Six candidates vying to be the next governor of Alabama sat down for interviews with professors and professionals from across the state Wednesday night during a forum sponsored by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.
Three Republican candidates – Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Evangelist Scott Dawson and state Sen. Bill Hightower – and three Democratic candidates – former state Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, former state Rep. James Fields and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox – participated in the forum, held at Woodrow Hall in Birmingham’s Woodlawn community. Gov. Kay Ivey, who also is seeking the Republican nomination in the June 5 primary, was invited to the forum, said PARCA director of communications Marci Smith, but the governor declined.
Organized by the PARCA Roundtable group of young professionals, the forum featured 12-minute, one-on-one interviews with each candidate by interviewers who belong to or were selected by the Roundtable. After the interviews, the candidates took turns answering questions submitted by the audience.
Battle, up first alphabetically, was interviewed by Auburn University assistant professor Dr. Bridgett King, who teaches political science courses. Asked about Alabama’s image and how to keep the state’s brightest in the state, the Republican said Alabama needs to quit selling itself short.
Citing a campaign theme of Alabama as a “smart place,” Battle said, “Things happen here that happen nowhere else. We are building ships and planes in Mobile, working on cyber defense in Montgomery, making laminated wood building materials that can compete with steel in Dothan; we make music in Muscle Shoals, and in Huntsville, we make rockets that took us to the moon and beyond,” he said.
Asked about his decision to be in public service, Battle, who is serving his second term as mayor of Huntsville, said his inspiration goes back to when he was a busboy at the Britling’s Cafeteria at 2nd and 20th Streets and saw then Birmingham Mayor George Siebels Jr. meeting with business leaders to talk about Birmingham becoming an All American City.
“That impressed me that one person could bring people together to help make their community better,” he said. He said bringing people together has been a strength of his leadership in Huntsville. “My form of government makes sure everybody is at the table,” he said.
Sue Bell Cobb
Cobb was interviewed by Gigi Douban, news director of Birmingham’s public radio station WBHM. Cobb, who retired as chief justice in 2010 in part to take care of her ailing mother, said, “I didn’t retire from my love for this state.”
The Democrat said she believes in giving Alabamians a chance to approve a lottery and supports nonpartisan elections for state judicial officers.
Her “Lifelong Learning Lottery” proposal would allow for full funding of pre-K classes and career tech. She promised to call the Legislature into special session to address the lottery and to keep calling them until they take action.
Cobb was critical of Alabama’s system of holding partisan judicial elections, during which candidates must solicit and accept political donations to compete. Alabama is in the minority of states that still hold partisan judicial elections, which she said are “wrong and undermine trust in the judicial system.”
“People realize there’s so much at stake in this election,” Cobb said. “I’m running for the right reasons. I’ll never let you down and I’ll never embarrass you.”
Dawson, a first-time political candidate and founder of Scott Dawson Evangelistic Association, was interviewed by Victoria Hollis, strategy director for the Birmingham Education Foundation. Asked about being the political novice in the group, the Republican compared the skills needed to build the ministry, which works with youth, to those needed as governor.
Not in favor of a lottery, Dawson said his idea of “setting businesses free” from fees and regulations can be the basis for a “bankable budget” to improve education and address prison reform.
Asked about his proposal to drug test high school students who participate in extracurricular activities, Dawson defended the idea as not being punitive but a chance for parents and schools to help reduce the risk of drug abuse and crimes related to drug addiction.
He proposes hair testing for drugs, with graduated consequences aimed at “helping them to have a life.”
Fields, a United Methodist pastor and former Marine, retired from the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations and then served in the state House of Representatives from 2008 to 2010. He was interviewed by Birmingham attorney Kendra Kay of Maynard Cooper & Gale.
Asked for his priorities as a candidate, the Democrat said Alabama’s rural areas need help to get broadband access and health care. He advocates expanding Medicaid, which the Bentley and Ivy administrations did not do, to help rural hospitals.
He favors a lottery to better fund schools, Medicaid and children’s health care. He said he believes in positive change and building partnerships, saying he would promise to “help grown men and women get together to work out solutions.”
Interviewed by Dr. Peter Jones, who is assistant professor in political science and public administration at UAB, Hightower said he’s seen “pockets of brilliance” throughout Alabama as he’s campaigned, in schools and elsewhere.
The Republican favors term limits and a flat tax on income. He wants to correct tax inequalities that are causing some businesses to leave the state.
“Other states are winning and I don’t like that. Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, they are beating us,” Hightower said.
Asked if Alabama has an image problem, Hightower said corruption that’s been revealed in all branches of Alabama’s government is a big negative for the state, which deserves better.
Dr. Anthony Hood, associate professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at UAB, interviewed Maddox, a Democrat who is in his third term as Tuscaloosa’s mayor.
Maddox supports expanding Medicaid. He favors an education lottery and has a list of educational priorities for the $300 million-plus that a state lottery could add to the state funds. These include a college scholarship program, universal pre-K, wraparound services for the state’s 75 to 80 failing schools and for closing the gap in local school funding.
Asked about his experience in crisis leadership, which he said he honed during the 2011 tornado response in Tuscaloosa, Maddox said, “You have to learn to adjust. You need leadership in a crisis who can be calm and strategic.”
Maddox pointed to problems the state faces, including funding schools, Medicaid and a critical prison situation.
“There’s not really a function of state government right now that is not in crisis,” he said, noting that the state has no strategic plan and is bogged down in politics much too often and often lacks transparency.
He pointed to Alabama political ads about mountain oysters and Confederate monuments. “Those are not our problems,” he said. “Workforce development is; the prisons are.”