One vote can make a difference

Published 11:39 pm Thursday, May 19, 2016

Last week we talked about how difficult it is to win passage of a legislative act. It does not matter if the proposed legislation is for apple pie and motherhood. If for nothing else, the bill has to go before both House and Senate committees, win approval, and not get an amendment put on it. If it gets an amendment on it, it has to basically start all over again. It then has to get placed on the special order calendar set by the Rules Committee and there are hundreds of bills waiting to get on this calendar and only a few bills ever get on the calendar each day and there are only 30 legislative days in the session. If it gets on the calendar, it then has to pass both chambers and hopefully the governor is also for apple pie and motherhood, because if he vetoes it, it has to start all over again.

Let me give you an example of a piece of apple pie and motherhood legislation I was asked to sponsor when I was a freshman legislator. There was a quirk in Alabama criminal law that allowed the family of a criminal defendant to be in the courtroom during a criminal trial but, unbelievably, the family of the crime victim could not be in the courtroom. The Victims of Crime Leniency (“VOCAL”) sought to correct this injustice.

VOCAL asked me to sponsor its bill and work for its passage. I worked diligently on the bill. The press gave the bill glowing editorials for its fairness. We got the bill out of the House, where it passed overwhelmingly. When it got to the Senate it was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was Sen. Earl Hilliard from Jefferson County. He was opposed to the bill and as Chairman of the Committee, he “deep sixed” it and would not let it out of committee. No amount of haranguing from VOCAL or bad press could budge Earl.

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Then, one day I was on the floor of the House and the VOCAL leader, Mrs. Miriam Shehane, called me out to the lobby. She said Earl would not be in Montgomery that day but the Senate Judiciary Committee was meeting and the Vice Chairman was going to bring up our bill out of order. We quickly went to the 6th floor and whisked our bill out of the Judiciary Committee. It won final approval in the Senate a few weeks later and became law. The old truism, “It takes an act of Congress,” is very accurate, especially in politics.

Also during legislative sessions, I am asked by people if their letter makes a difference. My response is, yes, definitely. Most legislators and congressmen want to know what their constituents are thinking. They generally want to vote like their districts feel. I would cherish this input and actually solicited it. Let me share with you a story which illustrates how important a letter to a legislator can become.

One year, I received a note from one of my favorite retired teachers. She had not only taught me but also taught my mom and dad. She was as fine a lady as I had ever known. Her note simply asked me to vote for some issue I perceived as not very controversial. I was not even cognizant of the issue until she made me aware of it, but she even referred to it by bill number. It did not pertain to education and like I said, it did not appear to have much opposition or controversy. I do not even remember what the issue was, now. However, because I revered this lady, I called her and told her due to her interest I would vote for the measure. I kept her note on my desk with the bill number referenced.

Lo and behold, about halfway through the legislative session, I saw the bill on the special order calendar for the day. I got primed for the vote. I voted for the bill simply because of the letter from my former teacher. To my amazement, I looked up at the large electronic vote tally machine and the bill passed by only one vote.  One vote can make a difference.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist.  His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers.  He served 16 years in the state legislature.  Steve may be reached at