District 97 runs through most of downtown Mobile and includes portions of Dauphin Island Parkway and areas northeast of Prichard. For three decades, the district was represented by Democrat Yvonne Kennedy, who passed away in late 2012 while still in office.
The next year, Rep. Adline Clarke beat six primary challengers and two independent candidates in a special election to claim the vacant seat. She ran unopposed for her first full term in 2014, but she now faces a challenge from Republican Stephen McNair.
McNair is the first Republican to make a challenge for the seat in years. While it still has a large base of Democratic voters, District 97 was partially redrawn in 2017 via court order stemming from challenges to the legality of nearby District 99 and 11 others around the state.
Republicans believe it could enough to make District 97 competitive.
Clarke formerly worked as a reporter for the Mobile Press-Register. In 2017, she retired as the senior vice president of business and community relations for Mobile Development Enterprises — a nonprofit wing of the Mobile Housing Authority that was scrutinized in a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
With five years in the Legislature, Clarke currently serves as the House Democratic Caucus Whip and was also named “Legislator of the Year” by the caucus in 2017.
Heading into the Nov. 6 election, she’s built a platform around closing the “gender pay gap” in Alabama and ensuring “Alabamians have access to well-paying jobs, well-funded schools and quality, affordable health care.”
In multiple sessions, Clarke has introduced legislation intended to prohibit employers from paying workers “at wage rates less than those paid to employees of the opposite sex for substantially similar work.” Those efforts failed to find support, but her campaign website says a similar bill “will be reintroduced next year.”
Despite the roadblock in Montgomery, Clarke earned a public endorsement from fair pay activist Lilly Ledbetter.
“I first introduced a Pay Equity Bill in the House of Representatives in 2016 because the wage gap is very real and its impact is enormous,” Clarke told Lagniappe. “While women are those most directly impacted, this cannot be dismissed as a ‘women’s issue.’ It is an issue of fairness and family and the consequences of allowing these wage disparities are far-reaching.”
Clarke has also come out publicly in support of an expansion of Alabama’s Medicaid program. She says failure to expand has “already had a devastating impact on many families — including working families — who cannot afford health insurance.”
Clarke acknowledged an expansion would increase Alabama’s obligation to the Medicaid program, but she believes it could be offset by additional federal resources and the positive economic impact of a healthier workforce and creating more jobs in the medical field.
Both candidates in the House 97 race have been vocal about supporting public education, but unlike McNair, Clarke has firmly taken a position on the controversial Alabama Accountability Act some local school systems have recently begun calling on legislators to repeal.
Passed in 2013, the law allows students attending “failing public schools” to transfer to a nonfailing public or private institution and creates tax incentives for those who contribute to organizations offering scholarships to those students.
Opponents, like Clarke, say the law pulls away money that would otherwise go to Alabama’s public schools. Clarke told Lagniappe the Legislature shouldn’t be using public education dollars to fund scholarships to private schools.
“To meet the needs of all children, the state of Alabama needs to provide greater resources for grades K-12,” she said. “I also believe that teacher salaries must be increased, as many teachers are leaving the profession, and college students are choosing other career paths because of the challenges that teachers and administrators face today, including substandard pay.”
Clarke supports a referendum letting the people decide if a lottery is right for Alabama, and, if created, proceeds from state lottery “would be best spent being earmarked for education.”
While McNair is a first-time candidate, he’s no stranger to the world of state politics.
Since 2015, McNair has worked closely with legislators and municipal officials through his consulting firm, McNair Historic Preservation, to extend historic tax credits to developers interested in reopening vacant old properties. Now he’s running for office to bring Montgomery’s attention to local issues he believes aren’t being adequately addressed.
“We’re not interested in engaging in a culture war or focusing on divisive social issues. We want to focus on bipartisan solutions to health care, education and infrastructure,” McNair said.
Like Clarke, McNair believes Alabama’s health care system is in dire need of improvement, but unlike some GOP members, he’s not staunchly opposed to an expansion of Medicaid. However, he did say he could only support such an expansion if Alabama is able to afford it.
“It is an extremely important subject, though, and whether we expand Medicaid or not, we need to focus on making sure we have adequate health care and we aren’t losing rural hospitals,” he said.
McNair has also come out in support of creating a state education lottery, though the proceeds would require certain provisions. If he were to vote in favor of a lottery, McNair said, the current education budget “should not be touched.”
“I would also like to see the removal of the grocery and the medicine taxes that impact low-income households, which [we] should have the revenue to remove if we were to pass an education lottery,” he said.
Funding education, McNair said, would be one of his “top priorities” if elected, and the first step to improving education is investing in teachers. McNair said he’d like to see a tax credit program for public school teachers implemented in Alabama similar to ones that already exist in other states.
“The idea would be: Public school teachers, who went to a public university in the state and who agree to teach at a public school in the state for five years or more would be eligible to receive state income tax credits to help offset their student debt,” he said. “Mississippi already does this.”
McNair’s top priority for infrastructure is the proposed Interstate 10 Mobile River bridge. His campaign recently attracted statewide attention for billboards reading: “Build the Bridge and Make Montgomery Pay for It!
According to McNair, the slogan alludes to the Legislature taking on the responsibility of paying for state matching requirements attached to any federal fund that might help bring the $2 billion project closer to fruition. He believes the more money the state puts in, the less local residents will likely have to pay in toll fees.
McNair said it would be “restitution” for the state’s decision to allocate only 20 percent of its settlement with BP to the coastal communities most affected by the 2010 oil spill.
“To think that 80 percent of the BP money was lost to a one-time, one-year budget fix is borderline criminal,” McNair added.
Rep. Clarke Questionarie