Four Democratic candidates for Alabama governor gathered at the Birmingham Crossplex Monday night for a forum mostly focused on economic issues facing the state.
Sue Bell Cobb, James Fields, Walt Maddox and Anthony White each discussed their stances on a potential lottery, infrastructure funding and minimum wage, among other issues.
Christopher A. Countryman and Doug “New Blue” Smith, who also qualified to run for governor as Democrats, did not attend the forum.
The forum, sponsored by the podcast “Not Necessarily Political with James Williams and Lonnie Malone” and moderated by former Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Smoot, didn’t feature much disagreement among its four participants. Instead, the candidates spent most of their time highlighting their backgrounds and qualifications. If there were any disagreements, they stemmed largely from the finer points of the candidates’ platforms.
Cobb, a former chief justice of the state, repeatedly cited her judicial experience as qualifying her for the governor’s office.
“When you want to look and see what someone’s going to do as governor, look and see what they’ve done,” she said, pointing to her history of prioritizing juvenile justice reform, establishing drug courts and advocating for an Access to Justice Commission during her 30-year career. “No one knows more about the criminal justice system than I do, nor is more motivated to fix it,” she said.
Fields did not spend much time directly referencing his tenure as an Alabama state representative, a job he held from 2008 to 2010. Instead, he highlighted what his election to that seat meant for his perceived electability.
“We can win,” he said, referring to himself, as he often did, with a plural pronoun. “We served as a state representative in Cullman, Alabama, when people thought it was impossible,” he said. “There are a lot of people who thought it was an anomaly going on up there. But I have people from Cullman here tonight who will tell you, James Fields is well-respected … . James was a man who won by 64 percent in a county that is 99.999 percent white and 98 percent Republican, and I won as a black Democrat.”
Maddox, mayor of Tuscaloosa, leaned heavily on his accomplishments in the office, which he’s held since 2005.
“As mayor of Tuscaloosa, I didn’t have the opportunity to hide behind the marble of Montgomery,” he said. “I know what it’s like to lead in good times, but I also know what it’s like to lead in crisis, through the great recession, through one of the worst natural disasters in state history, and throughout those challenges, Tuscaloosa became stronger.”
The clear outsider of the group was White, a minister from Dothan who has never held public office. His answers were consistently the least specific on the panel; “bringing Alabama together,” he said, was the focus of his campaign.
“I’m 36 years old and I just believe that, together, we can build a stronger and greater Alabama,” he said. “I just believe that in this seat, we need someone that is not necessarily political, someone that will fight for people. Someone that will fight for human rights. Someone that will fight for integrity and just do the right thing, putting people first, because it’s very simple: if the people grow, what else will happen? The state will grow. So we have to put focus back on the people and do the right thing.”
The candidates first discussed the perennial question of a state lottery, which most recently came close to passage during the 2016 legislative session, when a bill establishing a lottery passed the state House but died in the Senate. All four candidates expressed support for a lottery, though only Cobb and Maddox laid out specific plans for where the revenue generated by a lottery would go.
The proposed lottery plan debated during the 2016 session was estimated to have the potential of bringing in between $225 million and $427 million in annual revenue.
Maddox unveiled his lottery plan, which he calls the Alabama Education Lottery, earlier in the day Monday. “I’m tired of educating Georgia and Florida children, quite frankly,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
His plan, he said, would allocate money to universal pre-K programs across the state; establish a scholarship program “very similar to what you see in Tennessee;” create a program to make up deficits in funding from the Alabama Foundation Program; and fund “wraparound services” for schools through community innovation grants, which would help “children coming into the classroom with academic, mental health, nutritional (and) physical health needs.”
Cobb’s plan, meanwhile, is called the “Lifelong Learner Lottery.” It would set up a “beyond reproach, totally transparent” lottery commission, which would work to fully fund 4-year-old kindergarten programs and, based on a sliding scale, help pay for child care for children 3 years old and younger.
The plan also would fully fund career technical education in the state, Cobb said, and contribute to Pell grants for learners of all ages.
“Every single person, whether they’re 18 and want to complete their education as far as a technical degree, or if they’re in college, or if they’re 50 and lost their job, they would be eligible to get the Lifelong Learner Lottery funds to pay the gap for Pell grants and go to school for free,” Cobb said. “This will transform Alabama.”
Fields promised that, as governor, he would ensure that Alabama voters would have a lottery bill to vote on, “even if we have to write it,” and he said part of his bill would provide funding for vocational training.
White, meanwhile, said he also was in favor of a lottery. “With those funds here in Alabama, it will bring Alabama out of a budget deficit, each year that we face, year after year,” he said. “We all know the trials and tribulations that Alabama goes through on a yearly basis. But now is the time to fix those problems … . But what we must do is focus on the children. If we have a lottery here, it will help the people.”
The candidates were next asked about their plan for the state’s infrastructure. Unlike their stances on the lottery, none of the candidates had specific policy points ready yet, instead supplying more speculative, abstract answers.
