Terri Sewell has a great life story, one you don't necessarily hear just listening to her stump speech as she travels Alabama's 7th Congressional District. She's working to become the Congresswoman from this sprawling district that includes parts of 12 counties, some of them the poorest in the state of Alabama. Ms. Sewell was raised in Selma, the heart of the 7th Congressional District, and is no stranger to the conditions there.
In previous appearances Ms. Sewell has come across as businesslike or even stiff (to be honest, that stiff image is one her opponents encourage) but when Left in Alabama sat down for an interview in her Birmingham campaign office we found a warm, well educated, articulate woman who is passionate about education, increasing opportunity and, yes, even financial reform. We also learned that she favors purple– note the purple tulips behind her, and the jacket — and reads LiA to keep up with state politics.
The 7th district includes Alabama's highest proportion of African-American voters and of female voters and, as a majority-minority district, it leans heavily Democratic. Incumbent Rep. Artur Davis is retiring to seek Alabama's governorship, and there is a spirited primary campaign underway among four Democrats seeking to replace him. Considering that Alabama has never elected a woman to Congress, it's fascinating that three of the four candidates – Ms. Sewell, political activist Martha Bozeman and Jefferson County Commissioner Shelia Smoot – are women. The fourth is State Rep. Earl Hilliard, Jr., whose father represented the 7th District until Davis defeated him in 2002. Even more fascinating (and puzzling) is the fact that none of these women is openly running on the notion that it's time for Alabama to send a woman to Congress.
When I asked Ms. Sewell whether she believes the time is ripe for Alabama to send a woman to Congress and it's fitting that the 7th District, with such a high proportion of women voters, should be the first, she replied, “Women shouldn't vote for me because I'm a woman, but because I'm the best candidate.” That's actually a very good answer, although considerably less satisfying than “Heck, yes!” Follow below the fold for the entire interview and meet Terri Sewell, a local girl done good, who has come from humble beginnings, achieved a truly excellent education, and returned home to try and make sure others have the kind of opportunities she's taken advantage of.
Terri Sewell grew up in Selma, Alabama where her parents were teachers and activists. The schools in Selma were already integrated in her day, but the community was far from prosperous, and money was definitely tight in her family. An avid reader, she had “travelled in books way before I had an opportunity to travel in real life.” She never considered herself “poor” or limited her aspirations, either. “I think it's a great credit to the teachers that I had. I think excellent teachers produce good students and I feel blessed to have had really wonderful teachers both black and white that encouraged me.” Growing up, Terri was a Girl Scout and a member of the high school debate team, an activity that not only allowed her to travel to neighboring states, but attracted the attention of a local Princeton alum who recruited her to go to college there. She was already a high achiever — valedictorian of her high school class, a first for any black student in Selma.
“The values that were instilled in me very early on of hard work, and personal responsibility and faith, I think that those were the values that really helped me go to a place like Princeton and not be intimidated and know that I could still compete. … I knew I was going to go to college, but I just didn't know where. Frankly, it was a life changing event. I had to both literally and mentally take the leap from Selma High School to Princeton. … I'm happy to say that I was very much prepared. … We didn't have reading lists that were as expansive as some of my classmates at Princeton. … I held my own. The fact that this little girl from Selma, Alabama could graduate with honors from Princeton is a credit not just to me but to the public school system that nurtured me.”
After graduating with honors from Princeton, Sewell studied for two years at Oxford University, earning a master's degree in politics. “Believe it or not, when I first arrived in England, the hot topic was whether or not they would be electing their first black members of Parliament. Now this is 1987, in England, that did not have legalized segregation and didn't have formalized slavery …” Sewell contacted two of those candidates and worked on the campaigns of Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng, two of the the three black members of Parliament elected that year.
Ms. Sewell says that in some ways she learned more outside the classroom than inside it at Oxford because she was exposed to so many different cultures and attitudes. “It was a very eye opening experience for me having grown up in Selma where everything was black and white to realize that life is full of shades of gray.” After Oxford she attended Harvard Law School, where she was editor of the Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review. Back in Alabama, she clerked for Judge U.W. Clemon, the first African-American federal judge in Alabama. Just last week Judge Clemon endorsed Ms. Sewel's candidacy for Congress. As with so many college graduates, Ms. Sewell's excellent education left her deep in debt, in spite of several scholarships.
