History-making Alabama women seek PSC presidency

Published 7:32 pm Sunday, October 12, 2008

MONTGOMERY – Two women who made Alabama political history are trying to become president of the state’s utility regulatory board — a low-profile position that offers both candidates something they don’t have now: a public office.

Democrat Lucy Baxley, Alabama’s first female lieutenant governor, is trying to restart her political career after losing the 2006 race for governor and suffering a crippling stroke.

Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, the first woman to lead a major political party in Alabama, is trying to move into the public spotlight after many years in support roles.

The winner will make history again.

She will join the other two members of the Public Service Commission — Democrats Jan Cook and Susan Parker — to create an all-female commission.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners says it has no record of any other state having an elected utility board consisting entirely of women.

“It’s just one more thing to cross off the list of things that haven’t happened,” Baxley said.

Both candidates have been credited with crossing things off the list of male-dominated politics in Alabama.

Baxley, 70, was elected as Alabama’s first female lieutenant governor in 2002 after serving eight years in the traditionally female role of state treasurer.

In 2006, she became the Democratic nominee for governor, but got whipped by Republican incumbent Bob Riley in the general election. Three weeks later, as she was preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family in Birmingham, she suffered a stroke. Despite months of therapy, her left arm remains useless and her left leg weak.

She campaigns in a wheelchair pushed by her husband, Jim Smith.

“Everybody knows I had a stroke and I use this chair to get around in. But the stroke didn’t affect my mind and my heart, and that’s what I am going to use to serve the people with,” she said.

Cavanaugh, 42, got into politics by working for the state and national Republican parties and for the Republican governor. In 2005, she became the first woman to lead a political party in Alabama when the state Republican Party elected her chairman.

She held the chairmanship for two years and later returned to the governor’s staff as senior adviser — a post she left to run for the PSC.

In the campaign, Cavanaugh gets one question that Baxley doesn’t: Is the first name real?

Yes, her father picked it.

Baxley and Cavanaugh are seeking a post that doesn’t have as much power as the name implies. The president has the same vote as the other two commissioners, and the whole commission has less authority than it once did to regulate utilities, primarily due to deregulation in the phone business.

In campaign speeches, Cavanaugh recounts how she worked with the governor, the Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security Department to help Alabama recover quickly from two hurricanes and several major tornadoes that interrupted utility service.

If elected to the PSC, “I won’t need any on-the-job training. I know how to cut through red tape,” she said.

Baxley said she’s also been active in troubling times, but as an elected leader, not an employee.

“There is a real difference between being hired by an elected official and being an elected official,” she said.

Cavanaugh, like Baxley, has had health challenges. She had cancer in her leg four years ago and a tumor removed from her abdomen last year. Doctors discovered the tumor when delivering her daughter, An Wilkes, by Caesarean section.

“I feel very blessed I have not had any health problems in over a year,” she said.

Cavanaugh is currently in the middle of an RV tour to all 67 counties. She doesn’t mention Baxley in her speeches, but her opponent comes up.

“People say, ‘Who’s your opponent?’

“I say, ‘Lucy Baxley.’

“They say, ‘Oh, she must have her health back to be able to run.’

“I hope she has, but I’ll leave that up to the voters.”

Baxley’s health has become an issue for one of her past supporters. Tuscaloosa developer Stan Pate was one of her biggest backers in 2006, but he said he will vote for Cavanaugh on Nov. 4.

“I don’t think Governor Baxley is prepared to serve with her health problems,” Pate said in an interview.

Baxley said she entered the race after consulting with her doctors. She is not traveling every day like she did in her race for governor, but she has been to all regions of the state.

“This is not a job of physical strength. This is a job like most political offices. You do the job with your heart and mind, and neither of those was effected in my case,” she said.

Plenty of old friends agree, including the Alabama New South Coalition, which endorsed her.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, the group’s president emeritus, said Baxley may no longer be able to dash about the Capitol complex, but her views have not changed.

“She has always been a caring and concerned person, and that’s what you want on a commission dealing with utilities,” Sanders, D-Selma, said.

Baxley was committed enough to her campaign that she put her home in Birmingham up for sale and bought one in Montgomery. Baxley said state law requires the PSC president to live in Montgomery and to take office immediately after the election.

“I am confident about winning,” she said.

In the last three weeks of the Baxley-Cavanaugh campaign, a presidency other than the one at the PSC has become an issue.

Cavanaugh tells voters: “Mrs. Baxley is on the ticket with Barack Obama. I’m on the ticket with Sarah Palin and John McCain. That’s a real difference.”

Baxley says that has nothing to do with protecting utility consumers.

“She comes from a background of her first priority being the Republican Party. I’ve run on the Democratic ticket every time, but once I got elected, I served all the people of Alabama,” she said.