Birmingham due to pick a black congressman


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Once a bastion of harsh racial politics, Alabama is going to choose its first black congressman since Reconstruction this year. The reapportionment on the basis of the 1990 census has produced a new 7th District running from here south to Selma that is more than 65 percent black.

The result is a Democratic primary with six black candidates and a Republican primary with three black candidates. The leading Democrats in the June 2 primary are state Sen. Earl Hilliard of Birmingham, state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma and county Commissioner John Knight of Montgomery, two of whom are expected to qualify for the runoff. The eventual Democratic winner will be the prohibitive favorite in the general election.

The redistricting has put an incumbent Democratic congressman, Ben Erdreich, in some peril. His 6th District in and around Birmingham now has fewer than 10 percent black voters, one-third as many as his old district -- a change that has three Republicans with some credentials competing intensely for the chance to run against him.

Erdreich remains favored, however, and the political betting now is that the Democrats will actually gain a seat in the state. The retirement of Republican Bill Dickinson in the 2nd District has opened the door for George Wallace Jr., the son of the former governor and one-time presidential candidate.

Wallace, now in his second term as state treasurer, faces a primary contest June 2 with Faye Baggiano, a former state official who almost knocked off Dickinson two years ago. But the Wallace name is still enough of a positive to make him the favorite.

Although he was hospitalized again the other day because of severe pain, the senior Wallace had emerged from seclusion to make some brief campaign appearances for his son earlier this month. The former governor has been paralyzed since he was shot at Laurel, Md., 20 years ago this month, and his health reportedly has been deteriorating.

The local contests have generated far more press and public interest than the presidential primaries in which both President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton are expected to win by overwhelming margins over perfunctory campaigns by their respective challengers, Patrick J. Buchanan and former Gov. Jerry Brown.

But some of the local supporters of both major party candidates are looking over their shoulders at independent Ross Perot. His fans here already have petitions bearing 25,000 names, five times as many as they need to place his name on the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election.

Going To The Dogs

Politicians aside, the campaign getting the most attention in Birmingham and Jefferson County is one that would authorize dog racing at the Birmingham Race Course. The air is filled with commercials and news stories pro and con.

The thoroughbred track has had a troubled history since it opened in 1985 -- so little business that it closed two years ago until taken over and reopened by entrepreneur Milton McGregor this year. The problem has always been the track's limited appeal to blacks, who make up roughly half the city's population. But blacks have been good patrons for dog racing tracks an hour or more away.

McGregor's plan is to use the track for both kinds of racing in different seasons, building an elevated dog track inside the thoroughbred oval. But a similar plan was rejected by county voters a year ago after a bitter referendum campaign in which opponents focused not only on the usual moral arguments against racing but also on the number of greyhounds that are routinely destroyed in the dog racing industry.

The same argument is being made this time, but now McGregor is running a more vigorous positive and personal campaign with the help of Squier, Eskew and Associates, a leading Democratic political consulting firm. It includes a two-minute television spot showing him with his family and including filmed testimonials to his character from neighbors in other Alabama communities in which he has done business. The commercial is intended to blunt complaints about McGregor's heavy giving to state

legislators -- $640,000 in the last three years.

McGregor has also promised to donate 4.5 percent of the betting handle for charities in the county, compared to the 2 percent he offered last year. The result is that polls now show the county is about to get dog racing after all.

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