By Bob Roehr
Bossism and racism almost cost Patricia Todd the opportunity to be the first openly gay person to serve in the Alabama legislature. Her victory in the Democratic primary in Birmingham was first declared void, then reinstated by party officials within a matter of days.
District 54 in Birmingham was created as a majority black seat but when the 20-year incumbent retired from the gentrifying area, it opened up a four-way race to succeed him. Todd, the associate director of AIDS Alabama, is white and the other three candidates are black. She led the field in the June 6 primary and squeaked out a 59 vote win in the July 18 runoff election.
Republicans have no candidate on the ballot, so most people assumed that the path was cleared for her to become the first lesbian elected to the Alabama legislature.
But Mattie Childress, the mother-in-law of a failed candidate, challenged that, saying that the Democratic Party should disqualify Todd because she was late in filing her last financial disclosure statement. She said it was to hide the fact that she had received contributions from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Todd said she had disclosed earlier contributions from the organization, and was very open about being a lesbian during the campaign.
Others noted that if the same criteria of timely filing of disclosure were used, then the Party would have to disqualify its candidates for governor and lt. governor as well. And besides, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that candidates cannot be disqualified for late filing if they do so before the election, which Todd did.
That did not stop Alabama Democratic Party vice chairman Joe Reed, longtime head of the black caucus, from calling a subcommittee meeting to hear the challenge. Reed had supported Todd’s opponent in the primary and had called the district a black seat. The subcommittee voted 5-0 on August 24 to disqualify Todd and moved to appoint a replacement.
This is about race not sexual orientation, Todd told the Birmingham News. “If I was black, I don’t think they would have contested the election.” She told the New York Times, “This is about Joe Reed controlling the party and trying to get his way, and he’s just a bully.”
Reed insisted it was about complying with party rules.
“Does the Alabama Democratic Party have a death wish?” the Birmingham News asked the following day in an editorial. It noted that a parallel action in 1986 opened the door for Republican electoral successes. It urged that the party reinstate Todd because “she is the candidate who got the most Democratic votes among residents of House District 54.”
The full Alabama Democratic Executive Committee met in Montgomery on August 26 and addressed the increasingly contentious issue. The vote was largely along racial lines, but a handful of black members helped to provide the 95 to 87 margin to overrule the subcommittee and reinstate Todd.
“This was never really about race, or even sexual orientation, but about the personal, petty politics of individual who sought to divide Democrats along those lines for personal gain,” said Jo Wyrick, executive director of National Stonewall Democrats. “It is in the best interest of all Democrats to build a part that is inclusive of all Americans and free of divisive politics.”
“Finally, the voters have prevailed,” said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. “We are enormously proud of the courage and tenacity Patricia showed throughout this ordeal, and equally proud of her supporters in Alabama and beyond who stood by her unfailingly.”