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Last updated 8:40AM ET
March 6, 2021
Political Upset Scored in State School Board Race
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - Republican political newcomer Lee "Trip" Pittman has become an inspiration for underdogs by defeating a better-financed opponent backed by the governor and influential business groups.

Pittman won a Republican runoff in state Senate District 32 Tuesday night with 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent for state Board of Education member Randy McKinney. He faces Democrat A.J. Cooper in the special election Oct. 16.

Pittman, a 47-year-old tractor dealer from Daphne, said that as a first-time candidate, he benefited from voters' displeasure with politics, and those feelings were enhanced by the endorsements from outside the district.

"People are frustrated with government and the perception of who it works for. They think it doesn't work for them," he said Wednesday.

Keith Nicholls, a political scientist at the University of South Alabama and a resident of Baldwin County, said McKinney's support from outside the district likely caused people to turn out to vote for Pittman, who otherwise might have skipped the special election.

"In Alabama at large, there is a certain amount of localism that contributes to people's perceptions. We don't like to be told what to do," he said.

McKinney, a 51-year-old real estate businessman from Gulf Shores, blamed his defeat on not visiting throughout the district often enough for voters to know his views.

"I take full responsibility for the loss," he said Wednesday.

The Senate District 32 race was one Pittman likely would have passed up had it not been for getting badly injured in the crash of a private plane on Feb. 17. Pittman, who had served on the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission, said he had considered politics before but always put it off until surviving the crash.

"When you do that, you realize how precious every moment is," he said.

The Senate District 32 seat opened up in May when Republican Bradley Byrne decided to leave that job to become the state's chancellor for two-year colleges. When Pittman entered the Republican primary, his name was almost lost among better known candidates, including former state Sen. Albert Lipscomb, Baldwin County Republican Party Chairman Don McGriff, and County Commissioner David Ed Bishop.

McKinney, who was already well known in Montgomery political circles, picked up support from the Business Council of Alabama and many trade associations, including Realtors, retailers, and trucking. McKinney led the primary, but not by enough to avoid a runoff with Pittman.

In the runoff, Gov. Bob Riley endorsed McKinney and appeared in a TV ad for him.

Plus, McKinney was in the news almost daily when he lined up with Riley to support a ban on two-year college employees serving in the Legislature.

McKinney compiled nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions to Pittman's $226,000.

"In terms of name recognition, experience, connections and money, Randy McKinney looked like a shoo-in," Nicholls said.

Pittman said he was helped by Riley's endorsement of McKinney because voters in Baldwin County are upset with annual property tax reappraisals begun by Riley's revenue commissioner in 2003.

"Baldwin County voters are pretty astute and understood the connection," he said.

Pittman said he also benefited from voters reacting negatively to McKinney's campaign leaflets tying him to a "liberal environmental extremist group" started by state Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham.

Turnham began the Alabama League of Environmental Voters, but left its leadership when he became party chairman in 2005. The group, now known as Conservation Alabama, backed Pittman.

Turnham said the leaflets surprised him because Baldwin County residents are environmentally sensitive due to the county's livelihood being tied to the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay.

The organization also had a history in Baldwin County politics.

"The irony of it is the organization endorsed and gave money to Bradley Byrne when he ran," Turnham said.

Turnham said he's made it clear that he's backing Cooper, the Democratic nominee. Cooper is a Fairhope attorney and former mayor of Prichard.

Nicholls said Cooper will have a more difficult time than Pittman did in pulling off an election surprise.

"This is a Republican county," he said.

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