By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
House District 97 sits right in the heart of Downtown Mobile. The seat has been held by Democrat Adline Clarke since 2013 when she won a special election to replace long-serving State Rep. Yvonne Kennedy after her death.
The traditionally-Democratic district has since been partially redrawn via court order, and Republican challenger Stephen McNair is confident a conservative like himself now has a fighting chance. But he faces an uphill battle as Clarke retains the benefit of name recognition in the area and has over $100,000 in her campaign account.
The district contains the eastern portions of downtown and midtown Mobile along the Mobile River and down the coast of Mobile Bay. To the north, the district includes portions of Chickasaw and Saraland. As of the 2010 census, there are around 35,406 citizens living in the district.
The Brookley complex, the Airbus manufacturing facility, and the revived downtown commercial area of Mobile are all within this district.
Mobile County went for Donald Trump in 2016 with 55 percent of the vote while Hillary Clinton claimed 42 percent. In District 97 the majority of the precincts went to Hillary Clinton, but in some southern precincts, it was closely split with one precinct showing Clinton getting 51 percent and Trump getting 46 percent.
Clarke won the seat for the first time in a special election in 2013 after Yvonne Kennedy’s death. She was unchallenged in the primary and the general election in 2014.
Cash On Hand: $112,784.16
Amount raised in September: $20,925
Total Monetary contributions: $117,218.00
Cash On Hand: $50,774.26
Amount raised in September: $16,495
Total Monetary Contributions: $68,734.00
Stephen McNair was born and raised in Mobile and attended Murphy High School, which sits in District 97. He now owns his own company, McNair Historic Preservation, which is a full-service historic preservation consulting firm.
He spent a couple of years living in the United Kingdom where he got his doctorate degree and taught at the University of Edinburgh. He and his wife, Lila Newton McNair, then came back home and decided they wanted to make a difference for their community.
One of the biggest, if not the most pressing, issue McNair saw that made him want to get into the house race was improving public education in Mobile. McNair told Alabama Daily News that Mobile County’s nine failing public schools represents a public education “crisis.”
Improving the economy and bringing better jobs to the area can be a start to improving the schools, McNair said.
“What some people believe is that if you recruit, if you simply bring in new industry, then the quality of life and pay and education will somehow magically improve. But what I’m advocating for is the other way around. You have to start with education and workforce development in order to have an educated and trained workforce to then recruit new industry,” McCain said.
McNair said that there is a whole generation of Mobilians who are losing out because of either their lack of opportunity or because they don’t have the proper skills to train the workforce. With such an economic hub and the many opportunities that Mobile has to offer, he said it’s too important of a problem to ignore anymore.
When asked if he liked the idea of an education lottery to help bolster the education budget, McNair said he supports the concept of the public voting on the lottery immediately but has a few stipulations before he would O.K. the measure.
“From what I saw, in order to feel comfortable passing an educational lottery, number one, we would have to make sure the education trust fund is not depleted in the name of potential revenue from the lottery. The lottery funding should be additional funding and not replacement funding which we saw in the state of Florida where the second they passed their lottery they defunded their Department of Education and they didn’t really do anything after that,” McNair said. “And number two I would need to add some scholarship opportunities for our public high school graduates and low income high school graduates, similar to the Hope Scholarship in Georgia.”
McNair also thinks that there should be more of a focus on two-year college system. He believes that if the state institutes an education lottery taxes on groceries should be eliminated as well as taxes on medicine for low income households.
As for infrastructure funding, McNair is not totally sold on the idea of raising the gas tax. He said that he thinks there are better ways to secure funding for ALDOT instead of possibly hurting everyday citizens.
“I would much prefer to see a diesel tax because that would have a larger impact on the trucking industry, which has already agreed that they wouldn’t mind paying more taxes in exchange for better roads. I would also like to see a weight station system that we see in other surrounding states where trucks are taxed depending on the weight of their cargo and we also make sure that they’re not destroying our roads,” McNair said.
“The last thing I want to see is a gas tax across the board which is going to hurt those who can afford it least.”
McNair has recently stressed the importance of replacing the I-10 tunnel with a bridge. His campaign recently purchased billboards near frequently congested areas reading “Build the Bridge and Make Montgomery Pay For It.”
McNair told Alabama Daily News that he believes if Mobile was given its proper compensation from the BP oil spill settlement then the district could have funded projects like fixing the I-10 bridge.
McNair has been critical of Clarke over her actions during the BP settlement negotiations and claims she was “noticeably absent” as discussions were ongoing. He says that the roughly 20 percent of the settlement money that was given to the two counties was not nearly enough.
“I can tell you that if I was representing this area at the time I would have filibustered the House floor until they turned the lights out to make ensure that Mobile received their fair share of the appropriation. And the fact that there was an outcry and yet there wasn’t any kind of action from our representative for District 97 indicated to me that they were either unable or unwilling to stand up for our community,” McNair said.
When it comes to expanding Medicaid, McNair hasn’t completely made up his mind yet and says he hasn’t been given enough data from either side that has swayed him yet. He does not want to rule out anything that could possibly create jobs and improve the quality for voters.
McNair has already worked with some legislators to help pass a bill that would renew the Alabama historic tax credit program and would directly benefit areas like downtown Mobile. But McNair also explained that it’s helped a lot more than just his company.
