Solutions for funding an Interstate 10 bridge project, background checks on firearms, the environment and President Donald J. Trump’s policies were among the main topics during the first debate featuring the five Republican candidates for Alabama’s First Congressional seat.
Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, U.S. Army veteran John Castorani, former State Sen. Bill Hightower, restaurant owner Wes Lambert and State Rep. Chris Pringle met at the J.C. Davis Auditorium in Chickasaw on Thursday, Nov. 21 to discuss these issues months ahead of the Repulican primary in March. The first debate was hosted by WKRG-TV and FM Talk 106.5.
The candidates were asked about Trump’s ongoing trade disputes with China and other countries, which have resulted in higher tariffs on agricultural products, steel and other goods. Specifically, the candidates were asked about the tariffs and the impact on the aircraft industry.
Castorani said while he supports Trump’s agenda, he would side with the position that is best for South Alabama.
“I’ll be a tireless advocate for South Alabama,” he said. “ … We need to advocate and fight to get more sales of the A320 and make sure Airbus is safe from tariffs.”
Hightower said he supports Trump and how he “masterfully dealt” with China.
“We need to protect industry,” he said. “It’s important to get the China trade deal done.”
Hightower also pointed to the need for Congress to pass the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as USMCA.
Lambert agreed passage of USMCA is important, but it is stalled due to the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
“We’ve had NAFTA sitting with the Democrats for six to eight weeks,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere because of impeachment.”
Like the other candidates, Pringle said he supports the “America first” agenda of Trump.
“I support open but fair trade,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have that with China. China has been ripping us off for years.”
Carl said he helped get Airbus exempted from a recent round of tariffs on European Union products, adding the trade disputes have been negatively impacting farmers.
“They’ve been taking it on the chin,” Carl said of farmers. “Farmers are getting half the price for cotton.”
Despite the issues for farmers, Carl said the American people need to support the president on tariffs.
“We need to stand with the president here,” he said. “We need to stand against unfair trade with China.”
All five candidates felt the recommended tolls for the now-defunct Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) Mobile River Bridge project were too high and each felt the federal government could do more in the future to help bring the project to fruition.
While he was against the toll for the bridge, Hightower said he was in favor of the project because of the traffic congestion experienced along the corridor.
“We’ve got to fix that problem,” he said.
The project can be accomplished, Hightower said, by designing a lower-cost bridge, or increasing the opportunities for financing.
“Local engineering groups are doing a great job finding alternatives as we speak,” he said. “I have a history of bringing different people to the table and we could use that here.”
Lambert said it’s important the new congressman work to get on the House infrastructure committee and from there, lobby members to find more federal money for the project. He also advocated removing the cap on Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA, funding and allowing those funds to flow to the bridge project.
Pringle said he was against the proposed $6 one-way toll for use of the entire project, but he doesn’t believe the project itself is dead. He argued for passage of a federal infrastructure plan.
“We need that plan,” Pringle said. “We need those funds to build a bridge.”
Carl teased a plan in “two weeks” that would be a downsized version of the project presented by ALDOT. He said he supports the project, but not the toll and this new version would make the bridge a first phase and Bayway improvements a second phase.
Castorani called the cost of the toll “unfair” to commuters from both counties. He also blamed “career politicians” for being unable to pass a federal infrastructure plan.
Trump has previously said he’d be in favor of an expansion of background checks when it comes to buying and selling firearms. The candidates were asked if they support this stance. They were split on the answers.
Hightower said he would not support expanded background checks. He couched gun violence as a “cultural issue” and blamed the breakdown of families for the issues with it.
Castorani said he would support a slight expansion of background checks in order to protect a gun owner who sells a firearm. Right now, the government database used for background checks doesn’t do a great job tracking sales and could be improved.
“A seller could call in and get a background check for $25 and add it to the cost of the gun,” he said. “I think it would be beneficial to have background checks.”
Carl, who called himself a gun collector, said he opposes expanded background checks.
“I don’t want the federal government telling me what I can or can’t do with a gun,” he said.
Background checks for firearm purchases won’t prevent crime, Carl said, noting a number of crimes are committed by stolen guns. He did remind gun owners to lock car doors and to secure their guns.
Pringle, who touted his A-plus rating with the National Rifle Association, would not support expanded background checks. Pringle said changes to the Second Amendment always precede the taking away of other rights.
Lambert said he’s open to background checks, but also argued for better enforcement of laws already on the books.
The candidates diverged a bit on the issue of abortion when asked a question about Alabama’s law outlawing almost all abortions without exceptions for rape or incest.
Lambert said he is pro-life, but supports exemptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. Hightower said he is also pro-life and pointed out the bill in question was meant to challenge the “evil” Roe v. Wade decision, which limited interference to abortion access.
Castorani said while he is personally pro-life, he is not “going to tell a woman what to do with her body.” He added he is opposed to federal judges “legislating from the bench,” which has been part of the abortion debate in the past.
Carl said he opposes any form of abortion and added it “needs to be taken off the table.”
Pringle reiterated abortion is not a political position for him, but a “religious conviction.” He called it “nothing short of murder” and defended Alabama’s abortion bill saying it was co-sponsored and written by women.
The candidates were asked about environmental issues. More specifically, they were asked about Trump’s moves to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and rollback previous regulations aimed at protecting the environment.
Hightower called environmental policy a “states’ rights” issue and touted his “smaller, more limited government” stances.
Castorani said he’s concerned with protecting the area’s diverse aquatic ecosystem from environmental dangers. Specifically, he mentioned Alabama Power’s coal ash pond at Plant Barry in Washington County. He accused representatives in Montgomery of being “bankrolled” by Alabama Power.
As someone who grew up in the 1960s, Carl said the country has come a long way on environmental issues since then. He believes getting the federal government more involved is a mistake and he doesn’t want to see any expansion of EPA oversight.
Pringle said he is also against more regulations, but added everything should be done to “protect our natural resources.”
Many of the candidates on both sides of the aisle have begun raising money as part of the campaign. To date, Carl has the largest campaign war chest, but Hightower has raised the most in contributions.
Carl has $856,484 in campaign funds as of Nov. 14, but more than $400,000 of that came in the form of a personal loan. He has received $443,000 in contributions. He has spent $115,000 so far.
Carl has received $2,500 from the Alabama Power Company political action committee (PAC) and $2,700 from the University of South Alabama (USA) federal PAC. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has contributed to Carl’s campaign, as has Republican State Rep. Shane Stringer, according to campaign finance documents.
Hightower has raised a total of $559,720 in campaign funding, all of it from donations. Of that, roughly $9,000 has come from PACs, according to campaign finance documents. Hightower has spent $106,000 so far.
Lambert has raised $173,064 so far, with most of that coming from $110,000 of his own money. He has received 14 individual donations with the largest, some $2,800, coming from a relative.
Pringle has raised $308,291 in campaign cash, with $291,941 coming from individual contributors. Like Carl, Pringle has received $2,500 from the Alabama Power PAC and $2,700 from the USA PAC.
There are three Democrats running for the seat. They are James Averhart, Rick Collins and Kiani Gardner. Averhart’s campaign contributions total $22,275. More than $18,000 of that comes from his own money.
Garder has raised $17,589 and most of that has come from out-of-state donors. They have come from small contributions from Wisconsin, Hawaii, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana.
Jason Johnson contributed to this story.
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