By Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson
There is much more at issue on March 3 than who should be each party’s nominee for president. Regardless of which ballot you choose to cast, there are races up and down both the Republican and Democratic ballots.
One of the biggest for those along Alabama’s Gulf Coast is who will represent the area as a U.S. representative. Rep. Bradley Byrne has decided to give up his seat to run for Senate and there are eight candidates from both parties looking to replace him.
Jerry Carl, a Mobile County commissioner, believes the experience he has gained in his current office will help him as the representative of Alabama’s First Congressional District. County leadership deals with big national issues every day, Carl said, from immigration to drug enforcement to infrastructure.
“As a county commissioner, I’ve been involved in all of that,” he said. “Now, who do we want to go to Washington? Someone who has written a handful of bills that have been passed. Wrote bills knowing they were going to run for something else and would be able to say, ‘I wrote a bill that changed the world,’ but it didn’t pass. As a county commissioner, I’m answerable about that infrastructure, I’m answerable for those dirt roads.
“As a county commissioner you’re hands-on, you’re in the ditches every day. I couldn’t think of a better person to send to Washington to represent me as a congressman,” he added.
On the Mobile River Bridge issue, Carl matched his colleagues in being against a toll. To alleviate the toll issue, Carl said the price of the bridge project would have to come down. He specifically took aim at the plans for a pedestrian walkway, bike lanes and an observation tower on the bridge.
“We’ve got to go back and we’ve got to look at the bicycle paths and the observation tower,” he said. “The observation tower is still $1.1 million, I’m told. I haven’t seen a breakdown.
“Do we need it? Gosh, it would be nice if we had it,” he added. “To be able to go on that tower and look across the bay, it would be wonderful, but can we afford it?”
Like many of his counterparts, Carl brought up concerns over sewage overflows in both Mobile and Baldwin counties. On another environmental issue — the coal ash pond at Plant Barry — Carl, who has visited the site, seemed to side with Alabama Power in favoring the “cap-in-place” method as opposed to the removal of the coal ash from the pond.
“I’ve done the tour. It amazed me the trees and vegetation growing up in the middle of it,” he said. “I had no idea that existed. I looked for it to be dirt, black, nasty dirt.”
Carl questioned whether it was safer to cap-in-place or move the ash somewhere else.
“Is it more dangerous to move it ‘x’ amount of miles and dig it up, or is it better to cap it?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
On the issue of tariffs, Carl said he supports President Donald J. Trump’s efforts, especially with the Chinese. On those fees being linked twice to Airbus manufacturing in Mobile before being removed from consideration, Carl had a more nuanced answer.
“I see Airbus, especially with the Boeing situation the way it is right now … Airbus is poised to take a huge chunk of that commuter jet business and they can’t build all those in Germany, in Hamburg. I foresee the long game here is they’re moving the manufacturing here. I have no inside knowledge; it’s just common sense.”
On veterans’ issues, specifically on healthcare for those who’ve served, Carl believes it’s the number one issue driving his campaign. The issue with care for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is “management and bureaucracy,” he said.
“In rural areas, doctors will see 50 to 60 patients a day. At the VA, it’s 13,” Carl said. “Now, think about that. When you ask them why they only see 13, the answer is paperwork.”
When asked how to fix some of the problems, Carl floated the idea of privatizing parts of the administration. He also said VA patients should be allowed to use nonVA-run pharmacies.
John Castorani has been told he’s “too honest” for Alabama politics more than once.
Yet, he remains hopeful younger Republicans and others disillusioned with the political status quo can push him to an improbable victory in the primary for Alabama’s District 1 (AL01) congressional seat.
From Fairhope, Castorani is a veteran of the Army National Guard and has made a career in the intelligence community — a background he’s quick to mention as the only combat veteran in the race.
That’s not the only thing that distinguishes Castorani from other candidates in the primary. He also hasn’t framed his campaign around support for President Donald Trump or his ire for out-of-state Democrats. Instead, he’s focused on issues he believes actually affect his constituents and the country.
“I’m not only here to say, ‘No! I agree with Trump more!’ For me, it’s not about politics … It’s about the country,” he said. “I’m not going to base my campaign on attacking socialists or gun-grabbers because we live in Alabama. Socialism isn’t coming here. Nobody is going to take your guns in Alabama.”
In addition to supporting the Second Amendment, Castorani lists some of his key policy positions as securing the U.S. southern border and improving access to healthcare while ensuring that insurance companies continue to provide coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. Castorani has also put a lot of emphasis on better healthcare and mental health services for veterans.
