On the Cover: Alabama Capitol Building courtesy of Creative Commons

Alabama’s legislative races are heating up as the June 5 primaries approach, and that means collecting and spending political donations has moved center stage for most candidates.

That may be particularly true of the lone Republican in the House District 99 race, who has quite the fundraising hill to climb when pitted against eight Democrats. In fact, Charles Talbert has only raised $1 in cash contributions so far, according to his campaign finance documents.

The contribution, Talbert said, came from a relative in Cleveland, Ohio.

“I accept whatever comes in,” he said.

Talbert, who claims he was born and raised conservative, said he plans to keep pushing forward until the November general election, despite competing for a seat long held by Democrats.

“I’m very confident we’re going to win,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about money.”

If that’s the case, Talbert won’t have to focus as much on the fundraising deficit between him and the Democratic opponent who emerges victorious in the June 5 party primaries.

On the other side of the aisle, former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones has a substantial monitary lead over his competitors so far, with attorney Gregory L. Harris II and former judge Herman Thomas coming in at second and third, respectively.

To date, the Jones campaign has raised $57,409 in cash contributions while Harris has banked $11,476 and Thomas has collected $10,750.

The largest contributors to the Jones campaign include several political action committees (PACs), businesses and his mayoral campaign. In March, Jones’ 2017 mayoral campaign donated $20,971 to his campaign for the District 99 seat. In a phone interview, Jones said state law requires a candidate to start a new committee in order to run for a different race. He said he transferred the money left over from his mayoral bid to the new campaign committee.

In addition, a number of PACs have donated to the Jones campaign in varying amounts, totaling $21,500 since March.

Jones said the support has been important, especially with eight competitors in the crowded Democratic field. He expects his support to increase should he proceed to the general election.

Thomas, who resigned from the bench while he was under investigation and has since been disbarred from practicing law in Alabama, has raised the bulk of his money through a series of smaller donations. None of the contributions to the Thomas campaign has been larger than $1,000 and the campaign has no contributions from PACs.

Harris has support from two large individual contributions, including $3,000 from Raclare S. Thomas and $1,000 from retired Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper. He has the backing of one large corporate donor in $1,000 from the law firm of Jackson Harris, where he and his father both practice.

The other donations Harris touts come from smaller, individual contributions. Harris said he’s pleased with fundraising so far.

“I think our support is pretty strong right now,” he said. “One hundred percent of our support comes in the form of individuals in the community, or entities concerned with the community.”

Harris was recently backed by Mobile’s chapter of the New South Coalition. The coalition had previously supported Jones in other races. Harris, 32, said the support of the elders in the community means a lot to him.

“ … They understand the direction we’re heading in,” Harris said. “Those types of decisions restore my faith in Mobile and renews in me the idea that there are people who want to push Mobile beyond today.”

Two of the candidates in the race to fill the seat vacated by retiring Democrat James Buskey have yet to file any financial reports and another filed all of his reports in May.

Henry Haseeb, who has previously run against Buskey for the position, was late filing most of his reports. According to Fair Campaign Practice Act filings maintained by the Alabama Secretary of State, Haseeb’s reports for January, February, March and April were all filed on May 1 and 2. Haseeb did not return a call seeking comment on the filings, but John Bennett, a spokesman for Secretary of State John Merrill’s office, wrote in an email that candidates who file late are assessed a penalty. For a first offense, a candidate’s committee is assessed the lesser of $300 or 10 percent of the amount of contributions or expenditures. The fine grows with each offense until the fourth, where Merrill’s office can notify the attorney general’s office, or the appropriate district attorney’s office. Burton LeFlore and Greg Parker have yet to file reports.

LeFlore said he didn’t file due to an issue with filing the reports electronically. He said he didn’t have access to the portal until recently because Merrill’s office didn’t get a signature page needed for access. LeFlore said he expects to file reports from February, March, April and May within the coming days. He said he also expects to be fined.

As for the campaign, LeFlore said it’s building momentum despite a lack of enthusiasm from the constituency for the race to this point.

“One of the biggest issues right now is the low level of interest,” he said. “I think it’s due to the large number of candidates.”

He called the situation “really sad.”

“No one is talking about the issues,” LeFlore said. “No one is talking about advancing their platforms.”

Rico Washington, who has raised $4,257 in cash contributions so far, said his campaign is going well but it’s not fair to be in a race against candidates who don’t follow the rules. He said it’s especially important given the history of recent corruption in the State House.

“I expect everyone to follow the same rules,” he said. “It’s like they don’t care. It’s not right.”

Franklin McMillion has raised $2,165 in cash contributions so far, according to reports.

The Jones campaign has also spent more than its two best funded competitors have raised combined. The year-to-date report on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s website shows Jones has spent $35,047 so far.