“I’m very proud of that accomplishment because we use that program to create hundreds of millions of dollars in private investments and permanent job creation. It’s been a boon for the downtown neighborhoods in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, but also to the smaller communities in the rural areas that we’re starting to see an increase of programming like Monroeville, Atmore, and Foley,” McNair said.
McNair overall likes his chances going into November and says that he thinks his bi-partisan campaign will be appealing to everyone in the district and says he will go to Montgomery to work hard for the people of District 97.
Before winning the house seat in 2013, State Rep. Adline Clarke worked as a reporter, business editor and city editor for The Mobile Press Register for a total of 15 years before becoming an entrepreneur. Started two businesses, including an African-American bookstore.
She has also served as Vice President of the nonprofit Mobile Development Enterprise (MDE), but her time with MDE has stirred up some controversy after Lagniappe, an independent weekly newspaper in Mobile, published an article accusing Clarke of mishandling her duties.
The report claims Clarke helped award a multi-million dollar contract to Superior Masonry, a company owned by her half-brother, to do maintenance and contract work on buildings for the Mobile Housing Board (MHB), which would be a conflict of interest.
Clarke has refuted this claim stating that maintenance contracts did not come under her purview, nor under the purview of MDE, saying that MHB had all of the control in handing out contracts. She told Alabama Daily News that the executive director signed all construction contracts on behalf of the agency and she had nothing to do with the contract to her half-brother.
The second is an accusation that if MDE was actually being funded by and through MHB, which receives federal funding, then Clarke would be “double dipping” if she kept her job at the MDE and was a state legislator.
Clarke has adamantly denied this claim. She says that after a complaint was filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. in 2013 saying that the federal Hatch Act prevented her from running, the results of that investigation found the claims to be without merit because all of her salary was not paid with federal funds so, therefore, she could not have violated the Hatch act.
You can read all of Clarke’s grievances with the Lagniappe story here.
Clarke told Alabama Daily News that all in all she is still confident about her chances of winning in November. She says she has received some great feedback from voters and is confident that people will vote for her based on the progress she has already brought to the district.
When it comes to the issues, Clarke says one of her number one priorities is getting the proper education and job training to young people in Mobile so they can land jobs with the new companies that have been attracted to Mobile.
“We will continue to pursue legislation to support the progress Mobile has seen over the last few years. During the past few sessions, we have worked on a number of measures to further encourage the revitalization of our downtown and communities across the District and City, fight blight and bring significant economic development projects to the city,” Clarke said.
During the last legislative session, Clarke attempted to push through a Pay Equity Bill that would ensure that all employees across the state receive the same pay for same work regardless of their sex or race, but it did not come to a vote. Clarke says that she fully intends to re-introduce that legislation if she is voted into office again.
“Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states in the nation that do not have such legislation. This is a very serious issue that impacts families throughout our state,” Clarke said.
When it comes to the Medicaid expansion, Clarke is in full support, saying that it could help bring back rural hospitals that have already been lost and is a much needed resource for working class families.
“I feel strongly that Alabama should expand its Medicaid program and build a healthier Alabama. Many families cannot afford health insurance, including many working families. Sadly, some communities have already lost clinics and hospitals. According to the information I have received, an investment of state dollars in the program would yield much larger federal resources for Alabama. It is projected the number of uninsured Alabamians would decline significantly and expansion would trigger economic development for the state,” Clarke said.
When asked how she proposes the state to help fund the expansion when the government assistance runs out, Clarke said one option is to increase the tobacco tax. She also said Medicaid expansion would create more jobs and bring in more income tax and sales tax revenue for the state.
Clarke was also asked what needs to be addressed in regards to funding public education and what she thinks about the state of schools in Alabama.
“To meet the needs of all children, the State of Alabama needs to provide greater resources for grades K-12. I also believe that teacher salaries must be increased. 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 said.
When asked about how she felt about school choice and the accountability act being used as an option she said, “the State Legislature should not take money away from public schools in order to fund scholarships to private schools. I will continue to oppose taking money away from public schools to pay for scholarships to private schools under the Accountability Act. I understand that many of the scholarships are used at schools that are not accredited. That’s a double standard, and it should be prohibited.”
Clarke also said she would be in support of allowing the public to vote on a lottery and would also like to see the lottery be earmarked for education.
Clarke admits that Alabama has serious infrastructure needs but still isn’t sure if a rise in the gas tax is the best route to go down for funding infrastructure needs either.
“Mobile County has a Pay-As-You-Go Road Program, which makes our county unique. I will consult with County and City officials and House District 97 residents to determine if voting in favor of a gas tax increase is in the best interest of Mobile and Alabama,” Clarke said.
The Lagniappe article may have set Clarke’s campaign back a little, but with her impressive war chest under her belt and her popular name recognition in the district, this is looking to be an interesting race to watch out for and one that Clarke says she isn’t taking for granted. She said she will continue to campaign right up until the polls close on election day.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Clarke was never on the MDE board, but was only a staff member and that just a portion of her salary from MDE was from federal funds and that is why it didn’t violate the Hatch Act, when previously it said “‘none of her salary was paid with federal funds.”
Caroline Beck is a reporter living in Montgomery. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN or email her at [email protected]