DeKalb County District Judge Steve Whitmire is considering his options after a state candidate committee on Sunday rejected his qualifying documents seeking to appear on the March 2020 Alabama Republican Party (ALGOP) Primary ballot.
“I am not retiring, and I am not running as a Democrat,” he said. First elected in 2002, Whitmire won re-election unopposed as a Democrat in 2008 and 2014.
There is an appeal process, which his attorneys are researching. Whitmire had no comment when asked about running as an independent, which would potentially put him on the fall ballot against the party’s accepted candidate, attorney Teresa Darwin Phillips of Sylvania.
“Despite the Committee's ruling, or what may come from it, I guarantee that I remain committed to serving the people of DeKalb County to the best of my ability. That's what I've always done and what I will continue to do,” Whitmire said.
ALGOP Communication Director Jeannie Faherty confirmed that the Whitmire’s candidacy was one of three rejected for the March 3 GOP ballot. She said a committee of state party officials met most of the day Sunday to discuss numerous ballot challenges, which she described as a routine occurrence ahead of primary elections.
DeKalb County Republican Party Chairman David Gulledge said he filed the ballot challenge on behalf of the members of his Executive Committee.
“The reason for the challenge was that [Whitmire] was a Democrat and had never come before our committee to switch parties as the by-laws require,” Gulledge said.
“He was given our by-laws back in January of this year at a meeting with me at the courthouse that he requested to get more information on the procedure to become a Republican if you are a sitting Democrat official.”
Gulledge said the state GOP’s guidelines for party switching are the same for the local party, specifying a procedure for formally meeting with a county Republican Executive Committee chairman or vice chairman within 30 days of any party change “to present reasons for wanting to switch parties [and] answer questions by county committee members.”
Gulledge claims that never happened and said things might have gone very differently if Whitmire had left the Democratic Party in 2013, when District Attorney Mike O’Dell switched parties.
“When I met with him [in January 2019], I asked him if that was what he wanted to do, to schedule that meeting. He said, ‘no,’ that he was just wanting to talk to me to get some more information. He started asking me some questions and said to be honest with him… But when I gave him some of my answers, he got a little angry and asked me if I thought he would pass if he went before the committee. I told him, ‘Well, judge, we’ve been through two terms of a very unpopular president in this state [Obama], and I kind of think your chance has passed you by.’ But I said, ‘I think it can be done.’”
He said the judge needed to make an unambiguous break from the Democratic Party to convince skeptics that he was truly a conservative.
Gulledge said, “I told him, ‘My advice to you, judge, is to go a step [beyond writing a letter to the Democrats] and call a press conference to get whoever will come down to your office. Put it out in the county and let everybody know. When you do that, some of these [committee members] that are against you will soften their stance. All you’ve got to do is change one mind at a time.’”
At the candidate committee meeting in Birmingham, Whitmire’s prepared comments offered a conflicting account of what happened.
Whitmire told the state committee that Gulledge initially said he would provide the names of county committee members who he claimed would vote to deny his request to become a party member, then called the next morning refusing to do so.
“[Gulledge] said he had some negative feedback from the members and that he would not give me the list. He further stated that the members did not want me to contact them,” Whitmire told the state committee.
He claimed he then asked if he could come to a meeting and try to open a dialogue.
“[Gulledge] said my coming to the meetings ‘would be a problem’ and ‘no, you should not come to our meetings.’ Unfortunately, this response was consistent with my prior attempts to become a member of the Republican Party,” Whitmire added.
Gulledge explained that when he initially met with the judge “he already actually knew how the committee felt. This had been going on since the election in 2018 when we elected four Republicans to positions that were previously held by Democrats. I’d had different people make comments to me that we knew the judgeship was up, so we’d been recruiting even before the election for the next election. He pretty much, when he wanted to meet with me, it was more or less to feel me out and see if I was going to help him because that is what he had asked me and point blank said, ‘Why aren’t you helping me?’ I told him that day that I was there to represent the party, that there were 40 members on that Executive Committee. He had some that were in support of him and some that weren’t.”
The two men got off to a bad start when Whitmire spoke to his son, Justin, at the courthouse: “He’d been telling [my son], ‘Hey, get your old man to help me into the Republican party.’ Anyway, when I met with him, that was one of the things we talked about first. I told him if he’d wanted to talk to me, he should have talked to me [directly] and not tried to influence me through my son.”
Gulledge said it is true he declined to give Whitmire the contact information for committee members.
