| Alabama's junior Senator, Republican Jeff Sessions, hasn't made the usual shortlists of targeted Republican incumbents in most of the preliminary "battle plans" for the Senate Democrats' 2008 campaign strategy for obvious reasons: with rare exceptions, Democrats have fared pretty poorly in Southern Senate elections, and even worse in the Deep South. But mounting serious challenges to Senators like Sessions can pay off with dividends elsewhere, even if such campaigns don't score explicit victories. Lighting brushfires behind supposedly Republican lines has the potential to stretch NRSC and RNC resources to the breaking point, all in a critical Presidential election year. And, of course: you can't ever expect to win if you don't even show up.
Let's start with Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions, as you may recall, is an extremely conservative Senator whose career highlights include being a staunch advocate for the partial privatization of social security as well as attempting to exploit the deaths of Katrina victims in order to build support for his pet cause, repealing the Estate Tax.
So where do we go from here? Is there an Alabama Democrat credible enough to mount a respectable challenge to Sessions--a challenge that's strong enough to turn some heads on the national scene, and maybe, just maybe has an outside shot of delivering a deep South victory for the Democratic Party? Meet the man who could make it happen: Ron Sparks.
Ron Sparks has been Alabama's Agriculture and Industry Commissioner since he was elected in 2002 over his Republican opponent by a 51-46 margin. In 2006, he was one of Alabama's top vote getters, enjoying a 59-41 victory while winning 62 of the state's 67 counties. During his first term in office, he secured new trade markets for the state in Cuba, improved Alabama's school lunch system from a grade of F to a B-plus (you can see Sparks' video message on YouTube), moved to protect Alabama's water resources, and generally served as a hard-nosed consumer safety advocate. His successful tenure allowed him to build a broad coalition of support, from the Alabama Education Association, to the conservative Alabama Farmers Federation (which endorses very few Democrats), to the AFL-CIO and the Business Council of Alabama. And he was able to build this coaltion all while being a fiery, populist Democrat.
Sparks is generally regarded as one of the Alabama Democratic Party's strongest stump speakers. Sparks is an authentic son of Alabama, and you can see it in his upbringing: he didn't just come from a family of mill workers, he was one himself, working alongside his grandmother in the local sock mills while in high school. During a stump speech, he easily weaves in themes of progressive populism that strike the right chords with Alabama's grassroots, reminding them why their daddies and granddaddies were Democrats--and why, even though the state hasn't voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee since 1976, Democrats have a three-point edge in partisan identification according to the latest Gallup polling.
Just to give you a taste, here's Sparks on issues of economic justice during the fall of 2006:
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of the $3 a gallon gasoline. I'm tired of seeing Exxon-Mobile bringing out these $10 billion profits. I'll tell you something: There's something wrong when you pay an executive, a CEO of a large company, $28,000 an hour," Sparks said to applause. "We haven't increased minimum wage in this country since 1997. We had a minimum wage in Washington, and they tied the estate tax to it."
He said the estate tax would give Vice President Dick Cheney a $61 million break and President Bush a $6.2 million break. Meanwhile, 7.3 million people work for minimum wage and 8.2 million work for a dollar over minimum wage, he said.
"It's not about the working people when you tie those two types of legislation together," Sparks said.
"Pour it on, brother," someone shouted, starting applause.
"The cost of living has increased 8.1 percent," Sparks said, adding that Americans are not saving anymore and that people are only saving at a pace that is the slowest since the Great Depression.
"The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer," Sparks said.
The nation is No. 1 among developed nations in poverty - and in billionaires, he said. Sparks said 37 million Americans live in poverty and 25 million go through food banks every day.
"That's wrong," he said, saying Democrats have to get that message out and what they stand for.
On treating America's veterans with respect:
"Things are not getting better in this country. You know, we've got a president who marched us off to war with no plan. I'm a veteran. I served this country. But there is something wrong when you carry your soldiers into battle and won't give them the tools to fight with," he said to applause.
"Don't send these young men and women across the water to fight for our freedom in this country when you won't give them a gun to fight with and you won't give them a bullet-proof vest.
"Then when they come home, you don't want to give them what they deserve. That's wrong, ladies and gentlemen," Sparks said, starting more applause.
And on dealing with the dreaded "L-word":
"Sometimes people say, `Commissioner, why do you get so emotional?' Because I'm sick and tired of people taking a simple word and spinning it and making us look like we're bad. Let me tell you something: I'm not ashamed of people saying, `Commissioner, you're a liberal,'" Sparks said, creating more applause.
He said he was taught by his grandmother that when people were less fortunate, you should help them and that everyone deserves the same education and healthcare.
"If that's a liberal, then I'm a liberal. They need to quit spinning it, folks, and we need to step up to the battle," Sparks said to more applause.
Like what you hear? So do I. And so does General Wesley Clark, who has become close friends with Sparks over the past several years--so much so that Clark agreed to preside over Spark's swearing-in ceremony earlier this year. His comment at the time:
"Ron Sparks is the epitome of a true public servant," said General Clark. "In the four years he's been in office, Ron has transformed the Department of Agriculture and Industries into a cutting edge, consumer oriented agency. He's a real innovator and I am proud to be a part of this ceremony for such a forward thinking leader and dedicated servant of the people of Alabama."
Sparks' name has popped up in the past few months as a potential opponent to Sessions, but my sources at the Alabama Democratic Party tell me that such a run is looking more and more possible. While Sparks would love to be Governor of Alabama some day, Folsom is the favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2010 and Sparks would never want to challenge his friend and colleague in a primary. Since Sparks is term-limited as Agriculture & Industry Commissioner, his other option would be to run for the Lt. Governor's office and wait out a hypothetical Folsom administration. Since the position is largely ceremonial in Alabama, such a course might be unappealing to a man of action like Sparks. Another possibility would be to keep his powder dry on the national scene next year and run for Richard Shelby's Senate seat in the event of a retirement in 2010, but he could face stiff opposition from Artur Davis in the primary and possibly Gov. Bob Riley in the general. Insiders have been persuading Sparks that a run in 2008 would be a good move, and I'm inclined to agree. For one thing, even if Sparks loses, a valiant effort would raise his profile and could earn him the right to a clear path to the Democratic nomination should Shelby retire in 2010.
While it would be one hell of an uphill battle, Ron Sparks is just the kind of guy we need to put Republican defenses to the test in even the reddest of the red states next year. And Sessions is hardly an institution in Alabama: his 52-35 approval rating is solid on the surface, but it's still nothing remarkable--especially when you consider that he scores a 46% approval rating from African-Americans, and it is virtually guaranteed that Sessions will score far less than 46% of the black vote in November 2008. While national Democrats have not had much success in Alabama, Sparks' brand of economic populism and down-home authenticity could potentially deliver a rare spectacle: a competitive Deep South Senate race where the Republicans are forced to play defense. If you happen to agree, please consider name-dropping Sparks on the new Senate recruitment form on the DSCC's web site.
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