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Long-running fight for control of Alabama Democratic Party is back in court

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Alabama Democratic Party HQ

A sign outside the Alabama Democratic Party headquarters in Montgomery.

A federal judge will hold a hearing Tuesday in a long-running Alabama Democratic Party dispute that overturned party leadership in 2019.

Two former top officials in the party, Randy Kelley and Janet May, filed the lawsuit in January. They sued state Democratic Party Chair Chris England, the Democratic National Committee and the DNC chair.

Kelley and May base their claims on a 1989 lawsuit over Black representation on the State Democratic Executive Committee. That case was settled by a consent decree in 1991.

Kelley and May claim bylaws adopted by the SDEC in October 2019 violate the consent decree by reducing the influence of the party’s Black caucus to elect at-large members to the SDEC. They claim the bylaws violate the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and because they were adopted for the purpose of diluting Black voting strength.

Kelley and May asked the court to declare the bylaws violate the consent decree, the Voting Rights Act, and the Constitution, and to grant “any further relief which may in the discretion of the Court be necessary and proper.”

Barry Ragsdale, an attorney representing England and the other defendants, wrote in a response to the lawsuit that the bylaws do not violate the 1991 consent decree and uphold the principle of ensuring that Blacks are represented on the SDEC in proportion to their participation in Democratic primaries.

According to Ragsdale, 62.8 percent of SDEC members are Black, the same percentage as before the new bylaws. Ragsdale also noted that England is the first Black to serve as state chair of the party.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a disagreement that surfaced three years ago.

In August 2018, the SDEC re-elected Nancy Worley as party chair and Kelley as first vice chair. Some SDEC members filed complaints with the DNC about the way the election was conducted. The DNC said it found irregularities and ordered the SDEC to hold new elections for chair and first vice chair and to adopt new bylaws. DNC officials said the bylaws should provide for representation on the SDEC not only for Blacks, but also for other minorities.

On Oct. 5, 2019, the SDEC passed new bylaws that created new minority caucuses for LGBTQ, youth (35 and under), Hispanics, Asian-Pacific islanders, and Native Americans. A month later, they met again and elected England, a state representative from Tuscaloosa, to replace Worley as chair, and former Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham to replace Kelley as first vice-chair. The DNC and then-Sen. Doug Jones supported the changes.

Worley, Kelley, and longtime Democratic Party leader Joe Reed opposed the changes. Reed is chair of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the predominant Black political organization in the state. Kelley is vice chair of the ADC.

They did not recognize or participate in the adoption of the bylaws or the election of officers that followed. Instead, they supported actions taken at separate SDEC meetings in October and November 2019 and recognized Worley and Kelley as being re-elected to their posts.

But Worley’s efforts to reverse those changes failed in state court last year when a Montgomery judge dismissed the case, saying the court had no authority to settle a party dispute. Reed had said before that state court case was dismissed that the dispute was likely headed to federal court because of the consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Austin Huffaker will hold the hearing Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Montgomery.