“I came back home literally right after college and clerked for Judge Clemon … and was very close to joining the U.S. Attorney's office until I got my first loan repayment coupon which was $141,000. While my parents were very proud of me for going to those schools, they were teachers and did not know how I was going to pay back that kind of money. So I began my formative legal experience in New York and when I paid off my loans I came back home.”
A lawyer friend explained to me that not many young lawyers have the chance to practice financial law in New York. This is considered a prime opportunity not just because the pay is good, but because it's a chance to acquire invaluable experience and contacts, and it's a mark of accomplishment. After practicing in New York for several years, Ms. Sewell came back home to put her financial experience to work in Alabama as the first black female partner in the law firm of Maynard, Cooper, & Gale.
“I came back home leveraging that finance experience to really benefit underserved communities in Alabama. It was what I wanted to do and I'm very pleased that my law partners, even though it was not profitable the first year … let me choose the kind of clients I wanted to go after.”
Ms. Sewell's campaign website identifies her as a “public finance lawyer” and I had to ask just what that means. “A public finance lawyer is a lawyer that represents local governments, local school boards, local water authorities and they help them find resources to do capital improvement projects, to do public-private partnerships that would recruit industries creating jobs. I help raise money to do public projects, whatever those projects might be.” Clients Ms. Sewell is most proud of include:
- City of Selma
- Dallas County
- Alabama State University
- Tuskegee University
- Stillman College
Terri Sewell's Priorities for the 7th CD:
“The number one issue in the 7th Congressional District is exactly the number one issue for my parents' generation … and that's job creation. Job creation has to be our number one priority,” Ms. Sewell says before laying out the four points of her plan to create jobs in Alabama:
- Infrastructure investment – This is needed in both rural and urban areas. Mass transit is needed for Birmingham. “The Black Belt has basic water and sewer infrastructure needs which means they can't compete for industries until that's fixed.” Infrastructure investment has started but the bottleneck in Montgomery has not allowed Stimulus money trickle down to the communities that need it in the Black Belt.
- Investment in human capital – We have to truly invest in workforce development. “The best business development plan is a good education.” There has to be technical and career training, “not everybody wants to go to college, but everybody needs to be able to provide for their families.”
- Investment in small businesses — Start up businesses, internet businesses. Getting tax incentives for small businesses and tax credits for hiring new employees would be a priority.
- Investment in technology — She mentions investment in alternative energy sources, especially biofuel from wood waste. “Is it a long term investment? Yes, but we've got to start somewhere.”
Ms. Sewell is convinced that her experience and expertise are exactly what voters of the 7th CD will be looking for this year. “At the end of the day, voters need to look at who can credibly bring home job creation. For 15 years of my life I've been working in finance and in economic development and in infrastructure improvement, bringing home industries, attracting industries, better infrastructure and creating jobs. … People are excited about our candidacy because of that. They see a local girl, done good, who has come back home, with an expertise that is right up the alley of what we need in Washington. Job creation and finance and committed to bringing opportunities and resources back home that will help our children reach their full potential.”
Ms. Sewell maintains that better educational opportunites and job creation are the solutions to high rates of poverty and unemployment in Alabama's 7th Congressional District. “It saddens me to go around this district and meet little children who at the age of 9 and 10 … they've limited themselves in what they can do and their prospects, at the age of 9! It's unacceptable! It really is unacceptable … I've told you what I was doing at 9 years old. I was reading books and seeing the Statue of Liberty. I didn't know how I was going to get there, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I would.”
Where Terri Sewell Stands on Progressive Issues:
Health Care – While the recently passed bill was not perfect, Ms. Sewell says was a step in the right direction. “Health care should be a right for all Americans … Health care should be about a right and not a fight.” She believes that competition is needed to bring down costs and a “robust public option needs to be back on the table.” She vows to push to keep that public option on the table if elected.
