BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Patricia Todd is openly gay, and she expected her sexual orientation to be an issue when she ran for a legislative seat representing a majority black district. What she didn't anticipate was the fight that broke out over the fact she is white.
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Todd, who defeated a black candidate in a runoff election last month, goes before a Democratic Party subcommittee on Tuesday to defend her 59-vote runoff win in House District 54, an area that includes both the richest and poorest neighborhoods of Birmingham.
A challenge filed over Todd's victory will turn solely on what happened during the vote and state election law, according to Joe Turnham, the state party chairman.
But the issue people are talking about is whether a white woman should get to represent a mostly black district in a state where blacks couldn't vote two generations ago and where race is still an overriding factor in carving out election districts.
Tainted racial politics?
A black Democratic leader urged black voters to support Todd's black opponent, Gaynell Hendricks, on the basis of race, and Todd fears racial politics may taint proceedings before the subcommittee.
"When do we get past this?" said Todd, who would become the first openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature. "I can't believe that in 2006 we're still electing people on the basis of race."
An attorney representing Hendricks in the election challenge said the case will center on claims that Todd tried to keep voters from knowing about a $25,000 donation to her campaign from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
"She was trying to mislead the voters," said Hendricks' lawyer, Raymond Johnson. "Race isn't the issue here."
Winning the Democratic nomination is tantamount to election since no Republican is running in District 54, which has a slight black majority.
Composed of an odd demographic mix, the district includes both impoverished, virtually all-black communities and a trendy neighborhood called Crestwood, where many white yuppies and gays have located.
Todd, associate director of AIDS Alabama, narrowly led Hendricks, a community activist, in primary balloting. They were vying for a seat held by retiring black Rep. George Perdue, D-Birmingham, and Todd said she was won partly by getting more crossover racial support than Hendricks in a district that is 52 percent black and 48 percent white.
Before the runoff on July 18, the longtime chairman of the black Democratic caucus, Joe Reed, wrote a letter urging black leaders to support Hendricks because of her race and stressing the need for keeping the seat in black hands.
Electing a white in a mostly black district would increase the chance of lawmakers redrawing the area as a majority white district after the 2010 Census, Reed claimed.
Reed's plea and the support of other black politicians wasn't enough: Todd defeated Hendricks 1,173-1,114, or 51 percent to 49 percent.
Hendricks' mother-in-law filed a challenge after the election, setting the stage for Tuesday's hearing before a five-member party subcommittee.
Johnson, Hendricks' lawyer, claims Todd should be stripped of the nomination because she purposely delayed filing a financial disclosure report that showed she received the $25,000 contribution from the pro-gay lobby.
Errors in tabulating the votes on election night also mean Hendricks should get the nomination, he said.
Todd denies that she was awarded any votes that weren't rightfully hers, and she said she filed her disclosure forms on time. Even if she didn't, Todd said, party rules would require only a fine, not stripping her of the nomination.
"There's no basis to any of the charges she made. Some of the things she's claiming the party doesn't even have control over," Todd said.
Todd said her only concern is if party leaders "stack the committee" to install Hendricks as the nominee in answer to Reed's claims about the district needing a black representative.
"It really does disturb me, all this talk about race. When I decided to run I never expected it to be a big deal," she said.
Turnham, the party chairman, will name the members of the committee. He laughed at the idea the panel would be engineered to assure a win for Hendricks.
"I think Ms. Todd is going to get a very fair hearing," said Turnham. "All the burden of proof is on Mrs. Hendricks. Ms. Todd is the apparent nominee."
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