Specifically, he supports an idea previously floated by The Heritage Foundation, which proposes adding service members, active reservists and their families to the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program — something Castorani said would allow them to choose any provider regardless of where they live and also help to stabilize insurance premiums for all federal workers and retirees in FEHB.
During an interview with Lagniappe, Castorani kept coming back to concerns he has about routine deficit spending and the ballooning national debt. If elected, he said he would strongly support a balanced budget amendment, term limits and reforms to automatically funded federal entitlement programs.
His concerns about spending are also what make Castorani stand out when it comes to some local issues. While some candidates in the AL01 race have said the federal government should play more of a role in funding the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway Project, Castorani has joined those who believe it should be the state’s responsibility. He said Alabama tends to fight Washington until it needs something.
“You can’t say you should be independent from federal oversight, whether you’re talking about the [Environmental Protection Agency] or whatever, and then in the same breath turn around and say, ‘gimmie, gimmie, gimmie,’” Castorani said. “It just doesn’t work like that. We have a deficit.”
That said, he also doesn’t believe the state government should “force a toll down people’s throats” by suddenly charging motorists to use alternate routes that have existed for years. Instead, he’d prefer to see a tolled expressway built on a route off of I-10 that motorists could opt to use as a faster option.
Castorani is also unusual because of his criticism of the littoral combat ships (LCS) built at the Austal shipyard in Mobile, which support thousands of local jobs. LCS has faced criticism from some within the federal government, but Alabama’s delegation has historically been quick to defend it. On the contrary, Castorani said he believes the ship costs more than it’s worth — comparing it to the F-35 fighter jet that’s become a poster child for unnecessary military spending.
“That contract needs to die,” Castorani added.
In recent polls, Castorani is trending fourth in a five-man race, though he is significantly behind the top three candidates. Asked about his chances, Castorani said if Trump’s election taught him anything, it’s that polls aren’t always right when election day rolls around. And no matter the result, he believes his campaign can speak to a younger generation of conservatives in Alabama who are here to stay.
“Depending on the poll we’re looking at, 48 to 49 percent of voters don’t plan on voting because they feel that both parties have veered too far off course,” he said. “I do believe we are the future of the Republican party, and whether we win or lose, these archaic policies are going to die out sooner or later.”
Bill Hightower, a former state senator who has previously run for governor, said he and his wife made the decision to try and serve at another level.
“We thought we [needed] to try, because in 10 years we don’t want to look back and regret that we hadn’t done it,” he said. “Sometimes you do stuff because you don’t want to look back and wonder. You got to find out yourself.”
On veterans’ healthcare, Hightower said opportunities at the clinic in Tillman’s Corner needed to be expanded. For instance, he said, the VA could do more to support mental health issues here.
“The suicide rate among veterans is alarmingly high and they have some psychiatric capabilities, but that needs to be expanded,” he said. “Plus, the veterans, when they have to go to that clinic and they’re prescribed medicine, they have to go to a pharmacy run by the VA and there’s not one there. They have to go elsewhere.”
Physical therapy also needs to be more of an option at the local clinic, Hightower said.
On the bridge issue, Hightower said he has been against the toll since “the very beginning.” Like Carl and others, Hightower said the cost of the structure has to be reduced. He added he would ask for more support from the state, given the region’s importance to Alabama.
“Mobile and Baldwin counties have 12 percent of the population of Alabama, but we generate 30 percent of the revenue,” he said. “We’re the goose that laid the golden egg, so to speak, and I think it’s time we get that money back.”
On tariffs, Hightower also said he supports Trump, but added the focus of the tariffs should be on Chinese goods and not Europe, which is what’s causing the threat of additional fees at the Airbus facility locally.
“Europe is not our enemy,” Hightower said. “The biggest enemy is China and it’s strategic to win. That’s not just about tariffs on farm products, but it’s about the military issues.”
Hightower said he’s looked at both sides of the issue when it comes to Alabama Power’s coal ash pond at Plant Barry. Whether the coal ash is moved or the company is allowed to cap it in place, he said he believes it is two bad choices.
“I am concerned if that river ever does pierce the barrier,” he said. “I haven’t seen the site, but I’ve looked at their diagrams to understand it and that could be a threat to the bay.”
There are other threats to the bay as well, Hightower said, and as a member of Congress he would work to help improve the area’s infrastructure in order to prevent sewer overflows.
Wes Lambert, a local business owner, believes veterans should be able to use any doctor they want without going through the burden of the VA.
“The government should still take care of them,” he said. “There should be a card or something where they bill the government. I just don’t think you should be limited to the VA.”