“I said, ‘You’ve got friends on that committee that will be more than happy to give you those [phone] numbers, but if I give them to you, I’m going to get beat up by the people that didn’t want you to have their number. So just go ahead and get them that way, and you’ll be happy and I’ll be happy.’”
Gulledge said he was personally attacked during the state GOP meeting by Whitmire’s attorneys as a part of a political strategy.
“I think the judge had already been talking to people, knew how they felt, and did this instead of going through the committee and failing to get a vote in his favor,” Gulledge said.
“I did not refuse to let [Whitmire] meet with the [county] committee or discuss it… or put it to a vote. Why would I meet with him and carry him a copy of the [party switching] procedure if I was going to do that?”
Gulledge continued, “He pretty much already knew where the committee stood after talking to some of the people who support him. It’s not a secret or anything. People talk to each other, so they know where they stand on things like this. That’s how I account for the difference between his account and mine.”
Whitmire told the state GOP panel that he sought the advice of state and local elected Republican officials, State Executive Committee members, and members of the County Executive Committee who were supportive. They told him to continue to attend Republican meetings and functions, then qualify with the state “if Mr. Gulledge did not come around.”
Sensing that his “fate had been sealed regarding being approved by the local party,” Whitmire filed to run in the GOP Primary at the state level rather than filing paperwork through Gulledge at the DeKalb County Courthouse on Oct. 8.
He said the decision of the state candidate committee to keep him off the ballot was “made by a 21-member panel of non-DeKalb County residents” meeting in Birmingham.
A portion of Whitmire’s time before that panel was given to DeKalb County Commission President Ricky Harcrow, a Republican, who said he was there to speak in support of the incumbent judge on behalf of himself and four others.
Several other local Republicans reportedly attended the meeting, and Whitmire told the state GOP he had received letters of support from at least 40 longtime Republicans.
Faherty said she could not comment on ALGOP discussions held during executive sessions, which are closed to the public.
“The Chief of Staff notified me that Judge Whitmire did not get the votes necessary for his qualification and that he would not be on the ballot as a Republican,” Gulledge said.
The $2,500.36 qualifying fee Whitmire paid to the ALGOP to run for re-election was not returned to him, he said.
“Whatever some may say or do, in my heart, I know I am a Republican,” Whitmire said in the statement.
“I am certainly disappointed with the Committee's decision, especially given the level of support that I've received from an overwhelming majority of local DeKalb County Republicans. Local party members and elected Republican officials alike have been incredibly welcoming toward me as a member of the Republican Party.”
The judge said his goal is not to sling mud at anyone but rather, to seek reconciliation: “I have every intention of earning the respect and cooperation of all Republicans, even those that have brought us here, and I will do my part to mend our differences. That is my nature.”
He rejected the suggestion that switching parties was motivated by self-preservation in a political environment increasingly favorable to the GOP. He said the change has been a long time in the making, and he is sincere in his conservative beliefs concerning abortion, immigration, and the Second Amendment.
“My values have remained consistent regardless of which party has been affiliated with my name through the years. I believe in faith, family, honesty, and integrity, and in bringing those values to bear in my government service,” Whitmire said.
“I think the people who know me, including those who've had reason to be in my court, would agree that I've always tried to treat everyone equally, with respect and fairness. I believe those are the things that are important to DeKalb County citizens in their district judge — after all, a judge's place is to be unbiased, impartial, and fair — not to be overly concerned with courting any political party.”
The district judge oversees small claims, child support, traffic violations, misdemeanor crimes and per-indictment felony crimes, as well as DeKalb County’s Juvenile Court, where child delinquency and dependency cases are heard, and the DeKalb County Drug Court.
Terms of office are six years each, decided in partisan elections in even-numbered years.
If he were to run for re-election as an independent, Whitmire would need to qualify by submitting to the Alabama Secretary of State a petition containing the signatures of at least 642 registered voters in the jurisdiction in which ballot access is sought.
That number represents 3 percent of the total votes (21,403) cast for governor in DeKalb County in 2018.
Such petitions would need to be delivered to the Alabama Secretary of State on or before the day of the statewide primary election, according to the Secretary of State website.
The appropriate election official then would verify the petition signatures and subsequently notify the petitioner as to whether he gained ballot access.
Whitmire would also have the option to run as a write-in candidate. A decision on his next step will be made in the coming days or weeks.
Gulledge said he realizes [Whitmire] “probably will” run as an independent. “He’s real popular in the courthouse. I don’t know the man, but I know his politics.”