The four former Democrats officially became Republicans during the Monday meeting of the Calhoun County Republican Party.
Those who switched sides include Calhoun County Probate Judge Alice Martin, Calhoun and Cleburne counties Circuit Judge Brian Howell, Calhoun License Commissioner Barry Robertson and Calhoun Board of Registrars member Carolyn Henderson.
The changes come after Republicans in November gained control of the state House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. The power shift led to several politicians switching to the Republican Party, including Rep. Steve Hurst of Munford and three other Alabama representatives.
To Calhoun Republican Party Chairman Gene Howard, the recent switches give his party an advantage over the Democrats in the 2012 elections.
“The next focus for the state Democratic Party is going to be the courthouses, and what this does, this gives us the running start in 2012 for those elected positions, some of which are Democrats,” Howard said during a Tuesday phone interview. “County administration and county courthouse probate judge, circuit judge, commissioner of license – those are main functions of the county, and the people who chose to change their party affiliation were really choice people, and we’re fortunate to get them.”
Sheila Gilbert, chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democratic Party, was surprised about the party switches when a Star reporter asked her about them Tuesday.
“I kind of heard some rumors,” she said. “But I am a little disappointed with them that they did not contact the Democratic Party, and I am a little disturbed this is so close to the (general) election.”
Still, Gilbert did not fault the officials for switching sides.
“They have a right to do what they want to do,” she said. “We hate to lose them, but the Democratic Party will continue to be strong and move forward.”
Attempts to reach Robertson and Martin Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Howell said he made his decision to become a Republican nearly a year ago, long before the Republican power shift in the Legislature.
“It’s something I’ve been talking about with other Republicans,” he said. “I don’t identify with the national Democratic Party. The party has left me, and my ideals are more closely aligned with the Republican Party.”
Howell, who is currently serving his fourth year as judge, noted that his party affiliation would not matter when it came to his work.
“It does not matter what my personal opinions are – I am guided by the law,” he said. “I just have to declare a party; I wish I didn’t.”
Henderson, who is not elected but appointed to her position by the governor, the state auditor and state commissioner of agriculture and industries, said she decided to switch to better secure her position and because the Republican Party more accurately reflects her views.
All three board of registrar appointees are Republicans.
“I became a Democrat when my husband (County Commissioner Eli Henderson) first ran for election and what prompted the switch is that I would like to stay in my position on the board of registrars, and I don't want to ask someone to place me in a position if I’m not going to be true to the party that puts me in here,” Henderson said. “I just feel like if you ask a party to appoint you, you need to be loyal to that party. And I’ve always been more so of an independent; I have leaned more toward the Republican Party; I was raised as that.”
William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said despite several politicians across the state switching to the Republican Party after the November general election, the Democratic Party is not down and out.
“I’m not seeing being a Democrat being universally a handicap … not in the African-American areas and other areas,” Stewart said.
However, the Democratic Party is still weak and the Republican Party is likely to remain in power for some time, Stewart said.
“Even if the switches to the Republican Party don’t continue at a rapid pace, I still see the Republican Party as the dominate party … I think we’ll basically be a red state for quite a while,” he said.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.