Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The 7th Congressional District - Who Shall Represent the Pettus Bridge in Congress?

Winding from the downtown skyline of Birmingham, southward through Selma, and almost to Mobile, is Alabama's 7th Congressional District. This is a district of history, providing Alabama with its first black Congressman since Reconstruction, and again poised to make history this year by electing its first woman to Congress, other than the widow of an incumbent. In terms of this blog, it also occurred to me that if I want to say something about this district, I'd best be typing, as the general election vote in this 63.3% black district promises to be one of the great yawners of November. The action, as it has been from this district's birth in the 1992 cycle, is in the Democratic primary.

This is, of course, an open seat, vacated by Artur Davis in his Quixotic bid to become a triangulating black governor of Alabama. The runoff gives voters a choice between Jefferson County Commissioner Shelia Smoot, and Birmingham lawyer Terri Sewell. Sewell led the primary with 36.8% of the vote, with Smoot getting 28.6%. State Representative Earl Hilliard, Jr., of Birmingham, son of the former Congressman from this district, narrowly missed the runoff with 26.8%, and Martha Bozeman, a former Davis staffer, trailed with 7.8%.

The Horserace. The traditional saw that a primary frontrunner is the presumed favorite in a runoff may have some impact here, but there are a lot of wild cards in this deck. The governor's race is no longer on the ballot, so spontaneous turnout might be limited. This would put a premium on the organization best poised to get its voters to the polls. Hilliard has not, and (I understand) is not expected to make an endorsement in the runoff. However, the Alabama New South Coalition, which endorsed him in the primary, has endorsed Sewell. The New Jefferson County Citizens' Coalition, which also endorsed Hilliard, has not made any statement in this round, but has a scheduled meeting on July 9, just before the runoff. Smoot has picked up the endorsements, which went to Hilliard in the primary, of two of the most influential black members of Congress, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Smoot remains endorsed, as she was in the primary, by the ADC.

Smoot's advantage is her base in Jefferson County, where she is known from years of television news reporting, and from service on the County Commission since 2002. She split that base with Hilliard in the primary; their districts overlap. With Hilliard out, she should have a clear field to the "Friends and Neighbors" vote in Jefferson County. Sewell's lead in the primary was largely a creature of her 66.9% share of the large turnout in Dallas County, combined with a close second to Smoot in Jefferson with 34.0% there to Smoot's 36.0%. Hilliard ran ahead of his district average in most of the more rural counties in the district, including showings of 41.1% in Wilcox and 37.7% in Choctaw. The key to the runoff may well be which candidate does best in these more rural parts of the district.

Despite being the officeholder remaining in this race, Smoot has struggled, as did Hilliard, to match the money dump wrought by Sewell, which brought her from a struggling third (in some polls I saw) to the lead. Through the May 12 F.E.C. reports, Sewell outraised Smoot, $783,333.00 to $99,723.00. (Though Smoot does have a history of amending statements to adjust upward. One of her reports indicated that the employment of her own campaign treasurer, who has to sign the report, was "unknown.") Of Sewell's total, $295,028.00 came from Alabama, and of that, $58,000.00 came from her present law firm, Maynard, Cooper & Gale. $132,352.00 of Sewell's total came from New York, much of that from the law firm of Davis, Polk & Wardwell, where she formerly practiced. Sewell's reports do not reflect the same focused generosity of the Bush-Cheney-aligned AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) that the 2002 campaign of Artur Davis received, but rumors persist that AIPAC has looked for ways to help her off the books. These rumors center on "street money," which has a way of being impossible to prove - or disprove. If AIPAC was in the primary, it is unlikely they will invest in the runoff, as they no longer have to worry about Hilliard, Jr., making an Orestean career in Congress. Regardless of the relative finances of the two, Smoot has shown that she can vastly outperform her bank account at the ballot box. One final note in the "horserace" discussion: beware the Anzalone poll that the Sewell campaign is touting, showing her with a comfortable lead. Just a few weeks ago, that shop was predicting a comfortable Artur Davis win in the gubernatorial primary. Nuff said.

