- Associated Press - Saturday, June 18, 2016

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - House Speaker Mike Hubbard for years was the dominating figure in the Alabama House of Representatives, ruling over a legislative body controlled by the GOP-majority he helped bring to power.

Contenders are beginning to emerge to replace Hubbard who was automatically removed from office after a jury convicted him on ethics charges. As the jockeying starts, some legislators said they are seeking a change in leadership style to one that is less authoritarian and gives more clout to the rank and file.

“I’ve talked to 40-plus members of the caucus. They are looking for a speaker who will not rule with an iron fist, who will be open to suggestion,” Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican member who often clashed with Hubbard.

House Speaker Pro Tem Victor Gaston has assumed the duties of speaker after Hubbard’s removal. Gaston was elected to the House in 1982, one of just eight Republicans back then in the Democrat-dominated House.

Gaston said he will likely decide soon whether he will be a candidate for the speaker’s role.

“I anticipate being a candidate for speaker. But I absolutely have not made a decision on that,” Gaston said.

House Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse said he supports Gaston, but will seek the speaker’s post if Gaston decides not to run. “I think my style is more of a facilitating mode than a dictating model,” Clouse said. The Ozark Republican said there is a mood among House members to “decentralize” power.

Republican Rep. Phil Williams, who previously announced that he was challenging Hubbard, said he is making another bid for the job.

“You’ve got some pent up frustration on the way things have been. The speaker and to some degree the rules chair basically kill or select everything. … We need a system where people feel like at least their bill is going to get an up or down vote in committee,” Williams said.

Other possible contenders for the job include Rules Chairman Mac McCutcheon, House Judiciary Chairman Mike Jones and Rep. Lynn Greer of Rogersville is another possible contender.

Another name floated as a potential contender, House education budget chairman Bill Poole, said he will not seek the job. He cited the needs of his young family and law practice.

“My position is I have no plan to pursue the office of speaker at this time,” Poole said.

One reason that the next speaker is expected to be unlike Hubbard, is that - from a political perspective - there is no one like Hubbard.

Hubbard, as former party chairman, presided over a GOP-controlled Legislature made up of many members loyal to him because he recruited them as candidates, helped them raise money and in 2010 led Republicans to their first legislative majority in more than a century.

But the strong leader in recent years contended with a GOP caucus that was becoming more independent and outspoken, and his successor is likely to encounter even more of that. Hubbard, closely associated with the business wing of the GOP, tapped down on the tea party influence in the House. Those members - as well as other caucuses - might try to exert more influence as the House searches for a new direction, Henry said.

Some members discussed officially weakening the authority of the speakership so that committees elect their own chairmen. Rep. Jim Carns said regardless of who fills the role, he thinks the leadership style of the next speaker will be different.

“The pendulum usually swings,” Carns said.

The House will elect a new speaker the next time they are in session. The 2017 legislative session does not begin until February. However, the election could happen sooner if Gov. Robert Bentley calls a special session. Bentley discussed the possibility of a special session on prison construction.

A spokeswoman for the governor said this week that the governor had not made a decision on a special session.

Rep. Patricia Todd, a Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature, said she is throwing her name in for consideration although she realizes it’s unlikely she could win. Still, Todd said it is time for House members to consider their direction.

“Are we going to do something different or are we going to have more of the same?” Todd said.

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