Political groups may have lost power

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 22, 2002

They’ll come at you from every direction. Some will even be folded into paper airplanes and tossed at your car windshield.

They are sample ballots. More importantly, they are endorsements from political groups. Do they matter anymore? For that matter, are they even important?

“Not as much as they were 10 years ago,” said Dr. D’Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University-Montgomery. “There’s a lot of independence developing in the African-American community, and you can see that political groups don’t have as much power as they used to.”

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Finley pointed to city council elections in Birmingham and Montgomery in the past five years.

“The incumbents were defeated, and it didn’t matter about their endorsements,” he said.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said endorsements still play a major role in Alabama politics.

“I think people, especially the media, forget that the average citizen does not have contact with all the elected officials,” Sanders said. “They can’t depend on advertising… so they use a ballot because there are many candidates they don’t know.”

By ballot, Sanders means the sample ballots distributed to voters shortly before an election. On those ballots, groups like the Alabama New South Coalition, of which Sanders is president, tell voters who they’ve endorsed — or who voters should support.

Cecil Williamson, active in Dallas County politics and a member of the Dallas County Board of Education, agrees with Sanders.

“I think political endorsements are extremely important in our elections,” Williamson said. “Especially the New South endorsement.”

New South, by far, leads any other political group in Dallas County. In local elections, the group has endorsed LaTosha Brown — who heads the Dallas County chapter of New South — and Sheriff Harris Huffman, challenged by Michael Perry and Ulysses Ratcliffe.

Other than New South, few organizations get involved in local politics and few carry the weight of Sanders’ organization.

Though New South is still considered important in Alabama elections, Finley believes the beginning of New South signaled the end of dominance among political groups.

“New South first organized in 1986,” Finley said. “From there, numerous other groups began to organize. Now you have so many groups endorsing candidates, both in the black and white communities, that you can’t be sure they really even help anymore.”

Dr. Brad Moody, another political science professor at AUM, said the impact of endorsements varies from election to election and from group to group.

“I think the AEA [Alabama Education Association] carries a lot of weight in elections,” Moody said. “But in general, there is evidence that groups like the Alabama Democratic Conference and New South don’t have as much impact as they used to.”

Two years ago, Brown — now a candidate for Alabama House District 67 — took on Ella Bell in a State Board of Education race. She received tremendous backing from New South in that race but lost.

Likewise, city council members in Birmigham who were aligned with once powerful mayor Richard Arrington were defeated in that city’s last election. The same was true for Montgomery city council members aligned with the ADC.

So what do political organizations provide?

“Money,” said Michael Ciamarra, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute based in Birmingham. “I really think voters are becoming much more independent, and campaign contributions have become the biggest factor from those groups. There’s no confusing that.”

Ciamarra’s theory holds true in Selma. Brown’s endorsement by New South showed up in her 45-day filing with Alabama’s Secretary of State. She has raised more than $11,000 for her campaign, and $10,000 of that has come from New South.

Whether the money helps Brown, or any candidate in the primary, is yet to be seen. According to Moody, endorsements usually don’t help in a primary.

“They’re much more important in a general election,” he said.

Finley, however, believes that in a crowded race like District 67 in Selma, an endorsement may be the key.

“With such a crowded field, an endorsement may be the way to distinguish one candidate from the rest of the field,” Finley said.