Big business, trial lawyers square off in Alabama chief justice GOP primary
Battles between trial lawyers and business interests in court races are nothing new in Alabama, but campaign finance reports filed Tuesday suggest this year’s fight will play out within the Republican Party.
Chief Justice Lyn Stuart, who got the job after Roy Moore resigned and is seeking a full six-year term, reported raising $105,750 in March. For the entire cycle, Stuart has hauled in $257,655.
Stuart’s opponent in the June primary, Moore ally and fellow Justice Tom Parker, remained competitive with $100,750 in contributions last month. That gives him a total of $213,250 in donations since beginning the campaign last year.
The campaigns are on relatively equal footing as the campaign heats up. Parker has $135,647 cash on hand, while Stuart has $169,008 in the bank.
While the numbers are similar, the sources of the candidates’ funds are starkly different. Stuart has leaned heavily on political action committees aligned with business interests. Her biggest contributions in March, for instance, came from PACs associated with the Alabama Trucking Association and Alabama Farmers Federation. Each chipped in $10,000.
Parker, meanwhile, has gotten a majority of his funds from the Progress for Justice PAC, which gets its money from trial lawyers. The PAC gave $100,000 to Parker’s campaign on March 5 and followed up with another $100,000 contribution at the end of the month.
Stuart had crisscrossed the state and enjoys strong grass-roots support, said her campaign manager, Paul Shashy.
“We’re definitely satisfied,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people from across the state support her.”
Parker could not be reached for comment.
Shashy acknowledged the relative parity in campaign resources and said Stuart takes nothing for granted.
“Any race in Alabama has the potential to be close,” he said. “You can’t ever know.”
The Parker campaign issued a statement Wednesday a statement touting his record on the court: “Justice Parker has been a consistent pro-taxpayer, pro-business and pro-Constitution voice who is supported even by people who don’t always agree with him.”
The winner of the primary will have a Democratic opponent, former Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance. But he is having less success raising money; he has brought a total of $61,858 and has $35,868 cash on hand, according to his campaign finance report.
Campaign finance reports filed Tuesday also reflect a competitive primary for an associate justice slot on the court. Incumbent Brad Mendheim, appointed after Justice Glenn Murdock resigned earlier this year, raised more money than his two primary opponents combined last month.
But Sarah Stewart, a Mobile County Circuit Court judge, has kept close. Mendheim took in $109,600 last month, bumping his total for that campaign to $185,025. His largest donors last month were PACs associated with the Alabama Farmers Federation and the Retailers of Alabama. Each contributed $10,000.
Stewart raised most of her $88,000 last month from Mobile-area lawyers and law firms, in addition to $51,000 she received from a half-dozen PACs run by Michael Echols, a Tuscaloosa accountant who served as treasurer of then-Gov. Robert Bentley’s re-election campaign in 2012. Echols was once close to Bentley but had a falling out with him after his affair with an aide and helped the governor’s wife file for divorce.
Former U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, a Republican who represented southwest Alabama from 2003 to 2013, donated $250 to Stewart’s campaign.
Stewart, who has a campaign total of $174,592 in contributions, said Echols is her campaign accountant and has helped with fundraising. She said she believes her endorsement by the Business Council of Alabama helped attract money from Echols pro-business PACs.
She said she recently purchased ad time on Fox News and is trying to extend her name recognition beyond her southwest Alabama base and lawyers statewide who know her as president-elect of the state circuit judges association.
“I think I’ve gotten some broad-based support across the state. … The next 60 days will be interesting,” she said.
Mendheim touted the broad base of his support. His money has come from 90 different donors.
“I am encouraged by the support we have received to this point,” he said in a statement. “With just over two months until the primary election, it is critical that we continue our momentum and work to earn the support of individuals and groups across the state.”
Will Fuller, a spokesman for the campaign, said that Mendheim, “despite being in the race for only two months is working hard to reach the people of Alabama.”
Debra Jones lags far behind, having raised only $11,283.
There is no Democrat in the race.
In the other associate justice contest, Republican Jay Mitchell is far and away the campaign fundraising leader. He has pulled in $324,838, compared with just $1,500 raised by primary opponent John Bahakel, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the Alabama House of Representative in 2014.
Democrat Donna Smalley, who is unopposed for the nomination, reported raising a total of $8,125.
Story updated at 10:47 a.m. to include comments by Sarah Stewart.
Story updated at 12:31 p.m. to include comment from Parker campaign.