Lambert, like many of the candidates, believes the Mobile Bay Bridge is needed, but is opposed to the tolls the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) had called for to help pay for it. Lambert said he would build relationships in congress to help fund the project.
“The first thing I want to do is get on the infrastructure committee, and when you do that then you develop relationships with folks that can help you get funds for down here,” he said. “And, yes, you’re going to have to scratch their back, but that’s business.”
Lambert said he would also press the state government to use more of the gas tax money to pay for the project. He would also work to make sure the area got a bigger percentage of the federal gas tax to help pay for it.
Lambert called infrastructure the top issue in the area. He also said he would advocate for “affordable internet” for rural communities in District 1.
Lambert said he supports Trump’s trade policies, but recognizes that exempting Mobile’s Airbus facility was important to the local economy.
“Our economy consists of people who build ships, people who build planes,” he said. “We have seafood agriculture, we have farming. So, we’re very diverse here.”
On the issue of coal ash, Lambert said Alabama Power customers would have to pay if the company decided to change its plans and move the ash out of the Plant Barry pond.
“I met with Alabama Power about it two weeks ago and they say it’ll take thousands of trucks to get it out of there,” he said. “Now, you’ve got coal ash on the highways and where are you going to take it? That’s the other issue. So, I don’t know.
“If it stays there, there might be an issue,” he added. “If it moves, there might be an issue. It is a big topic and you can’t fault them because they asked the government and the government told them it was OK.”
Chris Pringle, a current state representative, said he’s running for the seat because as a small business owner he understands the negative impact government regulations can have on job creation.
“I think it’s important we send someone to Washington, D.C., that not only shares the values in southwest Alabama, but also has the practical business experience to go to Washington and understand the effects these rules have on people’s lives,” he said. “I think I’ve proven in my legislative experience I’m the person who will stand up and fight for southwest Alabama and protect our needs.”
Pringle said as a congressman he would work with the entire delegation to ensure Airbus can operate without tariffs in the future.
“The way it currently is now, they are exempt because those planes are built here in America,” he said. “Those are American-built airplanes and it’s a very important distinction. They’re not built in Europe. The delegation needs to continue to stand strong and work with the president to keep that exemption in place.”
As for tariffs overall, Pringle said Trump has used them to benefit the country in trade deals, especially with Canada and Mexico. He added they have had an impact in dealing with China.
“China has been taking advantage of us for 35 years,” Pringle said. “They’ve not been playing fair and President Trump has been using tariffs to bring them to the table to negotiate and I think America will be better off because of those negotiations.”
As a member of Congress, Pringle said he would work to find additional revenue streams to help pay for the Mobile River Bridge project.
“But I will never, never support tolling the existing I-10 or Bayway,” he said. “I was opposed to it when it was proposed and I will always be opposed to it.”
On the issue of coal ash, Pringle said he would like to see an “open discussion” among experts from both sides about the issue.
“I think there needs to be a very open, public discussion between the experts,” he said.
On veterans’ issues, Pringle said it’s important to remember those who served earned those benefits.
“We owe them what we promised them,” he said. “I think the Tillman’s Corner facility goes a long way toward improving access for our veterans, but we have 3.8 million veterans in this state and we have a lot of rural communities that have veterans that still have to travel for hours to get basic healthcare.”
The solution for Pringle is allowing veterans access to local doctors, facilities and hospitals and cutting down on the paperwork.
“It has always been frustrating to me to watch veterans struggle,” he said. “It’s a never-ending barrage of paperwork.”
James Averhart is a Mobile native and retired U.S. Marine, according to his campaign website. Averhart was not available for an interview with Lagniappe. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987 to 2017 and retired from the Pentagon as head of the Marine Corps Correction Branch.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from American Military University (AMU) while serving in active duty. He also obtained a master’s degree from AMU before getting a doctorate degree in theology and Biblical studies from North Carolina College of Theology and Seminary.
Rick Collins, a Mobile real estate broker, said he’s “watched” this race for some 22 years and was ready to make the jump to candidate in 2020.
“When it came down to it, it was the perfect time,” he said. “I think the country needs what I offer, which is calmness, clarity and maturity.”
Collins had an interesting solution to the problem of tolls on the Mobile River Bridge and it involves not building the structure at all, at least not at first. He said if the state added additional signage along Interstate 65, beachgoers could be directed to Florida beaches while avoiding Mobile and Baldwin counties altogether. Funding could be spent to upgrade some of the backroads, he said.
“Is this a solution to the problem? I don’t know, but it doesn’t involve bridges and it doesn’t involve elevated Bayways,” he said. “It could be a temporary solution.”
