The two front-runners in Alabama’s gubernatorial race are poised to hold their leads right up to the June 5 primary, as voters prepare to select the state’s first governor since Robert Bentley’s unceremonious ouster last April.
Incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey, who ascended to the office from lieutenant governor after Bentley’s resignation, has held a substantial lead over Republicans vying to upset her bid to defend the position she inherited. The same is true for Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who’s led a crowded Democratic field for months.
In this report, Lagniappe profiles Ivey and Maddox as well as the candidates trailing closest behind them ahead of the June primary — a look at the candidates’ respective backgrounds, proposed policies and expectations for Alabama.
Based on a recent poll conducted by Leverage Public Strategies, Ivey is currently the preferred candidate among at least 47 percent of likely primary voters who selected a candidate, while 11 percent of the surveyed voters prefer Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle.
Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson and Alabama Sen. Bill Hightower, a Mobile Republican, have both moved up and down in the single digits throughout the race. However, one of the things that could make election day interesting is the number of voters who haven’t decided who they will support.
The Leverage poll put that number at 30 percent, though another conducted for Ivey’s campaign suggests it’s only 12 percent. That could matter because, even though Ivey seems to be the candidate to beat, she’ll be forced into a runoff if she fails to secure a majority on June 5.
Gov. Kay Ivey
Ivey’s campaign began with speculation about whether the interim governor would even seek a full term in the position, and it’s since been marked by her refusal to attend public debates as well as answer questions about her health and personal life.
Ivey has been selective with media interviews, but her campaign has released sometimes scathing statements to address and rebut questions raised about her sexual orientation and personal health. Her campaign also declined to contribute to this report and instead directed questions to its website.
A former school teacher, Ivey has been in Montgomery for more than three decades as a state legislator, state treasurer and Alabama’s lieutenant governor. Now she’s touting a record of job creation and “conservative principles” in hopes of sticking around in her recent role as governor.
Since taking office, Ivey has continued her predecessor’s support for pre-K education, which is currently receiving more funding than ever through her “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative. It focuses on early childhood education, computer science and workforce preparedness.
Those efforts were outlined in Ivey’s 2019 education budget proposal, most of which were included in the final version that passed the Legislature in March. With an additional $216 million of funding, it represented Alabama’s largest investment in education in a decade.
When it comes to taxes, Ivey said she knows “every dollar spent by the government belongs to the people.” She’s also touted signing a bill into law earlier this year that expanded which taxpayers can claim the maximum standard deduction when filing state income taxes.
Ivey said she’s “certainly not finished” looking at ways to cut taxes, and is also one of only two gubernatorial candidates to sign a “no tax” pledge earlier this year. Despite that, Ivey said as recently as May 4 she “strongly supports” a proposed 4-cent hike in Alabama’s gas tax.
On infrastructure, Ivey said Alabama’s current process for funding roads and bridges is only able to provide general maintenance and “periodically fund priority projects” to alleviate some of the most congested roadways. Other projects, Ivey said, are confined to the state’s “wish list.”
Ivey said she wants to work toward rethinking infrastructure funding both locally and nationally so those “wish list” projects become a reality for Alabama. One way to do that, she said, is through increased use of public-private partnerships.
In addition to roads and bridges, Ivey said the state’s cyber infrastructure is lagging as well, adding that more than a million Alabamians have little or no access to broadband internet services capable of 25 mbps download speeds where they live.
In March, Ivey signed into law the “Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act,” which created a state grant program to help incentivize private investment in the expansion of broadband access in underserved areas throughout the state.
Tommy Battle has spent 10 years as Huntsville’s mayor and is hoping to take the skills he said helped his city add jobs, revamp education and improve infrastructure to Montgomery.
One thing Battle has talked about frequently on the campaign trail is his desire to “change the conversation” about Alabama. He’s distributed pins declaring “Alabama is a smart place” in hopes of highlighting what’s good about a state that he says is too often viewed negatively.
