Sewell Turns Alabama House Race Into a Dead HeatWASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Terri Sewell, a political novice running to be the first African American woman to represent Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives, has captured strong backing from women’s groups and Democrats nationally.

She heads into today’s primary as a long-shot candidate now in a dead heat with two main rivals, Shelia Smoot and Earl Hilliard, for the seat of four-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Artur Davis, who is stepping aside to run for governor. Davis is known for being the only African American member of Congress to oppose the recently enacted national health care law.

If the vote is too close today a July 13 runoff may be called.

In her bid to represent Alabama’s 7th Congressional District–which runs southwest from Birmingham–Sewell made up for her relatively low name recognition with an assertive push for support from national women’s groups. She has won endorsements from EMILY’s List, the National Organization for Women PAC and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Those groups in turn drew other Democrats from across the country behind her campaign.

"She’s a tough cookie and she’s put together a great campaign," said Jen Bluestein Lamb, communications director for EMILY’s List, the Washington-based lobby that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates.

Much of the campaign has focused on improving economic opportunities in the district, in which a quarter of the residents have incomes below the federal poverty level. The state faces an 11 percent unemployment rate.

The economic initiatives promised by Sewell, including efforts to garner federal tax credits and incentives for businesses to help them grow and hire new workers and increased funding for work-force development and career and technical education, are touted by her supporters. As a public-finance lawyer with experience raising money for capital projects, Sewell is seen as uniquely qualified to seek funds to spur so-called green manufacturing jobs and to improve infrastructure.

Funding Advantage

President Obama has not taken an official position on the race but his political organization, Organizing for America, has called for support of Sewell on its Web site.

Sewell’s national profile garnered the Birmingham lawyer $759,000 from individuals and $23,750 from political action committees as of May 12, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Those figures dwarf the campaign chests of her opponents in the predominantly Democratic and African American district. All the candidates are African American. The second-best fundraiser is state Rep. Hilliard, an attorney and former local filmmaker, who raised $208,000 from individuals and $116,000 from political action committees.

Sewell’s donor list includes New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, who has been a friend since they were both first-year associates at Davis Polk and Wardwell, an international law firm based in New York City. Sewell tapped their friendship early and has done so often over the course of the campaign, asking for help in fundraising and even advice on how to ask donors for campaign donations, said Aaron Dickerson, a campaign media staffer.

Sewell’s funding advantage has boosted her profile in a race where local news outlets describe her as the least-known candidate for the seat. Hilliard, the son of a former congressman, and Jefferson County Commissioner Shelia Smoot have already established local political profiles.

Win Will Boost Representation

Sewell’s election to a seat now held by a man could boost the number of women beyond the 73 female representatives, three female delegates and 17 female senators currently serving in Congress. Specifically, Sewell’s win will mean an increase to 3.9 percent congressional representation by women of color, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J.

As recently as mid-April, Sewell was polling with 13 percent support of Democratic voters, compared to 33 percent for Smoot and 28 percent for Hilliard, according to a poll commissioned and released by Smoot’s campaign.

However, after Sewell launched an ad blitz that month and in early May, she had moved into a tie with Smoot by mid-May.

An internal Sewell poll released in May found her tied with Smoot at 22 percent of likely Democratic voters, while Hilliard had dropped to a close third with 20 percent. The findings were based on a telephone survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research May 13 to 16, with a 4.9 point margin of error.

The internal polls, which are generally released by candidates when they show favorable results, are not considered as reliable as independent polls.

Smoot, who is also ardently pro-choice, has not attracted the same national support because of concerns that she was one of the targets of a 2007 Securities and Exchange Commission investigation regarding the sale of county bonds, according to national activists.

Local Support

Sewell’s local support includes endorsement by media outlets such as the Birmingham News, which mentioned her Princeton University undergraduate and Harvard Law School degrees but emphasized her local roots.

"Growing up in Selma and now living in Birmingham, she has a clear grasp of the issues at both ends of the district," the paper’s editors wrote, referring to both the various urban and rural regions of the county that is split between blue collar and white collar workers.

The high regard of local opinion leaders toward Sewell caught the attention of EMILY’s List long before Sewell vaulted out of last place in the polls, said Bluestein Lamb.

"Our members have responded because of how positive local people are toward her campaign," Bluestein Lamb said.

Claire Giesen, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which provides bipartisan support for pro-choice candidates, said her organization was drawn to Sewell’s campaign for similar reasons.

"She’s an activist candidate and truly cares about the people," Giesen said.

EMILY’s List has another candidate in the June 1 elections: New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who is unopposed for her party’s nomination in the gubernatorial race. Among the Republicans vying to face Denish, only one leads her: Susana Martinez, with 49 percent support compared to 43 percent for Denish, according to a May SurveyUSA poll.

Rich Daly is a writer in Washington D.C.