At the end of what many have deemed a Sisyphean campaign, Walt Maddox is making a final appeal to voters. His argument? Think of the future.
Maddox, who has been mayor of Tuscaloosa since 2005, has always been a long shot to win the governor’s seat. He’s a Democrat in a deep-red state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1999, running against an opponent with one of the highest approval ratings in the country, a sizeable fundraising lead, and significantly more name recognition.
But Maddox’s campaign has attempted to frame him as a viable challenger, establishing him as a voice of progress for a stagnating Alabama. He’s worked to distance himself from the liberal Democrat label, saying he’s pro-life and supports gun rights. And in advance of a final campaign push this weekend, he says his polling shows him within the margin of error away from victory.
Most polls have placed Maddox well below Kay Ivey, who took office last year after her predecessor, Robert Bentley, resigned amid a sex scandal. She’s seeking her first full term in the office.
But she has been a spectral presence on the campaign trail, making few public appearances and refusing to debate.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Maddox has shifted from calling for that debate to insisting that the differences between the candidates are self-apparent — which is, essentially, what Ivey herself has argued.
“The opportunities have never been clearer for Alabama and the differences clearer, too, between the two candidates,” Maddox told the Downtown Huntsville Rotary Club on Oct. 30. “We like that contrast.”
Maddox’s campaign has attempted to define that contrast as between Alabama’s complacent past and a hopeful future. That’s been quantified, he says, by the state’s low rankings nationwide in categories such as education and health care.
“We’ve been at the bottom or near the bottom in everything that matters,” he told BirminghamWatch on Oct. 29. “How do we come out of that?”
He framed it even more clearly in Huntsville the following day, highlighting Ivey’s long career in politics alongside the state’s stagnation. “I respect Gov. Ivey and I respect her 35 years of service in Montgomery,” Maddox said. “But this election is uniquely about the future of this state and whether we want to come out of the shadows… This is really about (how) the governor has defined she likes where Alabama is. I’m not satisfied.”
Perhaps unavoidably, the age gap between the two has become a factor as well. Maddox, 45, has accused the 74-year-old Ivey of covering up an April 2015 hospitalization, though he has framed the issue as being more about “abuse of power” than her health.
Ivey responded by calling Maddox “(not) just a liberal (but) a lying liberal.”
That label of a liberal Democrat is one that Maddox has worked to distance himself from in an attempt to appeal to more moderate voters. In a television ad released last month, “Meet Walt Maddox,” he emphasized that he differed from the Democratic Party on several significant issues. “I’m pro-life and pro-Second Amendment,” he said, adding that he “will never put my party ahead of the people.”
He’s also worked to differentiate himself from partisan politics by highlighting his leadership in Tuscaloosa’s recovery from the destruction of April 2011’s tornado. “I’ve led Tuscaloosa through three terms as mayor, through a devastating tornado into a vibrant economic renaissance that earned our city national praise,” he says by way of introduction in the “Meet Walt Maddox” ad. His website describes him as a leader willing to “make decisions, pick up the pieces, and move forward.” His campaign’s implicit promise is that he can do the same for the state at large.
Maddox has expressed optimism that a large percentage of Alabama voters are not exclusively partisan.
“I believe people in this state, particularly those in the center, are looking for a candidate and not a party,” he said in Huntsville on Oct. 30. “In every election, you’re going to have Republicans and Democrats that are going to make up 60 percent that are likely going to vote in that direction. But you always have that 40 percent that are in the middle that are looking for a candidate to address those issues. We see significant movement in that direction, but we’re going to have to continue to work hard.”
By Nov. 1, his optimism had grown. “Yesterday, we had some new data points come back that show us in the margin of error with a chance to win,” he said at the Madison County Democratic Women’s Luncheon. “What this data tells me is, we’re on the right side of history.”
To Maddox, the “right side of history,” looks like the creation of an education lottery, which he says would generate $300 million in revenue “without raising a single dime of taxes.” The lottery would fund pre-K programs, college scholarships, underperforming schools, and workplace development programs. Ivey has passively expressed support for a lottery, saying the decision would be up to legislators and voters.
It also looks like Medicaid expansion, Alabama’s refusal of which Maddox has called “morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.” Expanding Medicaid is a day-one issue for Maddox, who says it would create 30,000 new jobs and prevent rural hospitals from closing.
Maddox has spent the past two months touring the state in a bus emblazoned with his name on the side, hoping to differentiate himself from his opponent in one significant way — being visible.
He’s on a GOTV push in the days leading up to the election, visiting Montgomery, Mobile, Selma and Birmingham over the weekend before returning to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5 for a final get-out-the-vote rally on the eve of the election.
“We’re going to be relentless in these last few days,” he told CBS42 Thursday. “I can deal with losing, but what I cannot live with is letting the thousands of volunteers down, the thousands of donors who have given so much, and letting Alabama down by not giving it everything I’ve got.”