Donald W. Stewart (1940- ) served only three years as a U.S. Senator from Alabama, winning a special election to replace Sen. James Allen after his untimely death. Stewart came to be identified with Pres. Jimmy Carter's administration and was criticized by influential conservatives, leading to his defeat in Alabama's Democratic Primary in 1980.
Donald W. Stewart was born in Munford, Talladega County, on February 8, 1940. At the University of Alabama, Stewart was elected president of the student body and editor of the yearbook. After taking his undergraduate degree there, he also obtained his law degree from the university in 1965.
In 1970, Stewart's political career was launched with his election to the Alabama House of Representatives. Four years later he was elected to the state Senate, where he gained a reputation as an aggressive, highly knowledgeable legislator. One of his main issues was reform of the Public Service Commission.
Few Alabamians took Stewart seriously in 1977 when he announced his candidacy for the seat of Sen. John J. Sparkman. Sparkman's announcement in January 1978 that he would not stand for reelection aided Stewart, but he still faced former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Howell Heflin, a better-known figure. By mid-spring, the polls indicated Stewart's vote at about six percent.
The sudden passing of Sen. James B. Allen dramatically changed the electoral situation. Instead of pursuing Sparkman's seat, Stewart filed for Allen's vacant spot against his widow, Maryon Allen, who had been appointed to fill out her husband's term until a special election could be held. A controversial interview with the Washington Post that criticized Gov. George Wallace and his wife damaged Allen's support in Alabama. This controversy, along with Stewart's effective campaign organization, helped Stewart earn first a runoff position in the Democratic primary on September 5 and then a victory three weeks later with 57 per cent of the popular vote. That November he defeated the Republican candidate, James D. Martin.
Stewart's swearing in on January 15, 1979, made him Alabama's senior senator at number 82 in the seniority list. In his first year, Stewart introduced 12 bills, co-sponsored 80, and achieved a near-perfect attendance record. He was the only member of the freshman class of senators of nine Democrats and 11 Republicans to receive a party leadership job when he was named a deputy whip by Senate majority leader Robert Byrd.
The perception of Stewart among Alabamians as a supporter of Pres. Jimmy Carter began to erode Stewart's political base as the election approached in 1980. Further, he had received only a 23 percent rating from the increasingly powerful conservative organization known as the Moral Majority, and nationally renowned investigative journalist Jack Anderson claimed that Stewart had taken $22,000 in illegal campaign funds, charges that Stewart vehemently denied and that never went forward. As a result of all of these factors, Stewart suffered a narrow defeat in the Democratic primary to Jim Folsom Jr., then a member of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Stewart supported the Democratic ticket in November, though Folsom was to lose to Vietnam veteran Jeremiah Denton Jr. Stewart returned to Anniston when his term expired.
Stewart currently practices law in Anniston. He was perhaps most notably the lead attorney in a class action lawsuit against the Monsanto Company involving PCB contamination in Anniston. He also serves on the advisory board of the Blackburn Institute which grants fellowships to promising college students to develop leadership skills and encourage community involvement.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982)
Elbert L. Watson
Easley, South Carolina
Published November 9, 2010
Last updated September 11, 2014