With a hard-charging fund-raising effort, Birmingham lawyer Terri Sewell vaulted over several better-known Democrats in this Central-Alabama district to win the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to securing the seat of Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat who ran for governor this year. Sewell defeated Republican opponent Don Chamberlain, a Selma businessman to become the first woman sent to Congress from Alabama.
Sewell was born in Huntsville, Ala., and raised in Selma, a hotbed of activity for the American civil-rights movement. She grew up near the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” clash between protest marchers and state troopers. Sewell’s family on her maternal side offered shelter for wayward travelers making the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Hailing from such a place, “you appreciate the significance of your elders’ fight for voting rights and civil rights,” Sewell said. Her mother, Nancy Sewell, was the first African-American woman elected to the Selma City Council. Her father was the high-school basketball coach at Selma High School, where Sewell was the first black valedictorian. “Well, when you can get no dates because your daddy is a coach, all you can really do is study, right?” she joked.
Sewell earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University. During that time, Sewell took part in a Big Sister program and drew inspiration from the mentor assigned to her, Michelle Robinson, now first lady Michelle Obama. While Sewell was writing her senior thesis at Princeton, she also met former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., the first African-American woman elected to Congress who was retired and teaching at Mount Holyoke College. “I don’t know if anybody could ever follow in Shirley Chisholm’s footsteps, but I can tell you that I was inspired by her whole life story,” Sewell said. “It really made a lasting impression on me.”
Sewell later studied politics at the University of Oxford on a scholarship, earning a master’s degree. A theater buff, she dabbled in drama while at Oxford, directing and starring in the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. Later, while earning her law degree from Harvard, Sewell was a classmate of future President Obama. At Harvard, she took a year off to turn her master’s thesis into a book called Black Tribunes: Race and Representation in British Politics.
After graduating, Sewell clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in Birmingham, and then in 1994 moved to New York City to work as a lawyer on Wall Street. But she returned home to Alabama to help take care of her ailing father, who has survived several strokes. Most recently, Sewell was a bond lawyer and a partner in the Birmingham law firm Maynard, Cooper, and Gale.
When Davis decided to leave the House after four terms to run for governor, Sewell jumped into the Democratic primary contest against eight other candidates. They included prominent local figures Earl Hilliard Jr., son of former Rep. Earl Hilliard, D-Ala., and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Smoot. Sewell had lower name recognition than Hilliard or Smoot, but she made it up through an effective fund-raising campaign. She outraised the other candidates with both a local and national fund-raising network, which included big name donors such as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Washington, D.C., lawyer Vernon Jordan, and former Gov. Roy Barnes, D-Ga. According to a report in the The Birmingham News, Sewell was the only candidate who raised enough cash to run television ads. On June 1, Sewell finished first with 37 percent of the vote. Smoot snagged second place with 29 percent, setting up a July 13 runoff. Smoot got the endorsement of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., but Sewell outspent Smoot by nearly $1 million. In a relatively congenial runoff race, Sewell bested Smoot, 55-45 percent.