With fewer than 13 days before southwest Alabama elects its next congressman, the final two candidates largely debated along party lines Dec. 4, as Republican Bradley Byrne and Democrat Burton LeFlore met in the gymnasium at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School to field questions from the student body. In an event co-sponsored by the League of Women voters and a crowd largely composed of teenagers, the candidates respectfully pointed fingers on hot-button issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act to gun control.

Byrne, who is widely endorsed and substantially funded on the sixth month anniversary of his campaign, sounded comfortable but reserved as he warned about the growth of the federal government and an increasing intrusion into constitutional rights.

Republican congressional candidate Bradley Byrne fields a question from students of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala. Dec. 4.

Gabriel Tynes / Lagniappe

Republican congressional candidate Bradley Byrne fields a question from students of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala. Dec. 4.

LeFlore, who despite his political pedigree and relatively moderate views, has been unable to attract significant financial support, railed against congressional Republicans for being obstructionists at time when the federal government plays an “increasingly functional role.”

It was the first debate between the two parties in Mobile without a second Republican candidate chiming in. Byrne beat Tea Party Republican Dean Young in a run-off election Nov. 5 by roughly five percentage points, after the two emerged from a larger group of nine GOP candidates over the summer.

The students’ questions had largely been asked in previous debates, but were highlighted by issues important to younger generations or Catholics, in particular. For example, the only question about the Affordable Care Act pertained to the provision requiring employers to cover contraceptives, a method of birth control not sanctioned by the church. The issue is scheduled to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court next week and is also the subject of litigation in Alabama.

Byrne said he supported the repeal of the provision on First Amendment grounds, as well as the repeal of the entire law, an issue he has promised to prioritize should he win office.

“It’s asserting itself in our very lives and beliefs,” he said of the ACA.

Democratic congressional candidate Burton LeFlore at a debate at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School 13 days before the general election for Alabama's District 1.

Gabriel Tynes / Lagniappe

Democratic congressional candidate Burton LeFlore at a debate at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School 13 days before the general election for Alabama’s District 1.

LeFlore meanwhile, said he would defer to the Supreme Court and any effort to repeal the law would be absurd.

“We don’t want to tread on freedom of religion, and if forcing someone into is against their religion, I would not be a proponent of it,” LeFlore said, also noting the provision’s purpose as “preventative medicine.”

Regarding the issue of employment, which many of the students will face in the next congressman’s first or second full term, Byrne reinforced his belief that releasing the tax burden on small businesses will allow the job market to flourish. He noted the endorsement of the National Federation of Independent Businesses that he secured earlier in the day and said the district’s congressman will also play a “critical role” in ensuring the area’s larger employers remain viable.

LeFlore conjured John F. Kennedy and asked the students to ask “not what the country can do for you…” He encouraged them to make smart decisions about their education and training and prepare themselves for the job market.

“A Liberal Arts degree is worth nothing these days,” he said. “Everybody has a degree. What’s important is to distinguish yourself.”

Asked what advice they’d offer to younger generations, both candidates encouraged participation in the political process, agreeing that the youth vote is often overlooked because it’s often insignificant.

The final question of the night was about the nationwide drinking age and what the candidate’s thoughts were on why 18-year-olds were allowed to vote and enlist in the military, but not legally purchase or possess alcohol. But if it was a trap, neither candidate fell for it.

LeFlore said, “You’re comparing apples to oranges. Alcohol in the wrong hands can be dangerous. For those who are not able to drink in moderation or are not accustomed to drinking, when you talk about the harm it can cause to others and to yourself, I am not opposed to drinking age being 21. Drinking doesn’t make you an adult. Being a responsible productive citizen makes you and adult.”

Byrne dispensed similar fatherly advise, recalling that he opposed lowering the drinking age as former chancellor of the state’s two-year college system.

“I made a decision we would not support a lower drinking age,” he said. “It’s true you have a right to vote and fight but it’s a big difference knowing when to responsibly use alcohol. As you grow older you’ll see how wise that is.”

The general election is set scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 17. The winner will complete the term vacated by former Congressman Jo Bonner and will run for re-election in 2014.