A Republican primary battle for the presidency of Alabama's Public Service Commission is heading for a runoff between a sitting commissioner and a Mobile real estate businessman.
PSC commissioner Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh garnered nearly half of the statewide vote but failed to get the 50 percent plus 1 needed to avoid a runoff. "I was expecting a runoff, that's for sure," said Chip Brown, who will face Cavanaugh in an April 24 runoff.
Brown took about 26 percent of the vote as of Tuesday evening, getting about 10,000 more than third-place Kathy Peterson. "I invite supporters of Kathy Peterson to come over and support us in the runoff," Brown said from his home in Mobile where he was watching results with close friends and family.
Brown characterized Cavanaugh as a political insider who has spent most of her adult life in Alabama politics. "Anyone who is dissatisfied with the PSC or the revolving door in Montgomery can come over and join us and fight this hard fight over the next few weeks," he said.
Cavanaugh, 46, has served as the first woman leader of the Alabama Republican Party and as an aide to Republican Gov. Bob Riley. She won a seat on the PSC in 2010 by defeating Democratic incumbent Jan Cook. She is in the middle of her current four-year term.
From her Montgomery home where she was watching results with her family, Cavanaugh characterized her time in politics as public service and pointed up her conservative credentials. "I've been a good steward of public money at the Public Service Commission," she said. "Of three commissioners, I cut my budget the most. I've chosen not to take a state car or cellphone."
Cavanaugh said she was humbled by the high level of support she got from voters and said she looks forward to taking her message back on the road ahead of the April runoff. Sitting president Lucy Baxley took the job after defeating Cavanaugh in a close race in 2008.
A Republican win would complete a 32-year transition from all Democrats in statewide office to all Republicans. Baxley's unique status has catapulted the normally low-profile Republican primary for PSC president to the forefront of the election.
Brown, 42, was chairman of the Baldwin County Republican Party in 1999-2000 and helped defeat the last Democrats holding county office. He ran for the PSC in 2010, narrowly losing the Republican primary to Terry Dunn, who went on to win.
Brown and Peterson had been critical of Cavanaugh for voting with Baxley last year to suspend, rather than fire, a PSC manager who was using a state cellphone to run her private travel business. Cavanaugh said the six-week suspension without pay was the toughest punishment available short of firing.
On the eve of the election, Cavanaugh settled two traffic tickets for driving with a suspended license. Information about the tickets surfaced on Internet sites over the weekend. On Monday, Cavanaugh called it "an 11th-hour desperation tactic" to hurt her campaign.
Richard Leonard, 55, cast his ballot for Cavanaugh at the Chilton County Courthouse on Tuesday afternoon. "She's done a good job in the past, and I didn't see a reason to change," Leonard said, adding that it was important to him to unseat the Democratic Baxley.
The two runoff candidates are running to lead a utility regulatory board that lacks much of the power it used to wield. The Alabama Legislature has deregulated much of the phone business that the PSC used to oversee, and now some legislative leaders are discussing giving state troopers the PSC's responsibility for making sure commercial trucking companies have insurance.
The PSC continues to regulate electric and natural gas utilities, which the candidates said is crucial to maintaining low rates for consumers.
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