By Jason Johnson, Dale Liesch and Gabriel Tynes
Days from the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Gov. Kay Ivey continues to campaign on her job creation efforts and support for President Donald Trump’s agenda, but despite being an underdog in a red state, Democratic challenger Walt Maddox believes Alabamians are looking for change.
While dollars don’t necessarily equal votes, the political contributions have matched the projected outcome of this particular race so far. Ivey is the leader in nearly every major poll that’s been conducted and had also outraised Maddox by more than $4 million as of Oct. 29.
After being in state politics more than 30 years, previously as lieutenant governor, Ivey assumed her current role after former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned in 2017. She has since claimed to have “righted the ship of state” and made some sweeping changes to top administrative posts.
Other than the standard conservative talking points, jobs and education have been the cornerstone of Ivey’s campaign. Alabama’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s ever been and legislators budgeted the largest increase for public education in years during the 2018 session.
Ivey has also continued efforts to expand high-quality pre-K options to more families in Alabama, which was also a component of her “Strong Start, Strong Finish” program.
Her campaign takes credit for “16,000 new jobs,” though a chunk of those come from the planned Toyota/Mazda plant in Huntsville — a $1.6 billion project in which Ivey’s primary opponent, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, said the city played a larger role than the state.
Improving state infrastructure has been another major part of Ivey’s platform.
“As we continue to grow our great state, there is an ever-increasing demand to improve our roads and bridges,” Ivey said at an event last week. “Infrastructure directly impacts our lives every day. It’s how we get to and from work. It’s how our children get to and from school.”
However, exactly how those improvements would be financed remains unclear.
The Legislature is expected to consider an increase in Alabama’s 16-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax in its upcoming session. The tax is intended to fund state highway projects and Ivey has previously indicated she would support some kind of increase to help fund projects that have long been on the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) “wish list.”
However, Maddox has criticized Ivey for continuing to allow millions of dollars intended for those road and bridge projects to be repurposed for other functions — a budgeting practice originating with former Gov. Bob Riley that has continued over the past nine years.
Last week, the Maddox campaign alleged and ALDOT later confirmed more than $60 million is diverted from highway budgets annually to the state law enforcement association and the Administrative Office of Courts. Despite that, both continue to struggle with their own funding problems.
Maddox, the current mayor of Tuscaloosa, has made a state lottery supporting education the cornerstone of his campaign. He’d like to see the public hold an up-or-down vote on an education lottery he says could provide $300 million for public schools without raising taxes.
He also noted proceeds from a lottery could support additional workforce training programs to help Alabamians fill the skills gap that has kept some from higher-paying jobs in more technical industries such as computer science and advanced manufacturing.
Another marquee issue for Maddox has been health care, and he’s previously said if elected he would “immediately move to expand Medicaid” through provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The Alabama Hospital Association has publicly endorsed an expansion as well.
Maddox previously told Lagniappe a Medicaid expansion would give more Alabamians access to affordable health care but could also address the state’s persistent problems with inadequate mental health services and the closure of rural hospitals in dozens of counties.
Outside of policy, the 2018 governor’s race has also been marked somewhat by Ivey’s reluctance to entertain direct questions from most members the Alabama press as well as her continued refusals to debate Maddox or fellow Republicans in the GOP primary.
Sam Fisher, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, told Lagniappe that probably isn’t a bad campaign strategy, even if it “does a disservice to voters.”
“The logic is that an incumbent or someone as the nominee of the dominant party in the district has a lot more to lose in a debate. A debate allows the other candidate an opportunity to gain name recognition and to make the dominant-party candidate look bad,” Fisher said. “Given no knowledge of candidates, the vast majority of voters — Democrat and Republican — will reflexively pull the lever for their party. Consequently, for local and many state elections, party affiliation is the sole guide for a decision.”
In final weeks of the race, questions have once again been raised about Ivey’s health.
Earlier this month, former state law enforcement director Spencer Collier made waves by rehashing old claims Ivey was hospitalized for “stroke-like symptoms” during a 2015 trip to Colorado as lieutenant governor. Collier, a former Republican legislator from Mobile County, also alleged Ivey pushed for a member of her security detail to be demoted after he told his superiors about the incident.