White demurred to answer the question in detail, saying instead that he would bring in experts to assess the state’s needs.
“We will have the experts that will build a team, and the team will work hard,” he said, before launching into an anecdote about his grandfather’s work ethic.
“Well, Alabama, I promise you one thing: If I’m elected governor, I will bring that same work ethic that my grandfather showed me and taught me into this seat, to make sure that everything gets better for Alabama,” he said. “I will fight for Alabama. I will fight for roads, I will fight for infrastructure, and I will fight for the people’s growth.”
Maddox pointed to his record as mayor, including the Transform Tuscaloosa County Act, legislation that he said addressed severe infrastructure problems like the 20 percent of Alabama bridges that “are functionally obsolete.” His plan, he said, would be based on priority, not “on the power of a council member or the power of a council district. We invest based off the need of the infrastructure.”
Cobb said the state’s declining infrastructure is a serious issue that would need to be addressed by someone who “truly is more concerned about the next generation than the next election.” She briefly mentioned two ideas that she described as “honest and bold” — an increase of the state’s fuel tax and the implementation of toll roads along major interstate highways.
Fields, meanwhile, took a broader view of infrastructure. “When you hear the word infrastructure, the first thing that comes to your mind is roads and bridges and et cetera,” he said. “That’s not infrastructure. Infrastructure is being able to communicate with the outside world. Infrastructure is being able to put broadband into every home in the state of Alabama, to make sure that every home in Alabama has running water, to make sure that every home in Alabama is sustainable … . We are spending money on top of money fixing roads. It doesn’t matter. What we need to do, folks, is to think ahead. We need to think about commuter rail.” That plan, he said, could be established by working with other major cities in other states, he said.
“This is one governor that can communicate, and I’ll go to these large cities and say, ‘Look, we need you to buy in because your people need it.’”
All four candidates raised their hand when asked if they supported a minimum wage increase — another perennial issue for the state that has experienced repeated failure at the state level.
Fields argued that a fair minimum wage was necessary for Alabama. “People have got to be able to live like you do and like I do,” he said. “People need to be able to take their families on vacation … . For too long, we’ve turned our back on the best product that we have in this state, and that is the people that we serve.”
White, echoing a previous answer, said he would “bring the experts to the table” on the issue, “people who study this day-in and day-out,” before making a decision.
“I don’t want to stand here and make the promises of this and that,” he said. “But I can promise you, I will sit down at the table and research with experts to make sure that we can raise minimum wage.”
Though the rules for the forum stipulated that candidates would not be able to address one another directly, Cobb alluded to Maddox’s public skepticism of a push to increase Tuscaloosa’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour back in 2016. That measure eventually was blocked by a law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley preventing cities from setting their own minimum wage. That law also blocked a similar ordinance passed by the Birmingham City Council.
“I think (Tuscaloosa’s $10.10 effort) was a good starting place,” Cobb said. “Unfortunately it was blocked … . We need a governor who understands the importance of a living wage … who makes it an absolute priority, that is courageous enough to look business in the eye and say, ‘You’re not telling the truth when you say you’re going to lose jobs. You’re not going to lose jobs.’ The data shows that elevating the minimum wage helps our economy. It does not hurt our economy.”
Maddox responded by saying he’d been concerned that Tuscaloosa’s setting a $10.10 minimum wage would have been unconstitutional.
“People would have loved me,” he said. “I could have said, ‘We’re going to do it,’ … (but) we have to do it statewide, or else you’re going to pit Hoover against Birmingham, Northport against Tuscaloosa.”
Where Maddox and Cobb agreed, however, was on the need to push for higher-paying jobs, with Maddox saying that moving away from minimum-wage jobs would make Alabama a “next-level state.”
Cobb’s language was even stronger: “In Alabama, we have the fourth-highest percentage of minimum wage jobs in the nation,” she said. “You know what that is? That’s disgusting.”
As the panel drew to a close, the candidates touched on a variety of other issues. Unemployment, specifically the disproportionate unemployment rates in the state’s minority communities, drew pledges from the candidates to bring jobs to Alabama. Fields, in particular, highlighted the importance of bringing jobs to the state’s Black Belt, saying he would incentivize industry to establish in that area, as opposed to North Alabama, where he said most new industry has been centralized.
An audience member asked the candidates about their stances on abortion rights. This brought a specific response from White, who said women should be given the option of faith-based guidance before going through with an abortion, but the other candidates demurred. Maddox said he was personally pro-life but that he would be “pro-law” as governor; Fields said he would “abide by the law until the law is changed;” and Cobb said she believed abortion was a “divisive issue” that Republicans often focused on to curry favor with Alabama voters.
It was a relatively amiable introduction to the candidates, peppered with friendly jokes and mutual compliments — though, as the June 5 primary draws closer, the friendliness will likely fade.
And, as Cobb remarked during the panel discussion, whoever wins the Democratic nomination this summer will find themselves locked in a much more contentious race against a Republican candidate, with whom they will likely find significantly less common ground.