On Tuesday, Aug. 14, Gov. Kay Ivey was all smiles as she stood with other dignitaries for the symbolic grand opening of Wal-Mart’s $135 million, 2.6-million-square-foot distribution center in West Mobile. It was a familiar scene. During this election year, Ivey has taken advantage of myriad opportunities to be in front of news cameras. This in itself isn’t surprising. What incumbent politician trying to keep his or her seat wouldn’t do so?
However, what is surprising, or more accurately disappointing, is the governor’s lack of substantive interaction as this election year unfolds. Sure, she spoke briefly with reporters after the distribution center grand opening, but she still refuses to engage in lengthy and rigorous discussions about the serious issues facing Alabama.
If one component of quality leadership is vision — and the ability to communicate that vision with depth and clarity, in order to secure the confidence of those one hopes to lead — then Ivey is failing as a leader.
A holder of high public office should be about more than making countless appearances before cameras or numerous media sound bites — substance should be of the utmost importance. Gov. Ivey and her team may be pursuing a substance-free strategy out of a desire for political safety, but if a new report is correct, such a strategy could imperil her election efforts.
To gauge the mind of the citizenry of Alabama this election year regarding various issues and perceptions of where Alabamians feel the state is headed, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conducted a survey of Alabama voters. The results are quite eye-opening. Chief among them is that “shared priorities” exist among a broad cross section of Alabama voters regarding which issues are most important.
As the report “Alabama Priorities” states: “We found few significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, or other groups. While differences exist, Alabama voters are not polarized.” In this day of hyperpolarization, the latter statement is pretty profound.
Many Alabama voters, regardless of race or ideology, agree: There are some pressing issues in Alabama that need to be addressed competently, thoroughly and quickly.
To leaders of substance and engagement, the report offers encouraging words: “Policymakers have a twofold opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state. Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters. This research suggests that elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.”
If the thinking is that Alabama voters are disconnected and not really concerned about serious issues facing the state, “Alabama Priorities” lucidly disabuses one of such notions. Alabamians are looking for real answers to serious problems.
What do voters feel are Alabama’s top problems? The list, in order: 1) K-12 education; 2) Health care; 3) Government corruption and ethics; 4) Mental health and substance abuse; 5) Poverty and homelessness; 6) Jobs and the economy; 7) Crime and public safety; 8) Job training and workforce development; 9) Improving the state’s image; and 10) Tax reform. Again, this ranking cuts across party affiliation and racial lines.
The report observes: “In sum, while it is possible to detect differences in the issues that most concern Alabamians in different political or demographic categories, the overwhelming pattern is one of shared concern over a core set of issues … Alabamians show a high level of concern for all 10 issues.” The data also suggests there is even frequent agreement about “specific policy options to address issues.”
Another revealing data point: 60 percent of respondents feel the overall quality of life in Alabama has not improved in the last five years.
As stated earlier, Ivey and her staff have apparently settled for playing it safe for this election. No debates. No rigorous questioning and discussion of the issues. This is seen as a winning strategy. But if Walt Maddox is able to effectively speak to Alabamians — who we see are not as politically polarized as was believed about the issues that most concern them — playing it safe may not be a winning strategy.
The people of Alabama want good schools, accessible and low-cost health care, leaders who are transparent and believe in integrity, and real solutions to the problems of mental health and substance abuse afflicting so many of the state’s citizens. In sum, they are looking for leaders who know and understand the problems that plague this state and who are committed to employing well-thought-out, effective solutions to remedy them.
Here’s to hoping that come this November the citizens of Alabama will fill contested political offices, from the governorship on down, with leaders of substance, leaders of engagement and action — not those who are content to simply play it safe.