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Smitherman chosen as president pro tem of Alabama Senate

Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman was elected president pro tem of the Alabama Senate in a vote Thursday mostly along party lines, proving that Democrats can still control the Senate even though they hold three fewer seats than last year.

Smitherman, of Birmingham, defeated Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, 18-12 for the Senate’s top post.

Smitherman’s votes came entirely from Democrats. Waggoner’s support came from 11 Republican and one Democrat, Sen. Jim Preuitt of Talladega, who traditionally votes with Republicans.

Going into the start of the 2009 legislative session, the election had been uncertain because a few Senate Democrats frequently side with Republicans, and three seats previously held by Democrats are vacant — one because of a death, one from election to the U.S. House, and one from a felony conviction.

After the election, Smitherman said he would work fairly with all senators, no matter how they voted.

“I’m not about the past. I’m about the future,” he said.

The president pro tem presides over the Senate in the absence of the lieutenant governor. He also helps determine who serves on Senate committees and which committee considers each bill. Those committee assignments can determine whether a bill ever comes to a vote in the Senate.

Smitherman’s election Thursday kept a commitment made by Senate Democrats two years ago.

When the Senate was trying to organize after the last legislative elections, Smitherman initially agreed to side with the Republican minority to help elect Waggoner as president pro tem. But Smitherman changed sides when Democrats promised to elect him to the position in 2009.

His switch allowed Democrats to organize the Senate in 2007 and elect Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, as president pro tem. Mitchem resigned Thursday to allow the election of Smitherman.

“I’m doing what I committed to two years ago,” Mitchem said.

Waggoner said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome because Democrats had committed to Smitherman.

“Today is the result of that,” he said.

Before the vote Thursday, Sen. Steve French, R-Birmingham, told the Senate that electing Waggoner would “end the liberals’ 113-year reign of terror in this body.” As a sign of Smitherman’s liberal views, he cited the senator’s unsuccessful bill last year that would have required manufacturers to code handgun ammunition sold in Alabama and vendors to record who purchased it.

Smitherman said later he’s a moderate on most issue, but a conservative on spending state money.

Smitherman, who is serving his fourth term in the Senate, is treasurer of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

He is also half of a power couple from Birmingham. His wife, Carole, is president of the Birmingham City Council and, in 1991, she became the first African-American woman in Alabama to serve as a county circuit judge.

Smitherman’s election caused a shuffle in the leadership of Senate committees. Smitherman gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was replaced by Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs. Penn resigned as chairman of the Senate Confirmations Committee and was replaced by Mitchem.

In the vote for president pro tem, Smitherman picked up support from Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, who often votes with the Republicans. After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman, let Butler have his seat on the influential Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee.