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Party-Switcher Shelby Rolls On

May 27, 1998 GMT

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) _ When Sen. Richard Shelby defected to the Republican Party back in 1994, the Democrats vowed to get even come election time.

Four years later, the only obstacle in the path of Shelby’s re-election to a third term is a little-known Democrat who had to mortgage his pickup truck just to pay his qualifying fee.

In fact, after failing to persuade a big-name Democrat to challenge Shelby and his $5 million re-election war chest, Alabama Democratic leaders spent the last day of the qualifying period in April trying to keep their party from fielding any candidate at all.


``Any time Shelby has opposition, you bring out more Republicans to vote for him, and they’ll vote a straight Republican ticket,″ said Stuart Burkhalter, a longtime Democrat and president of the Alabama AFL-CIO.

Shelby’s lone challenger is Clayton Suddith, a retired ironworker and former Franklin County commissioner who scraped together the $2,672 qualifying fee just before the deadline. He said the only person who urged him not to run was his wife.

``She was stunned,″ he said.

Shelby’s journey from party switcher to one of the Senate’s most politically secure incumbents has been fueled both by his fund-raising ability and his skill at using key committee assignments to ensure that Alabama gets a big piece of the federal pie.

Shelby became the Democratic Party’s No. 1 turncoat after a feud with President Clinton.

As a Democrat in 1993, he openly criticized Clinton’s deficit-reduction plan for relying too heavily on taxes. In 1995 he played a high-profile role in Senate hearings into Clinton’s Whitewater real estate dealings. Then he used his position as chairman of the Intelligence Committee to block Clinton’s choice of Anthony Lake as CIA director.

After switching parties, however, Shelby maintained a voting record friendly to trial lawyers, the top source of Democratic campaign money in Alabama. Drawing from both lawyers and the business community, Shelby raised so much money that no high-profile Democrat would even consider challenging him.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby also has not hesitated to take care of the folks back home, particularly Huntsville, a booming, high-tech space and missile defense center.


Last year, for example, he was instrumental in securing more than $85 million in funding for four huge projects at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal.

Long forgotten was Clinton’s 1993 transfer of 90 top NASA jobs from Huntsville to Texas in retaliation for Shelby’s public snub of Vice President Gore.

At a Huntsville Chamber of Commerce dinner earlier this year, Steve Raby, a former top aide to now-retired Democratic stalwart Sen. Howell Heflin, saluted him for his ``phenomenal″ work on behalf of Redstone.

``I mean, this man knows what appropriations committees are all about. And he uses it to serve this part of the state,″ Raby said.

After Raby’s introduction, Shelby downplayed his role in keeping the federal dollars flowing into Huntsville.

``What I’ve been able to do here on several occasions is state the national purpose, that it is not a parochial deal, that it is not a piece of pork for Madison County or Huntsville,″ he said. ``That’s why we’re growing in Huntsville. It has to have a national purpose.″

But Shelby hasn’t been at all shy about pushing Alabama projects even when their national purpose has been questioned.

After Clinton used his line-item veto last year to kill a $400,000 regional tornado preparedness center Shelby had secured for the town of Arab in northern Alabama, Shelby revived the project in this year’s emergency spending bill. And he threw in an additional $600,000 to buy the state a mobile emergency response vehicle.

He made his move the week after Clinton had visited Alabama to see the aftermath of a tornado that struck near Birmingham in April, killing 34 people and injuring at least 265.

``I would hope that President Clinton would think twice before vetoing the funding needed for these important response components,″ Shelby said.