Equal Pay – Ms. Sewell says that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was just one step, but there is more work to be done to guarantee equal pay for equal work. “I grew up in a family of workers and I know that this state and this nation has been built on the backs of working class families who deserve to have good benefits, who deserve to have the right to unionize if they want to unionize.”
Reproductive Choice – “I believe that a woman's reproductive decisions should be made between herself and her doctor … I would fight to continue to have the legal protections that are afforded women in Roe v. Wade. And I would fight any erosion of that. … People want abortions to be rare and safe. All of us want that, but I believe a woman's reproductive decisions need to be made by her and her doctor and I would fight for that in Congress.”
Gay Marriage – “I believe it's a civil rights, human rights issue. And I believe that in 2010 that we should not discriminate against any group of people in this nation. I think I come from that because I'm an African-American woman who knows what it's like to be discriminated against, for sex and for race. … I'm really for a state's right to decide what they want to do when it comes to civil unions and gay marriage and would respect a state's right to choose for that. I think for me personally, I would be more in favor of civil unions than I would in favor of gay marriage. … I believe that people's partners should be able to share in their health benefits and be able to inherit their property from their significant others.”
Financial Reform – “I would be an advocate for transparency and accountability on Wall Street. It's critically important. … I would be all for and, in fact, because I understand it, would be a leading advocate of developing legislation that would provide transparency for Wall Street and financial services industries as well as accountability. It is, to me, disheartening that the very people that got us into this situation, we've bailed out, and they've given those same fat cats huge bonuses when we in Main Street are suffering each and every day.”
Terri Sewell Makes Her Case:
AL-07 has the highest proportion of women registered voters of any district in Alabama. When I asked her if she thought it was time Alabama sent a woman to Congress and if the 7th District should be the first, Terri Sewell said, “I absolutely do, not because we just need to send a woman, but beause I believe that a woman candidate, this cycle, is the right candidate and the best candidate to send to Washington. And women shouldn't vote for me because I'm a woman, but because I'm the best candidate. I think I'm the best candidate on the issues.” She referred to a recent study showing that when women participate in government, issues important to families and children are more likely to be discussed and resolved. “In this election cycle, I think the best choice for the 7th Congressional District is a woman. Voters should vote for me not because I'm a woman, but because I'm the best candidate”
Ms. Sewell is pleased to have broad support from people across the entire district and from all walks of life. “This campaign has been able to attract the most individual donors. We are so proud of the $5 donations that we receive from women who are excited about the prospects of having someone who understands finance, fiscal responsibility, budgeting, getting up there and fighting on behalf of our economy and turning it around. I'm convinced that the voters on June 1st will go to the polls and vote for the person that they believe will most credibly be able to unite this district around our many needs and who will credibly and most convincingly bring back those resources to the 7th Congressional district.”
Having great ideas is one thing, but the last year has illustrated just how hard it is to translate those ideas into action in Congress. Ms. Sewell says that her experience in conflict resolution as a lawyer would allow her to find win-win solutions and bring resources back home for the district. “I have been blessed to have the opportunity to go to school with some of the lawmakers that are currently in Congress and in the White House [including both the President and the First Lady] and I think that I could leverage those experiences and those contacts to benefit the 7th Congressional District.” She says all campaigns will be talking about job creation this year, but “I believe that this campaign is the campaign that can most credibly deliver on that promise.”
Terri Sewell says, “Alabama and the 7th Congressional District needs an advocate on behalf of the whole district, not just the urban part of this district, but the rural part of this district.” She lives and works in Birmingham now, but because of her Black Belt roots Terri Sewell “gets” the special needs of rural Alabama and believes she is the strongest possible advocate for the people there.
The primary election is June 1st. While there is a Republican running for the 7th CD seat, in all likelihood the outcome of the Democratic primary will determine the next Congressperson from this district. You can connect with Terri Sewell at her website, on Facebook, or Twitter. You may also make a secure, online contribution to her campaign through ActBlue.