Columnist joins crowded Public Service Commission race against fellow Republican
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 08, 2014 | 3573 views |  0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Political commentator Steve Flowers of Troy, Ala., is seen before he announces his candidacy for the Alabama Public Service Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, in Montgomery, Ala. Flowers is joining the field of five Republican candidates seekingr the Public Service Commission opening. (AP Photo/Phil Rawls)
Political commentator Steve Flowers of Troy, Ala., is seen before he announces his candidacy for the Alabama Public Service Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, in Montgomery, Ala. Flowers is joining the field of five Republican candidates seekingr the Public Service Commission opening. (AP Photo/Phil Rawls)
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MONTGOMERY — A newspaper columnist and former lawmaker announced a run for the Public Service Commission on Wednesday, becoming the fourth candidate seeking to unseat a fellow Republican.

The announcement by Steve Flowers, who already has $330,000 in his campaign coffers, could change the landscape in the race for Place 2 on the commission, a three-person board charged with regulating the state's utilities.

Sitting Commissioner Terry Dunn, a Republican from Gadsden, caught intense criticism from some fellow Republicans in 2012, after he proposed the PSC hold formal hearings to look more closely at the rates Alabama Power and other utilities are allowed to charge their customers.

Critics said Dunn was in league with environmentalists who hoped to use the hearings to shut down the state's coal-fired power plants; Dunn has always maintained that reviewing rates simply made business sense.

"I'm interested in growing Alabama's economy to bring good-paying jobs," Flowers said at his announcement.

Last year, three Republicans — media company owner Jonathan Barbee, former Greene County Commissioner Chip Beeker and Alabama Minority GOP leader Phillip Brown — announced they'd run against Dunn in the Republican primary.

With Flowers’ announcement Wednesday, there are now five Republicans in the race. Flowers said he stood a good chance in the primary because people recognize his name.

"Our name ID rivals Twinkle's," he said, referring to PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, whose campaign signs often featured only her first name.

Flowers served in the Alabama House, representing Pike County, from 1982 to 1998 — but he's best known as a political commentator on television and in print.

His weekly political column appears in dozens of small newspapers across the state, and he hosts a political talk show that runs on Troy University's public television station.

Flowers downplayed the rate-hearings controversy in his Tuesday announcement, describing himself as a business-friendly conservative and saying the PSC should be "an economic development arm of the governor's office."

"We're going to make sure that Alabama continues to have some of the lowest utility rates in the country," he said.

Ask if he favored rate hearings, Flowers said he was open to the possibility, but would have to study the issue more. He said he'd also like to look into whether the PSC, which has authority over some in-state telephone companies, could regulate charges for calls from the state's prisons. Flowers said he'd heard of inmates being charged as much as $25 for a single call.

Like other Republican challengers in the race, he noted that he supported the state's coal producers. Eliminating coal from the power supply, he said, would raise Alabamians' electrical bills.

"I unashamedly and unabashedly welcome the endorsement of the coal industry," he said.

Three other candidates for the seat stressed their support for coal, and concern about environmental lobbying, in telephone interviews with The Star Wednesday.

"We're facing a serious situation in the state of Alabama," said Brown, the Minority GOP leader. "The environmental lobby is trying to take over our coal industry."

Barbee and Beeker also said they saw environmentalists as a threat to Alabama's coal.

Statements of that sort have been a source of frustration for Dunn's supporters, who say the idea of eliminating coal was never on the table.

"Commissioner Dunn supports keeping coal in the mix," said David Rountree, Dunn's spokesman. Rountree said rate hearings were never in danger of being taken over by environmentalists, because the PSC itself runs the rate hearings.

In a statement emailed to The Star, Dunn said he was fighting for customers, and he questioned whether Flowers was doing the same.

“I’ll continue to stand with customers,” Dunn wrote. “Not the companies.”

Flowers said Dunn hadn't done a good job of communicating his message to the voters.

"He may just be introverted," Flowers said. "He doesn't seem to have any rapport with them."

Blunt commentary on public figures was always a feature of Flowers' newspaper columns. He said he'll keep writing them even though he is now a candidate, and he said some papers have already confirmed they'll still run them.

"I may have lost some credibility with the papers," he acknowledged.

Flowers said that after talks with the Ethics Commission, he decided to discontinue his regular television spots until after the end of the GOP primary. So far, there's no Democrat in the race.

Even as a media figure, Flowers was never entirely out of politics. He didn't close his original campaign fund, set up for his runs for the Legislature, until Monday. Over the years, he used the fund to donate to candidates, to pay his dues to the Alabama Press Association, and to pay $5,080 to his daughter, Ginny Gambacurta, campaign finance records show.

Flowers said the payment to Gambacurta was for her services as an editor of his columns. He said he cleared the payments with the Ethics Commission.

At the start of the year, the campaign fund had about $60,000 left in it. Flowers loaned $270,000 of his own money to the fund on Monday, then closed it out. He said the entire $330,000 from the account will go into a fund for his PSC run.

Dunn hasn't filed a campaign finance report yet, and Rountree said he hasn't raised significant money for 2014 yet. He ended his last race with about $10,000.

Beeker has $21,937. Brown has $922. Barbee has $1,450.

Readers of Flowers' columns, in the papers that still run them, shouldn't expect updates on the PSC race. Flowers said that during the campaign, he planned to write only about the history of Alabama governors' races. He said his columns were typically about history, or were his reactions to things he'd read in the newspaper.

"You guys are the real journalists," he told reporters.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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