute largely to his conservative values mixed with his inclusive message.

He is hoping to convince voters to split their tickets.

One of those who might is Darrell Westmoreland, who was still undecided after seeing Bright and Love debate at Huntingdon College on Oct. 24.

“There’s a lot of frustration with the parties,” the 46 year old lawyer from Montgomery said. “I usually always split tickets—I vote for the person I think is most qualified.”

What’s tough for many voters is that with the exception of issues raised in the negative campaign ads, the candidates essentially agree. They agree on the economy, they agree on defense spending, and they agree on agricultural issues.

In fact, their views are so similar that both of them independently sought promises from their parties that they would be assigned to the same committees—Armed Services and Agriculture.

“I guess that’s part of the Alabama upbringing, the state is largely conservative,” said 31 year old Todd Adams, a student at Huntingdon College who is voting in Montgomery for the first time. “It’s going to come down to the letter at the end of their name: R or D.”

Which is partially why there are so many negative ads in this campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outspent its Republican counterparts two to one, spending $1.2 million to place ads on behalf of Mayor Bright—attacking Senator Love for his ties to a casino tycoon who is expanding into “Communist China.”

Mayor Bright’s campaign insists it has not run a single negative ad, conveniently ignoring those produced on its behalf by the DCCC.

“Rep. (Nancy) Boyda in Kansas said publicly that she wanted the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee out of her race and they did,” Love said at the end of a day campaigning at a fall festival in Greenville. “Bright could have done the same thing.”

“We knew this was going to be a tough race—we were prepared for a year long battle,” he continued, noting that Rep. Everett wont he previous open-seat race in 1992 by only two percentage points, 49/47. “We knew it would be a competitive primary and we knew the Democrats were going to spend as much as they could. We’re just gonna keep at it.”

But the public perception has not gone entirely in Love’s favor. At a fall festival in the tiny south western town of Opp, Gordon Gilmore made a point of rebuking the state senator about campaign conduct.

“There’s too much mud slinging, and you’ve done most of it,” the 72 year old retired paint contractor said.

Senator Love thought for a moment—looking Gilmore in the eye, before loosening his shoulders and putting on a smile. “I stand behind what I said, and we can just disagree.”

(By Ian Sherr. Published Nov 4, 2008 at the Carnegie and Knight Foundation’s News Initiative Project, here.)