The Merits. From my perspective, this is not an ideal runoff. (This is as good a time as any to disclose that I was an unpaid advisor to the Hilliard campaign in the primary.) Hilliard would have provided this district with an able, intelligent, articulate Congressman, without any of the issues provided by the two remaining candidates. Smoot brings with her the baggage of being a member of the Jefferson County Commission, one of the most dysfunctional local governments in America. Even if hers is only guilt by association, being lumped with the indictments, convictions, bond defaults, bankruptcy threats, and litigation beyond measure, would give Mother Teresa an image problem. Smoot has passed on opportunity after opportunity on that Commission to exercise the sort of leadership that would truly make her stand out as a candidate for higher office. It's difficult to be too hard on her, as any systemic reform requires two other votes, but at least some advocacy of tougher measures would have been nice.

And yet. And yet, we come to the compelling life story of Terri Sewell. Raised in Selma, the child of public school teachers. Princeton, Oxford, Harvard Law. So far, the stuff of which movies are made. But at this point, the resume diverges from what one would expect of a woman seeking to represent one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. After a stopover as law clerk to Judge U.W. Clemon in Birmingham, Sewell took a position with the Wall Street law firm, Davis, Polk & Wardwell. She worked in the firm's securities department, which handles much of the legal work of such firms as Goldman, Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase. In other words, this firm is one of the handful of Wall Street megafirms which lawyered the maze of derivatives, swaps, securitized debt obligations, mergers, and acquisitions, that allowed Wall Street to spend the 90s and 00s ripping off America, and nearly brought it to its knees in 2008. (And, coincidentally, not unlike the shell game deals that left Jefferson County swimming in red ink.) From Wall Street, Sewell returned to Alabama in 2005 to join the Birmingham firm of Maynard, Cooper & Gale. There, she works in public finance, according to her campaign bio. Politically, Maynard, Cooper is known for being the general counsel of the Business Council of Alabama, the
de facto finance arm of the Alabama Republican Party. (Yes, they do keep Democrats on the firm roster, and I know a few. Still.)

In one regard, I can't fault Sewell for her career choices. If someone is going to be paid $700 an hour to engineer the plutocrats' plunder of the rest of us, I think that the gravy train ought to be open to people of every gender, race, creed and orientation. Even Yankees fans. But then I consider what other Harvard Law grads, with even humbler backgrounds, have done with their degrees. For instance, Hank and Rose Sanders came back to Selma, with no stops in New York, London or Birmingham, to help bring justice to the Black Belt. And of course, Barack Obama took his Harvard sheepskin back to the streets of Chicago as a community organizer. It puts a Wall Street career in a whole new perspective.

Then there is one little issue about Sewell's choice of Wall Street firms. As I noted above, she was a partner in the firm of Davis, Polk & Wardwell. That is,
Davis, Polk & Wardwell. The "Davis" in that firm name is John W. Davis. (1873-1955, pictured on the right.) Davis founded the firm in large part to serve as the general counsel to the J.P. Morgan banking family. To this day, Davis holds the post-Civil War record for the most cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of parties other than the Federal government. What makes Davis's biography relevant to this Congressional race is his participation in his last case before that Court - Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). This is, of course, the famous case in which school segregation was held to be unconstitutional. In a perfect world, Sewell could tell a stemwinder tale about how Davis's fight for equality led her to join the firm. Except for one problem: Davis was the lead counsel at oral argument for the segregationists! Not only was he on the way-wrong side of history on this case, he handled the case for free as a personal favor for the governor of South Carolina. Nor was this stance unusual for Davis. He had opposed antidiscrimination legislation in New York, opposed Harry Truman's civil rights measures, including an anti-lynching bill, and refused to join other Wall Street legal titans in an amicus brief supporting the Scottsboro Boys. I cannot pretend to be an expert on the history of Sewell's former firm. For all I know, it has given millions of dollars to Tuskegee Institute and the UNCF to make amends for Davis's record. I do not even know if there has been any push among civil rights activists to have the firm name changed, though one comment (10th from the top) that I turned up in a Google search indicated that Davis's role in Brown has been redacted from the firm's promotional brochures. In any case, someone of Sewell's considerable education and intellect cannot have joined the firm without a full knowledge of the history of its namesake.