Staying on the bridge issue, Collins said if area voters want a federal solution, they need to elect a Democrat to the House seat, as he suspects that will remain the party in power in that part of Congress.
“You put a Republican in the House right now, they’re not going to be able to get a speed bump on the Bayway, an $800 speed bump,” Collins said. “They’re not going to have any authority and power. If you want that issue solved, you want a Democrat in office.”
On the issue of coal ash, Collins said within 30 days of being elected, he would call for a summit and invite Alabama Power executives and engineers to discuss the issue. He said the company’s plans to cap the ash in place is “completely unacceptable.”
“I think they’ll just do the right thing, but ultimately they know the public will go with what makes sense,” he said.
Concerning tariffs, Collins said one of his primary jobs in Congress would be to protect jobs and fight anything that would threaten Airbus, Austal or “any company in the area.”
“So, whatever the issue is my primary responsibility is protecting jobs and creating job opportunities,” he said.
Collins said he would support job-training opportunities for students who didn’t want to go to college after high school.
On the issue of veterans, Collins said he would work with the VA to help make it easier for veterans to see any doctor they want.
Democrat Kiani Gardner believes her life experiences have made her more attune to the day-to-day lives of residents in Alabama’s first congressional district than others vying to represent them next year.
Gardner is a scientist and a former community college professor with a Ph.D. in cellular biology, but what she believes connects her to voters are the things you might not find on a résumé. Until she entered this race, she was working full time and raising a family with her husband in Spanish Fort.
She’s also no stranger to some of the challenges many Americans in South Alabama and elsewhere face every day. In graduate school, Gardner was hit by a distracted driver while riding her motorcycle. A decade later, she doesn’t remember the exact number of surgeries she had to have in the accident’s aftermath, but she knows it was in the 20s.
The medical bills added up and quickly. Within weeks, she was facing the possibility of declaring bankruptcy at 22 years old — an experience she said has made healthcare a key issue in her campaign.
“In a lot of ways I was really lucky … I didn’t die. I didn’t lose my leg. My family stepped in to help me,” Gardner told Lagniappe. “The problem is we have a healthcare system that depends so much on being lucky. Americans deserve a healthcare system that’s democratized and accessible to everyone.”
On her website, Gardner says it’s easy to get lost in the national debate about how much health insurance coverage costs, but she believes one of more pressing issues for Alabama is the lack of quality services. She’s previously committed to “leveraging the state’s existing medical facilities” by supporting things like the expansion of Medicaid and finding other ways to support rural hospitals struggling to stay open.
Other focal points of Gardner’s include protecting the environment, improving and expanding access to education and, above all else, creating an economy that benefits all citizens. She said “everything else is a luxury if you can’t make a living.” Gardner has also been quick to tap into local issues as well.
She has been outspoken about the role Congress should play in the construction of an overhauled Interstate 10 bridge between Mobile and Baldwin counties — a route she’s previously called the “economic lifeblood” of this area. As a Spanish Fort resident, it’s also an issue that affects her personally.
“Right now, driving to Florida is easier than going across the Bayway,” Gardner told Lagniappe.
Because of the potential damage the Bayway could see during a hurricane or other coastal weather event, Garder has previously said she’d like funding to overhaul the bridge secured as part of a broader legislative package addressing and possibly mitigating the effects of climate change.
Gardner has previously said she’s “pro-woman” when it comes to abortion rights and will “always oppose legislation that purports to know more about a woman’s body than her doctor.” Though she describes herself as “a fantastic shot” and even challenged the Republicans’ District 1 race to “a shoot-off,” Gardner said she supports “common sense gun laws” like expanded background checks and red flag laws.
“I have no problem with guns,” she said. “The only thing I want is the level of regulation that you would expect for something that can kill you. We should have some kind of handle on who can access them.”
In a district that has been safely Republican for decades, Gardner is aware whoever the Democratic nominee winds up being, he or she will face an uphill battle heading into the general election. Yet, she believes Democrats have shown they can win when they engage newer, younger voters. She said District 1 doesn’t have a “Republican majority,” it has a “non-voting majority.”
She also believes the campaign itself is important, arguing you can’t build a base without running.
“If we keep allowing the message to persist that the district is so hopelessly red that a Democrat doesn’t stand a chance, we are not giving people much of a reason to step out and go vote. That’s one of the important things about just running … negating that narrative,” Gardner said. “Whether or not we win — and I do intend to win — we’re showing that Republicans don’t get to own this seat; it belongs to the district and there are people here who are willing to put up a fight for it.”
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