Ivey has admitted to being hospitalized on the trip but says it was for altitude sickness, and the 74-year-old’s personal physician has released multiple statements saying her health is just fine.
Ivey also said the suggestion she had State Trooper Drew Brooks demoted was a “desperate false attack” by Maddox, whom she called a “lying liberal.”
The lieutenant governor has little power or duties outside the Senate, but like Ivey would ascend to the governor’s office in the event the governor is removed or otherwise unable to complete his or her entire term. Since 1972, three lieutenant governors have done just that.
Within the Senate, the lieutenant governor is responsible for assigning committee members and chairpersons and determining which legislation is sent to those committees. The position has been vacant since Ivey’s departure.
Democrat Will Boyd is a minister at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Florence and chairman of the Lauderdale County Democratic Executive Committee. Before moving to Alabama in 2011, he was a city councilman in Greenville, Illinois. A native of Florence, South Carolina, he holds a bachelor of science degree in engineering from the University of South Carolina and advanced degrees from “from various institutions of higher learning,” according to his campaign website.
Before throwing his hat in the ring for lieutenant governor, Boyd also campaigned for Alabama’s 5th Congressional District and the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Doug Jones.
In a questionnaire submitted to the Alabama Policy Institute in May, Boyd described himself as a “a practical progressive” who would focus on employment, the expansion of Medicaid, protection of the Education Trust Fund and “a fairer tax system that does not unfairly burden low- and middle-income families while providing tax breaks for the rich.”
In the same questionnaire, Boyd stated racial inequality is “the most challenging issue facing families in Alabama.” Citing higher unemployment and incarceration rates, lower standards of living and reduced access to health care, Boyd said the issue “could easily be remedied by legislators and the government agencies.”
On the Republican side, State Rep. Will Ainsworth defeated Twinkle Cavanaugh in a contentious primary runoff election July 17 to advance to the general election. Raised in Marshall County, Ainsworth is a graduate of Auburn University who returned home to open Dream Ranch in Guntersville, a hunting a fishing lodge. He also founded the Tennessee Valley Hunting and Fishing Expo and has ties to property development and cattle farming.
Elected to the House in 2014, Ainsworth’s legislative priorities include expanding pre-K and early childhood education opportunities, workforce development and improving Alabama’s image. Among his accomplishments, his campaign website lists the articles of impeachment he signed against former Gov. Bentley and bills he sponsored introducing term limits and paving the way for the public to remove elected officials who abuse their office. Neither bill passed.
One of the more interesting aspects of this election cycle has been the money raised for the lieutenant governor’s race. In 2014, Ivey and her primary opponent, Stan Cooke, spent a combined total of around $515,000 on the race. This year, Ainsworth and Cavanaugh spent just under $4 million in their pursuit of the seat.
Attorney general race
As incumbent Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall and Democratic challenger Joe Siegelman line up for the general election, questions remain about how the investigation into former Gov. Robert Bentley was handled. It’s clear the public may never get answers.
Questions were raised when Bentley appointed Marshall’s predecessor, Luther Strange, to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Marshall admitted as much in a previous interview with Lagniappe while on the campaign trail.
However, Marshall said the investigation was handled correctly once he took office. He noted he recused himself, and Bentley resigned six weeks later.
Opponent Siegelman, the son of former Gov. Don Siegelman, called the investigation “problematic” and said the people of Alabama had lost “confidence” in the government because of it.
“The fact that there is even some suspicion over whether a deal was struck tells you it never should have happened,” Siegelman said in a previous Lagniappe interview. “There never should have been the need to ask these questions.”
The two candidates discussed other issues pertaining to state government, including the release of police body camera footage and prison overcrowding.
Mobile was forced by court order to release police body camera footage captured during a 2016 incident where several teenagers were pepper-sprayed by a Mobile police officer. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by local Fox affiliate WALA. The candidates agreed that the release of body camera footage should be decided on a “case-by-case basis.”
On prison reform, Marshall credits diversion programs for reducing overcrowding since he has been in office. Siegelman believes diversion programs could be expanded, but acknowledged the overcrowding issue wouldn’t be solved by the attorney general’s office alone.
Since the beginning of September, both candidates have seen a surge in fundraising, but Marshall has had the upper hand. In the month of September the incumbent raised $224,700 and spent $108,966, according to reports on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s website. Since Oct. 1, Marshall has raised more than $167,800. During that time, he has spent more than $117,946 and currently has $311,823 in cash on hand.