“In Dothan, International Beam is making a laminated wood product that is going to challenge the steel industry, Montgomery is doing cyber defense for the Air Force, Birmingham is researching cures for cancer, Muscle Shoals and Fort Payne are making music that is heard all over the world, Huntsville is making rockets to explore deep space,” he said. “We do things in Alabama that nobody else does, and sometimes we sell ourselves short.”
Battle’s campaign has also frequently touted the Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp.’s recent decision to select Huntsville as the site for a new automotive plant — a $1.6 billion joint investment in the city that’s projected to create up to 4,000 new jobs.
Big news statewide, Battle said it’s the latest in a string of economic development wins for Huntsville. Battle has also not been coy about Huntsville’s role in securing the Toyota deal and has criticized Ivey’s campaign for riding the accomplishment on the campaign trail. While the state provided $380 million in incentives, Battle says “[Ivey’s] fingerprints weren’t on any of the agreements.”
“I’ve been to Japan five times in four years,” Battle said. “She signed off on the agreements and abatements, but when the negotiations were done, we were the ones in the trenches.”
Ivey and Battle have also seemed to take a similar position on a state lottery. While neither has endorsed bringing one to Alabama, neither has expressly opposed a lottery either. Instead, both have maintained that voters should be the ones to decide whether is a lottery is right for Alabama.
To address aging infrastructure, Battle said he believes the state has to act with a sense of urgency because, he said, “if you decide to fix something today, it will take you eight to 10 years to get it fixed.” He said without adequate funding the same could be true for the Interstate 10 Bridge Project.
“The tunnel was backed up in 1976, and look at it today,” Battle said. “We’ve got to get enough money to take care of the major thoroughfares and work from there. If we want Alabama to continue to grow and move forward, we have to start now.”
That type of long-term vision is what Battle said can set him apart in the GOP primary. He said he understands where the trends in industry and economic development are heading and has gone out of his way to say he doesn’t think Ivey can lead Alabama in that direction.
Bill Hightowner, a first-term state senator from Mobile with a background in the corporate world, said he’s always been an “idea man.” That’s one of the reasons his campaign ads might seem a little different from those of some of his competitors in the GOP primary.
“Other candidates are talking about Rocky Mountain oysters and shooting pistols. I’m talking reforming education, reforming taxes and bringing business sense to Montgomery,” he said. “I am a Christian, I go to church and I’ve done mission work, but I’m not doing commercials about that because that’s fundamental Alabama — we’ve got that.”
Instead, Hightower’s campaign efforts have focused on policies that would represent a large shift from what he calls “the status quo” in Montgomery. One of the policies Hightower pushed during his time in the Legislature was reforming and simplifying state income taxes.
Hightower is in favor of a single flat tax he said would be based on an undetermined percentage of the adjusted gross income listed on individuals’ federal tax returns. As he described it, there would be no need for a state return — just “write a check, send it to Montgomery.”
Hightower predicted such reforms could save many families “an average of $300 per year” and attract new businesses with a “fairer and flatter” tax code. He said it would also end the practice of “passing out favors” through exemptions, credits and deductions that have “eroded our revenue base” while making some of Montgomery’s “favorite people wealthy.”
Hightower has also campaigned on banning legislative earmarks, which he said effectively dictate where more than 90 percent of Alabama’s tax revenue goes each year. He’s also floated privatizing the state’s Department of Transportation and setting up the type of road and bridge commission other states use to evaluate and prioritize infrastructure projects according to need.
“The goal is get the politics out of it,” he said. “Right now, the governor uses roads and bridges to entice legislators to vote for their legislation. So, they jerk road projects around the state, and there’s no steady funding mechanism. I’d like to put a 10-year plan in place and to execute it.”
When asked about the I-10 bridge project, Hightower said his different approach to infrastructure is the reason he would “get it done.” He
said he supports the project although, like others, he said tolls would almost certainly be a part of any plan to fund the $2 billion endeavor.
