By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
House District 65 is not one of the 25 open seats where incumbents are retiring. But it is a competitive district and November could see a close race between incumbent Democrat Rep. Elaine Beech and first-time Republican candidate Brett Easterbrook.
Beech has a proven success record running against Republicans and Independents, touting herself as a moderate Democrat that gets along easily with those of all political stripes. However, she has never had to run in the Trump era, when loyalty to the party and the president are increasingly important to Republicans.
Easterbrook is a local businessman running on his background and plans to improve the district. He’s also counting on the district’s Republicans to show up and carry him to victory on Election Day.
House District 65 is in rural Southwest Alabama and contains portions of Choctaw, Washington, Marengo and Clark Counties. As of the 2010 census, Alabama house district 65 had about 38,681 citizens living there.
Overall the district mostly went to Trump during the 2016 election. Clarke County was the closest of the counties with 44 percent of the votes going to Hillary Clinton and 55 percent going to Trump. Choctaw County saw 43 percent go to Clinton and 56 percent go to Trump. Washington County was the most in support for Trump with 71 percent going for Trump and only 28 percent for Clinton.
Cash on Hand: $80,693.26
Amount raised in August: $3,824.80
Cash on hand: $4,542.76
Amount raised in August: $2,700
Rep. Elaine Beech first won the House District 65 seat the seat during a special election in 2009 in which she defeated Republican Jerry Reed. Since that race, she has not faced another Republican candidate. In 2010 she handily beat Independent candidate Ozelle Hubert. In the 2014 general election, she ran unopposed.
One way Beech tries to appeal to conservative voters is by campaigning and governing as a moderate. She believes lawmakers need to be able to reach across the aisle more and sees one party rule as problematic.
“The Democrats are not always right and the Republicans are not always right,” Beech said. “We’ve got to work together to make things right and you cannot be one-sided and I like to be open-minded about all the decisions I make. That is why I think people relate to me because they know I am rationale and that I will make the best decision for the state and for my district.”
Beech, who had only been in office a year when Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate in 2010, says there have been a lot of problems resulting from the complete GOP takeover of state government.
“When the Republicans got the super majority, we didn’t get a lot accomplished. We got more bickering amongst themselves, and when the Republicans begin to bicker they depend on the few Democrats left to take sides with them. I think it works better when there are a closer number of Democrats and Republicans there.”
When it comes to the Democratic party in Alabama though, Beech sees it being in the minority for the foreseeable future.
“The Democratic party will never be full until we make some changes. I think it’s time to get some younger people involved,” Beech said.
During this time leading up to the general election, Beech has been making her way around the distributing education grant checks to local public schools and libraries, which has also turned into her way of campaigning around the district.
Beech served on her school board before taking the district’s house seat, and told Alabama Daily News that she continues to see many problems with education her district due to an unwillingness to change.
“We’ve had some education issues for a long time. I was on the school board prior to taking the House seat so I’ve seen the problems for a while now. People don’t like change but I feel like we need some changes within our public education system to make it grow and I feel like that has to come from the state department,” Beech said.
Health care is the next big issue facing the very rural district of 65. Beech was a pharmacist before being an elected official so she says she has a firm understanding of what the issues are for when it comes to health care in Alabama.
“We are at a disadvantage here in Alabama because the way the rates are determined in hospitals is based on a wage index that’s set by the federal government and Alabama is the lowest in the nation and we need to change that.”
Beech also said that when the topic of expanding Medicaid first came up, she was not for it. But now that she’s seen the state of rural hospitals in Alabama, she is rethinking her position.
“Medicaid helps hospitals in rural Alabama, and that, in turn, helps create jobs because the hospitals in our area are the number one employers. And we are in a poverty-ridden area, we may not be the lowest poverty area, but we still have poverty here and those people go to those hospitals so we need to keep them open. I would like to see some changes that would entice doctors to come to rural Alabama because that’s the problem too, no doctors want to come here. We try to do scholarships and things like that, but after they meet their obligations, they leave.”
