Few Alabama legislative districts are viewed as competitive on November 8.
There are even fewer opportunities for Republicans to flip a Democratic district given the GOP’s supermajority status in the Legislature.
Read more on Election 2022 in Alabama:
But South Alabama GOP leaders believe they got a shot to wrest away a Senate seat held for the past 25 years by Democratic Senator Vivian Figures. Their candidate is a longtime conservative commentator who helped organize a bus ride to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, to protest the presidential election.
A stark clash is brewing between Figures and Republican Pete Riehm for the Senate District 33 seat, which now includes a portion of Republican-leaning Baldwin County. It’s become one of the hottest legislative battles in Alabama ahead of the November 8 midterm elections.
The stakes are high, and a bit of history is likely to be made:
- If Riehm pulls the upset and wins in a district that is 61% Black, it will end the Figures dynasty in South Alabama politics. Since 1978, either Vivian Figures or her late husband, Michael, have held the Senate District 33 seat. It will also further erode the number of Democratic senators in Montgomery. Right now, there are only eight Democratic senators to 27 Republicans.
- If Figures wins, as most political observers predict, it will mark the first time in recent memory that a Democratic senator won an election that included a portion of Baldwin County, a Republican stronghold. Through redistricting, a portion of Spanish Fort was added into the district. The last time a Democratic candidate won an election in Baldwin County was in 1996. Countywide Democratic officeholders were all swept out of office in 2000, and none have gotten close to winning back a seat since then.
“I think it’s the race of the state,” said Michael Hoyt, chairman of the Baldwin County Republican Party. “Most of these other races have been hashed out. There are few (competitive seats) and this one really gives the party the opportunity to flip a longtime Democratic seat to our side.”
Said Ben Harris, chairman of the Mobile County Democratic Party, “It’s certainly a strong Democratic district. We believe we have a good, strong candidate and obviously while the (district’s boundary) lines have changed, Senator Figures will serve her new constituents just as well as she serves everyone.”
Presidential protest to candidate
Riehm, 62, is hoping that does not happen, and he’s campaigning on a more centric platform than his past would suggest. He said if elected, he will work with Democrats within the district and in Montgomery on issues like health care and educational reform. He also points to his campaign literature, which does not list his partisan affiliation, “Republican.”
“Everyone knows that I’m a conservative guy and I don’t have to tell anyone that or flaunt it,” Riehm said. “But I have friends across the political spectrum, particularly in civic and veterans’ groups. They might say, ‘we disagree with Pete about certain things, but we know that he will be fair and genuine on what he says.’”
Indeed, Riehm is an unabashed conservative who co-founded the Common Sense Campaign tea party in 2009, and ran for Congress in 2012. Since 2011, he has hosted a weekly radio show called “Common Sense Radio.” He has been writing a political column on the website, RenewAmerica.com, since 2015. Riehm also spearheaded a push several years ago to get the phrase, “In God We Trust” posted in civic buildings throughout coastal Alabama.
Riehm helped to organize a bus trip of about 30 people to the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. No one on the trip was involved in the riot – and Riehm said the group left Washington, D.C. during the violence. But the trip to Washington, D.C., led to a federal court battle after his firm’s parent company, NAI Global, attempted to terminate Riehm because of involvement.
Federal court records say the FBI interviewed Riehm in Mobile. NAI Global then contacted NAI Mobile and requested they terminate him and issue a statement condemning the violence on January 6. Neither happened, and then NAI Global then terminated its agreement with its the Mobile firm.
The breach of contract case filed by NAI Mobile made its way to a jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. A jury ruled in April in favor of NAI Mobile, now CRE Mobile, and rewarded the company $1.25 million in lost profits and rebranding expenses.
Riehm is trying to separate himself from January 6 and the federal court case. He says his campaign for Senate District 33 has nothing to do with the presidential contest.
“This has nothing to do with the campaign, and I’m not trying to get anyone’s endorsement,” said Riehm. “I’m talking about the things we want to do for South Alabama in Montgomery. The things we want to do for the state of Alabama. There is no overlap with national issues and there is no overlap with January 6.”
Figures, 65, said Riehm’s attendance in Washington, D.C., is concerning and divisive. She points to a comment Riehm made to media outlets on January 6, in which he said that if lawmakers feel threatened during the riot “wait until we come back.”
“We do not need that representation in the Alabama State Senate,” said Figures, calling the riot at the Capitol an “insurrection.”
“I have always worked to bring people together, to find common ground and I have a great reputation of working with members across the aisle to find common ground with issues there,” she said.
Riehm responded, “That’s her opinion. I was there for January 6, but I was not there for an insurrection, and I did not see an insurrection.”
Riehm said he believes the 2020 presidential election is settled and compares the outcome to a hypothetical football game that ends in controversy.
“What if someone came out with the smoking gun evidence that it was stolen? What do we do? What’s the mechanism?” Riehm said. “I don’t know the answer to that. It’s like looking at the tape and saying Alabama and Georgia need to come back and play a game (that ended years ago).”
He added, “I know I might get into trouble for saying it, but we are where we are, and we just need to keep moving forward.”
Residency and debate
Riehm, meanwhile, is questioning Figures and her residency, and is criticizing the longtime senator for being absent within her district.
“We don’t know where she lives, and we haven’t found anyone who knows where she lives,” Riehm said.