A Mobile native, Hightower is the only candidate in the governor’s race from the Gulf Coast, an area some locals say is often overlooked in state politics.
If the gubernatorial race has an “outsider” candidate, it’s Scott Dawson. A Baptist minister since 1993 and the leader of a Birmingham-based evangelical association, Dawson said he entered the race to return “effective and ethical leadership” to Alabama after several embarrassing political scandals.
He’s campaigned on changing the culture in Montgomery from the Legislature to state agencies and, according to his campaign website, wants to see legislative term limits enacted and the ban on former legislators becoming lobbyists expanded from two years to 10.
Dawson also said he’d like to see an independent audit of every state agency to determine what services are being provided and how much those services are costing Alabama taxpayers. He then wants to eliminate any nonessential agencies and services identified in the process.
“Are some of these agencies even still needed today? Are they effectively staffed?” he asked in a conversation with Lagniappe. “We have to evaluate everything.”
Another focus of the campaign has been public education, of which Dawson said he’s a big supporter. However, he said he believes reforms are needed to make sure the state’s money and the effort thousands of teachers put into improving Alabama’s public schools are getting results.
As for economic development, Dawson said cutting state regulations that hamper businesses could help attract more jobs to the state without relying on publicly funded incentives he said create an “unfair playing field” for others in similar industries. Instead, Dawson has proposed the idea of setting up an independent business council to determine what regulations are unnecessary and remove them. That type of approach, he said, will entice new industries to Alabama and help existing businesses grow, expand and create jobs.
He has also expressed frustration with the number of legislative earmarks in the state budget. Around 93 percent of Alabama’s general fund budget is earmarked, and Dawson said the state needs to “make sure they are needed” instead of keeping them just because they’ve been there.
One area where Dawson differs from some of his fellow conservatives is prison reform, which in the wake of federal lawsuits has been a top priority for the state. Dawson said building new prisons may be the wrong approach to addressing problems in Alabama’s criminal justice system.
Instead, he said, Alabama needs to tackle such issues as mental illness and drug addiction that lead to the incarceration of many Alabamians. He said more beds to serve psychiatric patients and better drug intervention programs for young people are needed across the state.
As for coastal issues, Dawson said he agrees with many locals that the Gulf Coast didn’t get its fair share of Alabama’s economic settlement with BP pursuant to the 2010 oil spill, and said he’d prioritize the I-10 Bridge project. He said the addition is needed as the area continues to see growth, and also because he’s been to Mobile on a Friday afternoon and seen the effects of congestion personally.
Across the aisle, the campaign issues have been, with a few exceptions, the same that have been key in the GOP primary. The proposals for addressing them, though, are different as night and day.
The top-polling Democratic candidates are both pushing for the creation of a state lottery to fund everything from universal pre-K and greater career technical education in high schools to workforce development training programs and college scholarships.
The only polling data that’s been compiled in the Democratic primary race comes from the Mississippi-based firm Chism Strategies, which polled more than 13,603 likely voters in the Alabama Democratic primary on behalf of Maddox’s campaign earlier this month.
Of those surveyed, Chism found 68 percent were supporting Maddox, who is polling with a 5.6-to-1 advantage over his closest opponent, former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. He has an 11-to-1 advantage over former state Rep. James C. Fields, who appears to be in third place in the contest.
Democratic candidates Christopher Countryman, Doug “New Blue” Smith and Anthony White registered no measurable support in the poll conducted for the Maddox’s campaign.
In deep-red Alabama, both of the top Democratic candidates are hoping voters will focus on policies instead of party, as each is pushing agendas that call for reforms to the criminal justice system, gas taxes to fund infrastructure and a state lottery.
Walt Maddox has been the mayor of Tuscaloosa for more than a decade. Like some on the other side of the aisle, he’s billing himself as a political “outsider” — pointing to the “status quo” in Montgomery as the reason Alabama finishes close to last in several important categories.