For all I know, her departure from the firm came as the result of the firm's refusal to change its name. (I would welcome authoritative information to this effect, from Ms. Sewell or anyone authorized to speak on her behalf. Commenting is unmoderated on this blog, as long as it's kept civil and legal. ) And maybe I am the only one who cares, but it strikes me that the Congressional district including Selma should not be represented by an alumna of a law firm with the leading segregationist lawyer of the Twentieth Century on its brass plate. I personally find that name as offensive as I would that of Lester Maddox. And I know the 7th District wouldn't abide Maddox's name on a candidate's resume.

To her credit, Sewell took one look at the glazed eyes of Artur Davis as his severed head rolled to a stop at her feet on June 1, and re-emphasized her earlier support of Obama's health care reform efforts. (I have schadenfreude reading the page. "Now confined to a wheelchair Terri works closely with her family to care for her father. " She is? Or he is? And "Terri is on the Community Advisory Board for UAB’s Minority Health Resource Center that helps to decrease the disparity in health care that exist [
sic] in minority communities. Her work there helps close the health care disperity [sic] gap for rural and underserved communities." Yes, Princeton will tell.☺) But what worries me about Sewell's Wall Street background is the prospect that she will revert to it when the spotlight is not so glaring as it was on health care reform. That landmark bill was not Artur Davis's only Republican-pandering big business vote. Without much notice, he voted for the so-called Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which substantially hurt sick, disabled and laid-off workers in bankruptcy. In other words, the people in his district. Sewell's website platform pages are ominously silent on her positions on legislation to stop the abuses and corruption of Wall Street, Big Oil, and tax-dodging billionaires. She has made some generic calls for "transparency" in financial services, but that is securities-lawyer-speak for "set up a public derivatives trading exchange, and the all-knowing 'free market' will take care of everything." What is needed is comprehensive reform, including, at a minimum, some reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, and restrictions against deposit institutions holding securitized debt obligations, in which they have no clue about the creditworthiness of their end-use counterparties. I'm glad she was and is for health care reform, but it's done with for a few years. These "Big Mule" issues, as Big Jim Folsom would have called them, are the fights of the next Congress. What will Sewell do? Given that she has made a very lucrative career out of helping engineer Wall Street deals (Sewell was a partner at Davis, Polk & Wardwell. In 2009, per partner profits there were $1,655,000 - in a down market), I find it hard to think she'd endanger a post-Congressional spot on K Street or Wall Street with any real pushback.

If I have missed clear statements by Sewell on these issues, I hope she, her staff, or her supporters will help me out with some links in the comments box. And Lord knows, I wish the average Alabama member of Congress had half of Sewell's academic credentials and intellectual horsepower. But unless I were to see some solid answers to the concerns I have raised, my gut instinct is that Smoot would be a more loyal member of both the Democratic majority, and the Congressional Black Caucus, and would thus serve her constituents better. And she
did graduate from Michigan State, which helped send Nick Saban on his way to Tuscaloosa.

NOTE: I want to make one thing abundantly clear. Although, as I stated above, I served as an advisor to the Hilliard campaign, I speak solely for myself in this post. I did not discuss it with Earl Jr. before writing or posting it. In fact, the only communication I have had with him since the night of the primary has been an exchange of text messages, in which I told him to enjoy his vacation in the Smokies. And that I hope to see him in public office again someday.

14 comments:

  1. Silly man. Firms like Davis, Polk & Wardwell don't change their names because of little people like us. They can't be bothered with what we think.

