By Tiffany Green
James Fields made history in Cullman County and made international headlines when he won the State House of Representatives District 12 seat earlier this year.
Fields became the first black man to represent Cullman County when he won the District 12 seat by defeating Wayne Willingham with 59.34 percent of the vote.
“History is being made tonight,” said supporter Sen. Hinton Mitchem, on election night, January 29.
Cullman County’s population is more than 97 percent white and one percent black according to statistics from the United States Census Bureau.
“They may say he was the first African-American from Cullman to be elected to state office. In my opinion that in a community where two percent are minority, he was elected due to the content of his character,” Judge Kim Chaney said after swearing in Fields. “I’ve known James for over 20 years and he has always been a good friend and he is always helping others. It was an honor to administer his oath of office.”
Fields said he does not feel the color of his skin was an important matter in the election.
“Being an African-American just doesn’t matter,” Fields said. “I think it’s a historical moment because we were given an opportunity to run.”
Fields will complete the term of fellow Democrat Neil Morrison, who resigned in August to accept a position as interim president at Bevill State Community College.
“He will keep up the same tradition that I think we’ve had in this county of good legislators,” Nancy Worley, vice-chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said. “I think Cullman County will be very well represented.”
State Democratic Chairman Joe Turnham agreed.
“Mr. Fields’ victory is a victory for all of Cullman County,” he said. “James Fields is going to be able to transverse a lot of the divide that exists not only in this county politically, but in Montgomery.”
Fields said he plans to represent the district by listening to his constituents.
“Really the best way to represent this area is to listen to the people,” Fields said. “You’ve got to hear their voices and you’ve got to be able to understand.”
Fields’ victory will further tip the scale towards a Democratic rule in Alabama Legislature, with Democrats holding 61 House seats and Republicans filling 43.
Fields worked for nearly three decades with the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, the last four as an unemployment fraud investigator. During former Gov. Don Siegelman's administration, he was assistant director of the agency in Montgomery.
While Democrats celebrated reclaiming the District 12 seat, Fields' opponent, Republican Wayne Willingham, said he was disappointed about his loss.
Willingham said he is not sure if he will run for a legislative position in the future and said for now he will continue to serve the community as a county commissioner.
“I only did this because I thought I could do some good,” he said. “But I'm happy in the county commission. ... I don't know what I'll be doing three years from now.”
The Times spoke to Fields after he completed his first week in the State House, and he said he was settling in well.
“It was a good introduction to what legislators are all about, how they work together, how the bills affect people’s lives,” Fields said during a telephone interview with The Times. “It was really a good week, I believe. Everybody worked hard on their committee assignments. I believe we have 105 members that are going to work well together.
“The house work is what I thought it would be like — everybody just moving. You have to watch when you’re walking down the hall,” he said. “They grab you and ask you for just a second of your time. Then a few minutes later you’re still talking.”
Even before he started, Fields was appointed to the Committee on Commerce by Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, a democrat from the 92nd District.
Fitting in with veteran legislators has not been a problem for Fields, who said State House lawmakers are regular people.
“I think the thing that really struck me is that when you see those people from afar, you get a sense of awe,” he said. “But when you sit down with them, you just have a conversation with them the way you and I are. They laugh like you laugh, they talk like you talk. I feel like I just blended right in.”
After 29 years of service for the state’s Department of Industrial Relations, Fields said his first act in his new office was to take a moment to reflect.
“When they showed me where my office was and then left, I just sort of sat there for a moment and thought back on the campaign,” Fields said. “It was a moment of thankfulness for me. So many people worked so hard, and that meant a lot to me.
“That sort of runs back through your mind when you’re sitting there.”
‰ Tiffany Green can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 221.
Fields’ victory is The Times top story of 2008
By Tiffany Green
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