Among the expenditures is a series of payments to Alabama Power. One of those payments totaled more than $1,600 for advertising. When asked, Jones said the $1,691 expenditure was labeled incorrectly. According to an amended report filed on Saturday, May 12, the payment went to Alabama Computer Forms and Printing.

The payment of $709.14 in March to Alabama Power, Jones said, represents a utility payment made for all three portions of a building Jones owns and is using as a campaign headquarters. The campaign made a $310.93 payment to Alabama Power in April.

Jones was forced to reimburse his 2013 mayoral campaign after Lagniappe uncovered he improperly paid the business expenditures of a tenant in the building on Costarides Street.

Thomas has spent $9,567 total, year to date. Harris has spent $7,286 year to date.

House District 102

A local newspaper publisher takes on the former Citronelle police chief and a Penelope House board member in the Republican primary for House District 102. There is no Democratic opposition, so if the winner of the June 5 primary earns more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she will earn the right to take the seat vacated by Jack Williams, who is running for the Alabama Senate.

Willie Gray, co-owner of The Call News in Citronelle, is lapping the field when it comes to fundraising for the primary. He has raised $70,246 in 2018 compared to $12,865 raised by Shane Stringer and the $5,081 raised by Belinda Shoub. At $25,567, Gray has spent more on the campaign than his rivals have raised combined.

Jon Gray, a political consultant and campaign spokesman for Willie Gray’s campaign, wrote in an email that the campaign has been going “great.” The two Grays are not related.

“Willie has knocked on over 6,000 doors and is completely humbled at the amount of support he has received not just financially but on the doorsteps throughout our community,” Jon Gray wrote. “Willie has lots of support and is polling very high in the race, but there are weeks to go and we need to keep working hard.”

The newspaper owner has a large amount of in-kind contributions from Gray & Gray Inc. in Citronelle, including two contributions totaling more than $1,600 in March. Larger contributions totaling almost $4,000 came from Gray & Gray in April and smaller ones totaling more than $1,400 arrived in May.

In the email message, Jon Gray described Gray & Gray as a holding company “that operates several businesses.” He didn’t go into specifics, except to write that there are “a lot of in-kind contributions that the company has donated … some of which might include” the paper Willie Gray publishes.

“I’m not able (nor going) to get into any details about how much is or is not in one publication over another nor any campaign strategies, but I would tell you that it would be incorrect to assume that all of that is from The Call News,” Jon Gray wrote.

Willie Gray has been the bell cow when it comes to PAC funds in the District 102 race. Since March, the newspaper publisher has raised $47,486 from PACs.

Gray’s opponents have mixed feelings about running against the local newspaper publisher. While Stringer acknowledges the uphill battle and Gray’s “power of persuasion” through the newspaper, he said he, Stringer, has name recognition from his service as police chief.

“In Citronelle, they know me,” he said.

Stringer realizes he’s in a fundraising hole, but touted local support as the key to the race.

“I think it has been awesome,” he said of the campaign. “I’ve met a lot of great people.”

Shoub said she isn’t concerned about it, but she also doesn’t think advertising her candidacy in The Call News would be worth the money, given that her opponent is the publisher. Like Stringer, she said she is well known within the community.

“I tried to get out and meet people,” she said. “People know me … I go and speak to everybody and everybody knows about it.”

Shoub said she spoke to Willie Gray early on and he ran a story on her candidacy. Other stories in The Call News referencing his opponents have been sparse, according to a search of back issues of the paper from April 2017 to January 2018. The publisher ran a half-page column on his decision to run for office. The newspaper also featured a story about Willie Gray recently being honored for saving someone from a disabled vehicle three years prior. The Call News also ran a front-page photo that included its publisher with state Sen. Rusty Glover, Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Peek and others at the opening of a school. In the cutline, Willie Gray is listed as a candidate for District 102.

Shoub filed in April of last year. Willie Gray and Stringer both filed in June 2017.

As for advertising within the publication, Jon Gray wrote that The Call News publisher has sold advertisements to his opponents in various publications. Shoub contends she had her campaign manager call about pricing in the paper, but never ran an advertisement. As for any requirement for Willie Gray, as publisher of a local paper, to sell advertisements to opponents, Bennett said there is none.

“Because he’s the owner of the paper, our legal team says not much can be done,” he said. “That’s his decision to make.”

Baldwin County

Candidates in one of Baldwin County’s two State House races have reached six-figure territory in the fundraising battle. The campaign to replace retiring State Sen. Trip Pittman of District 32 has seen County Commissioner Chris Elliott report $122,230 in cash contributions. His nearest competitor, dentist David Northcutt, has raised $96,220.

Also on the GOP primary ballot is Jeff Boyd, who has reported $38,850 in cash contributions and Bill Roberts, who has reported $304.

The winner will face Democrat Jason Fisher in the general election in November.

Meanwhile, House District 64 incumbent Harry Shiver has reported $52,850 in cash contributions, while Stephen Sexton, his GOP primary competitor, has reported $6,943 in cash contributions.

