By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News.
In a normal year, House District 46 in suburban Birmingham might not be considered a competitive district. Incumbent Rep. David Faulkner is a Republican with a term under his belt and an impressive campaign war chest. Yet the district voted for Democrat Doug Jones in last December’s special election for U.S. Senate, and that has challenger Felicia Stewart confident she can pull the upset.
District 46 contains the affluent suburb of Mountain Brook, Homewood, parts of Hoover and Deer Valley. Mountain Brook is perennially ranked as the most educated city in Alabama and one of the safest as well. According to the 2010 census the district has around 50,400 citizens.
In the 2016 election, Jefferson County went to Hillary Clinton with 52 percent and Trump obtaining 44 percent of the vote. The precincts within 46 mostly went to Trump but some were nearly split even, like one precinct near Homewood going 49 percent for Trump and 42 percent for Clinton.
In the 2014 election David Faulkner faced Steve French in the Republican primary that year and got 45.4 percent of the vote. That would have led to a runoff, but French dropped out, seal win for Faulkner with no Democratic opponent in November.
Faulkner has an impressive war chest and began with about $100,000 on hand. However, Stewart has had a more successful month of fundraising than Faulkner. Stewart received around $34,119 in donations while Faulkner raised around $19,343.
Cash On hand: $152,326
Amount raised in September: $19,343.72
Cash On Hand: $46,053
Amount raised in September: $34,119
David Faulkner is the incumbent candidate having served one term in the Alabama House of Representatives. Faulkner told Alabama Daily News that he was able to pass more statewide bills than any other freshman legislator in the last four years.
Faulkner believes that he had a great first four years and the success he built from those years will show through to his voters who will hire him for another term..
One of the main issues on his voter’s minds as well as being a subject that Faulkner himself is very passionate on is education.
“It’s a big focus of mine because personally I believe that is how we make a change as a state. I think it’s the biggest thing we do as a state as well when it comes to the budget,” Faulkner said.
“It is very important to me that children are at a third-grade reading level. I always believe in starting things early which means it can take time to make big changes down the road, but that is what the pre-K initiative has been recognized for. I have lobbied for stronger support for that program each year. And we have been successful at that.”
School security is another issue that Faulkner cares deeply about . It’s something that he thinks the state has already made progress on, but he believes that more funding needs to be prioritized toward school security in the next session.
Faulkner said schools were not built to deal with these kinds of security problems, so that should be the next step in securing schools is making capital improvements on school structures.
“One of the things I voted for was freeing up the advancement and technology money to be used towards school security. That doesn’t cover salaries but it covered capital improvements for the actual buildings. We’re going to have to have more of that in the upcoming sessions,” Faulkner said.
Another key issue for Faulkner is boosting job growth and economic development in Alabama. He wants to do away with unnecessary government regulations that hinder businesses.
“I want businesses to locate here. I want businesses we have to stay here. I want that because I want people to be able to provide for their families. It is very important to me that we make Alabama very pro-business and pro-jobs environment with less regulations and less restrictions, so that people who can do business and the jobs will come here,” Faulkner said.
This was contested by many Democrats, especially those in the Birmingham area because the city council of Birmingham was attempting to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
This summer, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law was unconstitutional.
Faulkner wants to make clear that his original bill never mentioned Birmingham and was simply meant to protect businesses in the state and therefore protect people’s jobs as well.
“Cities do not have the right to set minimum wages on independent businesses. So we clarified that and the Legislature made it clear to any employers that you won’t be subjected to over 400 different minimum wages in all of the cities in the state of Alabama,” Faulkner said.
“We wanted to make it clear to businesses that provide people jobs that you would not go from one city to one city and deal with different wages from a city council that took a simple vote on it.”
Faulkner also mentioned that at the time, even though the vote on the bill was split along party lines, he said some Democrats did secretly support it but just couldn’t publicly vote for it. He also made the point that gubernatorial Democratic candidate Walt Maddox has publicly stated that if a city tried to change the state minimum wage, it would be breaking the law.
Either way, Faulkner does not think the lawsuit will survive and thinks the whole case, in general, is “ridiculous.”
“I want to see minimum wages go much higher than what was proposed by that city of Birmingham. We want our wages to go up, but we don’t want to see it done by mandates on minimum wages from cities,” Faulkner said.
Another big subject on Faulkner’s mind is how to tackle corruption in the government. Faulkner believes the latest string of indictments and convictions, while unseemly, shows that the state’s ethics laws are working.
“I believe we have one of the strongest ethics laws in the country. And the people that have fallen, I think, shows you that it is working,” Faulkner said.
“It’s less a problem with the ethics law than it is than just the people being subjected to it. We have a very strong ethics law. That being said, there may be some things we need to have adjusted to the ethics law but we’ve got to be very careful that the public doesn’t think that anyone is trying to weaken it or think that anyone is trying to do something to it.”
When it comes to health care in Alabama, Faulkner does not think simply expanding Medicaid will solve all of Alabama’s problems, nor is it a smart choice to begin with.