In September, Siegelman didn’t raise half as much as Marshall, with only $92,673. During that month he spent $46,069. Since Oct. 1, Siegelman has raised more than $115,000, records show. He has spent more than $300,000 and has $23,194 in cash on hand.
In the race for state auditor, Democrat Miranda Joseph said she feels her momentum picking up, as compared to the previous two times she has run for the position. She said her support swelled last November and December when her opponent, Republican Jim Zeigler, supported Roy Moore in the special U.S. Senate election.
“More people are listening,” she said.
Her experience as a licensed auditor doesn’t hurt either. Joseph said she has an accounting degree and has been an auditor in the private sector for 12 years.
The office gets an appointment to local boards of registrars in all but one Alabama county. Joseph said she would not make a political appointment, but would find the right person for the job, regardless of party affiliation.
Zeigler surrendered his law license earlier this year due to a complaint related to a case he was working personally. He told Lagniappe in June the decision was made simply because he wasn’t using his license in his current position as state auditor.
Phillip McCallum, executive director of the Alabama Bar Association, was unable to offer much information regarding Zeigler’s surrender of his license in June due to confidentiality requirements, but he did confirm Zeigler is not eligible to have his license reinstated for five years. That is the same length of time a disbarred attorney must wait before being able to apply for readmission to the bar.
Looking up Zeigler’s name on the State Bar website, there is a black box under his name listing him as having surrendered his license. A press release attached to his name lists “Discipline Imposed: Surrender of license.”
“Mobile attorney James W. Zeigler surrendered his license on Febuary 19, 2018. The Supreme Court of Alabama accepted Zeigler’s voluntary surrender of his license from the practice of law in the state of Alabama effective April 18, 2018,” the release says.
Joseph said Zeigler’s inability or unwillingness to share more details about the surrender of his law license doesn’t bode well for someone in public office.
“He’s not being transparent about why he gave up his law license,” she said. “You have to be honest and transparent in the public sector.”
A request for comment sent to Zeigler’s email address received no response by deadline.
Since Sept. 1 Joseph has actually outraised Zeigler by almost $3,000, according to records from the Secretary of State’s website. However, Zeigler started September with about $10,000 more in cash on hand. Joseph has spent $8,456 since August and currently has $2,904 in cash on hand. Zeigler, on the other hand, has spent $14,568 in that same period. He has $2,167 in cash on hand.
There are four statewide amendments on the ballot this cycle, two of which are social in nature, one administrative change affecting The University of Alabama Board of Trustees and a final legislative amendment aiming to prevent Congressional special elections like the one leading to the election of Doug Jones after Jeff Sessions vacated his U.S. Senate seat.
Amendment 1 would authorize “the display of the Ten Commandments on state property and property owned or administrated by a public school or public body; and [prohibits] the expenditure of public funds in defense of the constitutionality of this amendment.”
Amendment 2 would “recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, most importantly the right to life in all manners and measures appropriate and lawful; and to provide that the constitution of this state does not protect the right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”
The result of a partisan bill sponsored by Republican State Rep. Matt Fridy, opponents — including the advocacy group Alabama for Healthy Families — warn Amendment 2 “would pave the way to outlaw abortion in all cases, even in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the woman is at risk.”
Amendment 3 specifies that on The University of Alabama Board of Trustees, “the congressional districts from which members are appointed continue to reflect those as constituted on January 1, 2018, to remove the State Superintendent of Education from membership, and to delete the requirement that members vacate office at the annual meeting of the board following their seventieth birthday.”
Amendment 4 states “if a vacancy in either the House of Representatives or the Senate occurs on or after October 1 of the third year of a quadrennium, the seat would remain vacant until a successor is elected at the next succeeding general election.”
The conservative Alabama Public Policy Foundation claims the amendment “would save Alabama taxpayers millions of dollars by eliminating costly special elections when a regularly scheduled election is imminent.”
As a consequence, it would also prevent the recurrence of a situation like that which led to the election of Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate, and could leave the state without representation in Washington for as long as 14 months. The governor would still be required to schedule special elections for vacancies occurring earlier in a term.
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