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  2. So the biggest problem with Smoot is that she has demonstrated gross negligence and incompetence in a position of public trust and the biggest problem with Sewell is she took a paycheck from a firm once led by a segregationist? I think I'll go with Sewell.

    Come to think of it, Smoot's current employer also had some issues with equal rights back in the day.

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  3. I'm gonna have to roll with Smoot. She seems more reliable and responsive to the people.

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  4. I don't have a dog in this fight. BTW, I'm blogging again. Sign up to follow.

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  5. I am going with Smoot! When she lived and worked as a TV Reporter in Anniston, she risked her career to work with SCLC and fighting for the little man! She has always spoken up for the poor, the disadvantaged, black and white! I know her character. I know she will stand with President Obama and the ppl of this great state!

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  6. Terri Sewell spoke out in favor of financial reform for Wall Street in this video (4:50 mark onward) posted back in April: http://vodpod.com/watch/3400500-terry-sewell-on-the-issues?c=leftinalabama&u=leftinalabama

    She makes it very clear that she wants Wall Street to become more transparent and be held more accountable.

    "Because I understand it, I would be a leading advocate of developing legislation that would provide transparency for Wall Street and for financial services industries, as well as accountability. It's critically important."

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  7. Quote: "it strikes me that the Congressional district including Selma should not be represented by an alumna of a law firm with the leading segregationist lawyer of the Twentieth Century on its brass plate" /Quote

    Davis Polk has more than distanced itself from any past stances made by its namesake. The firm is committed to diversity and furthermore provides countless hours of pro bono work for, among other causes, civil rights issues.

    I understand the sentiment, don't get me wrong, but come on. If you really want to play the game of "XYZ institution is named after someone who was on the wrong side of history back in the day", then go right ahead, but it's a game with no end.

    Shelia Smoot works for Jefferson County. Jefferson County was once known worldwide as the home of the Western hemisphere's most fierce racial segregation. Furthermore, Jefferson County is named after Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner himself. See, this is an easy game to play.

    Are you suggesting that people not associate themselves with any institution named after or associated with past misdeeds, even if the current institution has distanced itself from such misdoings? Are we to renounce America because the country once permitted slavery and segregation, or because it forcibly removed Native Americans from their homes?

    Should we not have allowed Mercedes to build their plant in Alabama, since the company once supplied the Nazis with war materials? On and on and on we could go....

    If this is your best shot at Terri Sewell, you're clearly grasping at straws.

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  8. As for Sewell's decision to leave New York and Davis Polk and come to Birmingham and Maynard Cooper, she has cited three reasons (that I know of).

    First, her father suffered a series of debilitating strokes, and she wanted to move close to home so that she could visit him often and help out in caring for him. Furthermore, she had grown somewhat disenchanted with working primarily with large corporations in New York. Finally, she only accepted the position at Maynard Cooper with the understanding that she would have the opportunity to primarily help to finance projects in under-served communities, such as the state's poorest counties and many of the state's HBCU's.

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  9. 1. Financial reform: "Transparency" is the non-remedy Wall Street is happy to give in on, to avoid real reform. It's K-Street code for nothing more than moving derivatives trades to an NYSE-style exchange. I suspect Sewell's silence on such real reforms as those outlined in the NYT editorial I linked tells us how she'd vote.

    2. Firm name/history: segregation is only one small part of the sorry Davis, Polk story. Davis, and the firm, fought the legal battles against the "socialist" programs of the New Deal. That alone should call for clear repudiation of former employment before facing a Democratic electorate. As for the county name, it's one thing to change a county name (which has not been done in Alabama since 1877 ), and quite another to change a law firm's name. Law firms, even the largest and oldest, change their names more often than their socks.
    June 28, 2010 4:16 PM

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  10. I'm going with Smoot too. I don't care about fancy commercials. Smoot is the one I can call on if I feel that I have a problem.
    Hasn't the Sewell lady missed a few appearances to talk to us?

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