The key to Maddox’s platform would be establishing a state lottery and expanding the types of legal gambling through a pact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Conservatively, he estimated it would “put about $250 million on the table in year one.”
Asked what he’d do without those key funding sources, Maddox said his administration would introduce other initiatives, but would remain “aggressive” on that front. He reiterated that a lottery “would be key” to implementing his plans for Alabama.
On policy, Maddox said Alabama has to do a better job of preparing children for the future.
He said the state should focus workforce development efforts on addressing Alabama’s current shortage of qualified employees for certain manufacturing jobs. However, he said the state also has to expand those efforts to develop more than just manufacturing skills, and needs to prepare the workforce for a future that’s becoming increasingly automated.
Maddox said he believes in preparing students for the career opportunities that exist where where they live as well as those that could be available in the future. Workforce development, he says, needs a “sustained regional approach.”
He noted proceeds from a lottery could support additional workforce training programs.
Both Bentley and Ivey opted not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Maddox called a big misstep. Such an expansion, Maddox said, would provide 30,000 new jobs in the health care industry and a $1.8 million investment in the state.
Maddox said he doesn’t support the idea of spending millions on new prisons to alleviate overcrowding without first trying to address the problem with reforms.
As governor, Maddox said he’d make building the I-10 bridge a top priority because of the regional need and because it would be an “economic boon” for the state. His infrastructure plan, according to his campaign, would be underpinned by a gas tax increase.
Maddox has previously stated support for the plan pushed by the Alliance for Alabama Infrastructure and Business Council of Alabama that would raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon.
He also said the state government did a poor job of handling its settlement from the BP oil spill, comparing the accident’s effects on coastal Alabama to the impacts Tuscaloosa saw from the tornado that struck the city in 2011.
Sue Bell Cobb
Sue Bell Cobb is no stranger to Alabama politics. She spent 17 years in elected judicial positions, serving on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals from 1994 to 2006, then as chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court until 2011. She was the first woman to hold either position.
The most recent polls have put her in second place among the six candidates seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and like Maddox, Cobb has come out strongly in favor of a state lottery to help generate more revenue for some of Alabama’s most critical services.
The “Lifelong Learner Lottery” is Cobb’s plan to increase state funding for education, the budget for which she said is “stretched beyond thin.” She previously stated revenues from the lottery would go toward funding pre-K programs, career tech education in high schools and assisting low-income students with college tuition not covered by Pell grants.
Detractors call lotteries “a tax on the poor,” but Cobb said her proposal would address real needs and “give hope to those lottery participants who struggle the hardest to live on meager incomes.”
Cobb has also discussed raising Alabama’s minimum wage, which matches the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, though she has not said where she would set it.
To do so, though, would require the Legislature, which last year passed a law prohibiting local governmental entities from requiring a minimum wage and has rejected previous attempts to raise the statewide minimum. Cobb has said cities should be allowed to set their own standards.
On infrastructure, Cobb said Alabama lacks the quality roads and bridges found in surrounding states because it trails in revenue raised by gas taxes and toll roads. She’s expressed support for a “modest” increase in Alabama’s 18-cent per gallon fuel tax.
In addition to making repairs, Cobb said she wants to position Alabama as a major transit hub in the South by capitalizing on the convergence of rail, roads and waterways.
With the Southern Rail Commission exploring the feasibility of Amtrak making a return to the Gulf Coast, that could put Mobile in the spotlight. Cobb has said deepening the port — something state and federal agencies are already evaluating — “will be a priority” of hers.
Another area Cobb has highlighted is one she knows well — criminal justice.
Cobb said she believes in statewide reform of the criminal justice system. She would quickly move to create regional diversion community centers and work-release programs while expanding veteran and drug court programs as well as mental health treatment.
During her time as chief justice, Cobb spearheaded a similar effort that spread model drug court programs to 66 of 67 Alabama counties — something she’s previously called one of her “proudest achievements.”
Dale Liesch, Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.