Figures responded, with a chuckle, “Just ask my neighbors where I live. That’s my response.”
The same Toulminville home that is listed under Figures’ name, and which she has a homestead exemption, was the target of gunfire in June 2021. Figures was not home when it was shot at 23 times.
Mobile police have not apprehended anyone in that case and continue to ask the public to call them with any information.
Riehm also wants to debate Figures, something she said she will not do.
“I would cherish the opportunity to have a debate with her,” he said. “It’s not about her and it’s not about me. It’s about the citizens of District 33 hearing from their candidates and comparing and contrasting and making an informed choice and letting them examine the candidates and decide for themselves. I think it would be good for the people of District 33.”
Figures said that Republicans in Alabama avoid debating.
“I believe he knows I would say, ‘No,’ and he really doesn’t want to debate me,” she said. “In fact, I think if he was a real Republican … none of the Republicans are debating anyone as I understand.”
Riehm said that Figures has been absent in addressing the needs of her district. He accuses her of not pushing hard enough for Prichard to be included as an economic opportunity zone, a designation aimed a spurring economic growth and job creation in low-income communities by providing tax breaks to investors.
“It’s a neglect thing to me,” said Riehm, who is advocating for providing state incentives to support local businesses in disadvantaged areas. “What area in South Alabama is more disadvantaged than Prichard? There is none. What area of South Alabama is not in an opportunity zone? Prichard. How did they get left out when a large portion of Mobile is in an opportunity zone?”
Figures said it’s up to the governor, not state senators, to decide what areas are granted the designation.
She said if re-elected, she would like to do more in connecting with the residents of District 33 and is pitching the formation of a “think tank kitchen cabinet committee” that will consist of people appointed from various communities within the district.
Each committee member, Figures said, will have meetings within their communities, gather information and suggestions which will be forwarded to her office.
“Different communities have different issues and problems,” Figures said. “It might not be a state issue, but I want to help them navigate and educate the community on various (governmental) responsibilities. If they have problems, (the committee will assist the public) on where to go to get help. I want to build that up.”
Figures, a professional mediator, said she is also in a unique position of leadership when it comes to big issues affecting her district, namely the $2.7 billion Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. The bridge project and traffic detouring from the toll route is likely to affect the Africatown community, which is District 33.
Riehm said he wants to prioritize concerns in the lower income communities of the district, namely Prichard, and prioritize spending for city’s beleaguered water system. An active U.S. Navy veteran who was named Mobile County’s 2020 “Veteran of the Year,” Riehm is also pushing to ensure that the state department of veterans’ affairs is properly funded.
Riehm is also supportive of school choice, vouchers and establishing local control of the district’s schools. He said health care is a top issue, and he wants to ensure state funding gets to the right agencies that support the homeless and mental health.
Riehm acknowledges he’s the underdog, and campaign finance records though the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office suggest Figures with a strong advantage. Figures has raised $202,600 to Riehm’s $87,239.
He has endorsements of ForestPAC, the political action arm of the Alabama Forestry Commission. The Baldwin County GOP provided Riehm with $10,000 and set up its campaign headquarters in Spanish Fort with the focus on the District 33 race.
Figures is bolstered with political action committee support, including $20,000 recently from the Alabama Education Association’s A-Vote PAC.
Voter turnout will be key. Mobile County’s turnout in recent elections has been abysmal, with 17.4% showing up to vote during the May 24 primary election – the lowest among the largest counties in the state. The runoff election saw only 8.4% of the county’s registered voters show up.
Last August, under a quarter of Mobile’s voters showed up to cast a ballot in the city elections. It was noticeable drop from 36.6% turnout in 2017.
Figures said she will be a representative of all voters if she is re-elected, including the traditionally Republican areas in Spanish Fort that were added into District 33 through redistricting.
Figures voted against the redistricting plan, but she said she will embrace her new constituents if re-elected.
“I work with everyone, and I am an independent thinker who will make the decisions that are in the best interest of the people I serve based on the facts and figures before me,” she said.
Riehm said he believes the political tides are on his side. He said a weak slate of statewide Democratic candidates, along with an anticipated increase of Republican voters nationally during the midterm elections, will bode well for him.
Jon Gray, a GOP political strategist based in Mobile, said it will be hard for Riehm to pull off.
“Can Pete win? Yes, he can win,” said Gray. “Voter apathy is at an all-time high and there is not Democrat anywhere in South Alabama in a contested race. If you have turnout that is in the 15 to 20 percentage range, and it’s mostly Republican voters who are predominately voting, it’s possible that Pete Riehm will win.”
He added, “Because voter turnout is going to be so low and there is no organized Democratic effort to do anything anywhere, I think this race is a lot closer. But even with that, I don’t think it’s probable that Pete wins the Senate race. The district is not even close to being 50-50.”
If that occurs, Baldwin County – the state’s fastest growing county for the past 10 years or more – will have rare Democratic representation.
“Senator Figures has a reputation for being an honest broker and a true public servant who fights to lift up all voices, which is precisely what we need in the fastest growing county in the state,” said Jason Fisher, chairman of the Baldwin County Democrats.
Coming Monday: Campaign flyer in District 33 race falsely accuses Democrats of redrawing legislative boundaries to place Spanish Fort in same district with Mobile and Prichard.