Beech said she thinks states should be allowed to decide how Medicaid is run for themselves and that she wouldn’t rule out any type of grant program that could help Medicaid as well.
Beech also made news recently after some Parkland High School student activists came through Montgomery wanting to talk to lawmakers about gun control measures. They specifically wanted to talk to Beech about a comment she made about being a “pistol packin’ mama,” not long after the deadly Parkland shooting.
Beech has said before that she is a NRA member and still holds a high ranking by the NRA. She explained that practically everyone in southern Alabama owns a gun and she is proud that she does own one. She does have limits though, on where she thinks guns are appropriate to have in society.
“I do carry a pistol but I have been trained and I do have a license to carry but I’m also a widow and I live alone. I think I should have the right to defend myself if I needed too. Not that I’m sure I would but I would have it if needed too. I do not want to see everyone in school have a gun, I think that’s wrong. An elementary school teacher cannot have a gun on her possession at all times. She would have to have it locked up, so what good is it?”
In regards to school safety, Beech says the state needs to rethink how schools are built and secured and then also address how the state and communities are dealing with mental health issues.
Easterbrook has had a hardworking background, most recently serving as the Director of Finance and Controlling in North and South America for Outokumpu Stainless Steel. He was part of the management team that turned a near-bankrupt site into a profitable one, saving more than 1,000 jobs at the Calvert mill. This is his first time running for a political office.
He told Alabama Daily News that he decided to run now because he was tired of seeing the district continuing in a state of decline.
“I sat and watched my area, like most people here, just decline and decline over the years, and like most people, if you complain about it enough then you want to start doing something about it. I think I have the background and experience to make that change happen,” Easterbrook said.
He is feeling good about his chances in this race because of the recent wins for Republicans in local races in the district’s towns and counties. His campaign has focused time and resources on a considerable grassroots push he believes can give him the momentum to unseat Beech.
“If you look at what Trump did in this district, he won big and all of the Republican candidates that run statewide have also always won in this district. I just don’t think a blue wave is coming for this district or for Alabama either.”
Economic development and job growth is the number one issue the district is facing, said Easterbrook. Since it is a very rural district, there is just not enough job growth happening and there for people are starting to leave the area to find jobs elsewhere.
“While the state has done very well in two years with unemployment coming from about 14 percent down close to 5 percent, our district is losing people, our population is decreasing because people are leaving to find better jobs. Our people are employed but they are employed in Texas or Louisiana or they have to move out of the district completely to find work.”
He believes that the district needs to recruit and develop new industry that will bring in jobs, boost the economy, and help address funding problems with education and infrastructure.
“We’ve got to start recruiting industry so we can turn that trend around and once we have the tax base that we’ve created from the industry we can get the money to properly fix our infrastructure, our roads, and to properly fund our schools.”
Easterbrook also believes that Medicaid is a big problem facing the rural district and wants to work towards fixing the local formula for Medicaid to make sure that the proper amount of money is being given to the hospitals.
“If you look at Medicaid and how it works, if someone goes across the Florida line into Pensacola for healthcare, we get 80 percent of what they get because of how the local Medicaid formula works. If they would make the local Medicare formula work correctly, where we were paid the same, at least with the people in the south-east and across the country, we would get a much higher reimbursement rate.”
Education is the next biggest concern facing the district according to Easterbrook. He believes that the district needs to be more focused in pushing trade schools for kids because there is a high demand for skilled laborers there.
“We really need to ramp up our technical and trade schools. We need the skilled labor because those skills are in high demand. We have good trade schools but we are not sending near enough of our kids to those schools.”
“The funding for our schools is also suffering because of the population of our district is declining, our industry has aged and our assets are depreciating so the revenue has declined.”
Both campaigns have radio ads playing across the district during football games. However, none are available for embedding.
Caroline Beck is a reporter living in Montgomery. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN or email her at [email protected].