The lone Democrat in that race, Amber Selman-Lynn, has reported $2,200 in cash contributions.

Fundraising benefits, contribution limits

While the money raised during campaign season is important in any race in the United States, having the most money doesn’t ensure victory. Jaclyn Bunch, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, said there are two caveats when dealing with fundraising.

“One is that funding only goes so far,” she said. “Studies have shown that after a certain funding threshold there are significant diminishing returns on campaign spending.”

Secondly, she said, massive fundraising may not be as effective if a race isn’t competitive, or if the person raising the money already has name recognition.

“We may also see the diminishing returns more quickly on the local level as the individual running for office may already be well known,” she said.

While it doesn’t have as much of an impact on smaller, more local races, Bunch said Alabama failing to have a contribution limit contrasts with many other states.

“Only 10 other states fail to place individual limits on campaign contributions,” she said. “All other states place some form of cap, ranging in gubernatorial elections from as little as $500 (Alaska) to as much as $44,000 (New York).”

House District 96

The race to replace Republican Rep. Randy Davis features two candidates on the Democratic side and one on the Republican side.

Democrats Maurice Horsey and Richard “Web” Whiting will face off in the primary for the right to take on Matt Simpson in the general election in November.

Horsey has raised $3,782 so far, while Whiting has raised $899.

Simpson, who has no  primary opponent, has so far raised $20,675 in his bid to win the November election.

House District 97

Democratic incumbent Adline Clarke is facing an opponent in the primary race, Levi Wright Jr. However, Wright has not yet filed a financial disclosure form.

As for Clarke, she has raised $36,525 and spent about $7,000 of that.

On the GOP side, Stephen McNair doesn’t have a primary opponent, but has so far raised $14,555. He has spent $6,493.

House District 105

Four Republicans are on the ballot for the House District 105 seat vacated by David Sessions, who is running for Senate.

Matthew J. Bentley, Chip Brown, Cody Dockens and Janet Brown Oglesby will face off on June 5 without any opposition in November.

Brown is outpacing his opponents, with $53,248 raised in 2018. He has taken by far the most PAC money, with $36,500 collected from February to May.

Dockens leads the pack behind Brown, with $5,399 in cash contributions in 2018. Bentley has raised $1,920 so far and Oglesby $1,875.

Senate District 33

Incumbent Vivian Davis Figures faces two Democratic challengers in the June 5 primary for state Senate District 33. Figures has outpaced Victor Crawford in fundraising, while Michael Cooley has failed to file any disclosures as of Tuesday, May 15.

Figures has raised $57,000 in 2018 and appears to have been a month behind in filing her February and March reports. Figures did not return a call seeking comment. She has spent $69,727, which is less than she spent in 2014 when she was without primary opposition, according to state records.

Crawford has raised $18,000, the vast majority coming from himself. He has spent $16,845.

Senate District 34

Current State Rep. Jack Williams is outraising his opponent Mark Shirey by a wide margin, as both candidates are vying for the Republican nomination for the seat held by departing State Sen. Rusty Glover. Glover is running for lieutenant  governor.

Williams has raised $119,795 year to date, while Shirey has raised $40,923.

From March to May, reports show Williams has been the preferred candidate for several statewide PACs. During this stretch, the Williams campaign has received $71,000 from various PACs.

Williams has spent $38,636 year to date. Advertisements have appeared for Williams in The Call News, but did not appear on his financial reports. Political consultant Jon Gray of Strategy Inc. said Strategy purchased those advertisements and they will show up on the reports as soon as he is able to send an invoice to Williams. Williams did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Shirey, an optometrist and health care advocate, said he understands the hole he’s in when it comes to fundraising, but he’s not discouraged. He has even touted his own support from various PACs, including Alabama Optometric PAC, which gave him $15,000. So far he has raised $16,000 in PAC money.

“I’ve had really good support,” he said. “We’ve got a good campaign. We’re walking door to door and we’ve met a lot of people.”

Shirey has spent $24,783 in 2018. He said he’s spent money on mailers and radio.

Candidates without primary competition

Republican State Rep. David Sessions has no primary competition for the District 35 Senate seat, but he will face Democrat Tom Holmes in the general election.

So far, Sessions has raised $75,300 this year. Holmes has raised considerably less to this point, with $5,855 in cash contributions year to date.

Republican incumbent Margie Wilcox will ease into the general election, but will face Democratic challenger Arlene Easley for the State House District 104 seat.

To date, Wilcox has raised $14,700 in cash contributions. Easley has raised $1,370.

Candidates with no competition

Incumbent State Reps. Steve McMillan in House District 95, Victor  Gaston in House District 100, Chris Pringle in House District 101 and Barbara Drummond in House District 103 are all poised to be re-elected without qualified competition.

Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified a professor of Political Science at the University of South Alabama as Dr. Jaclyn Byrd. Her name is actually Dr. Jaclyn Bunch.