“Nothing that Obamacare did helped healthcare costs in this country. And when you have 1/3 of a population on Medicaid, that is a lot of people for one state,” Faulkner said. “It’s really tied in greatly with what Washington does, and Alabama is just the tail, so we aren’t going to be able to wag the dog. There’s no easy answer. We saw that when Washington failed to push through a change to the healthcare bill.”
Faulkner says that if you want to sum up the budget problems in Alabama, all you have to do is look at the growth of Medicaid and prisons. He said that the budgets for Medicaid and the Department of Corrections has grown over the last 20 years to consume as much as 65 percent of the entire General Fund. The problem isn’t politics, he said, but the reality that health care is a tricky problem to solve.
In regards to having a lottery to help fund budget needs, Faulkner does not like the idea. He especially doesn’t like it because he knows who the main group of people are that buy lottery tickets.
“You can look at all the state’s in the country, and see where the money is coming from. It’s coming from the poorest people in the state. So is that what we want? Do we want to have our essential services of government provided on the backs of the poorest people in this state? So in a general sense, I am not for that. I am supportive of the people having a right to vote but generally no that is not something I would ever push,” Faulkner said.
As far as infrastructure, Faulkner admits that since he is a small government conservative and hates imposing any more taxes, but conditions of the state’s roads and bridges present such a dangerous situation that he would be willing to consider solutions like raising the gas tax.
Faulkner said that he was feeling very confident heading into November, despite last year’s special election, and thinks his experience as a legislature will be what sends him back to Montgomery.
“I don’t think anything that happened involving the U.S. Senate election, will ultimately affect the race. They’ll put someone down in Montgomery who does what they’ll say they’re going to do, instead of putting someone there with no experience and that no one had heard of before,” Faulkner said.
Felicia Stewart has an MBA from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas and is currently an active community volunteer, serving on a nonprofit board, at local hospitals and with children’s and education charities in Mobile, Birmingham, and Dallas. When she came back to settle in Alabama with her family, she decided she wanted to make a tangible difference for her community by running for office.
“I decided that if I was going to come home I was going to plug in and network and volunteer and really get on the ground and figure out ways that I could be an agent of change and help create positive change for the state that I love so much,” Stewart said.
She is one of the few openly gay candidates running in Alabama this year and is about to celebrate her 17 anniversary to her wife, Christy. Some would think that running as a Democrat and being openly gay in Alabama would put them at a disadvantage but Stewart has not seen it that way.
“While we are a little bit of a different family, we don’t feel like a different family. Our candidacy is all about helping all the people in district 46 with no specific agenda,” Stewart said. “We’re not focused on anything divisive. I think the folks who are not going to vote for me will be because they vote straight ticket party-line Republican, or they have some type of relationship or a special connection with the incumbent. I think there are very few people who will not vote for me because I am gay.”
“I am running as a problem solver, that’s what I have done in my career for 20 years and what I’ve done as a parent. I am running as someone who is ethical and transparent, someone who wants to be held accountable and someone who wants to solve the real problems of our state. I don’t think that is a partisan platform at all,” Stewart said.
Stewart also wants her voters to know that if she gave up a corporate salary to serve her district and if she wins the seat, she plans on making that job her number one priority. She won’t be doing any jobs on the side and plans to give her full dedication to fixing the issues of the state.
“When I’m in session, I’m going to focus on showing up and doing the hard work while I’m there and when I’m not there I’m going to be focused on meeting with campaign leaders and stakeholders in all these different subject matters and make sure that I am fully knowledgeable and fully aware about what we’re going to address in the next sessions,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s main issues that she has been talking with her constituents about and on her campaign are public education, good healthcare, economic opportunity and clean water.
While Stewart understands that District 46 is very fortunate in many different ways, that is not necessarily the case for the rest of the state and problems like properly funding education is something Stewart takes very seriously.
“Economically we cannot sustain ourselves as a state if we cannot offer the same level of education to all the children of the state as Mountain Brook and Hoover does. That’s something that I hear echoed from the constituents here, that we have to improve our state if our district is going to continue to thrive,” Stewart said.
Stewart has said that she is in support of expanding Medicaid and thinks that the state should be looking at this issue not just from a healthcare standpoint, but also as an economic issue.
“When you have 11 hospitals close in the last 12 years, eight in the last five years, that’s a significant issue that faces the entire state. Not just for healthcare but from an engaged and healthy workforce point of view. And from an employment standpoint, if you have a rural hospital that closes down you’re not just missing doctor appointments, you’re missing an economic center for the community from orderlies and janitorial staff all the way to physicians and doctors,” Stewart said.
Stewart believes the expansion will pay for its self when you consider the amount of job growth and tax revenue from helping those hospitals will also create, but also believes that the question of funding should not just end the entire conversation.
When it comes to the topic of a lottery for the state, Stewart does support an education lottery and thinks that it is one of the only short-term ways to help the budget concerns right now.
“We have to increase our budget on public education. We are at the same level now as we were a decade ago and that is not how to move our state out of the bottom five from every meaningful category. And unless you want to talk about raising taxes the only other short-term option is a lottery,” Stewart said. “We’re already spending up to $300 million a year in other forms of lottery and gambling practices in our bordering states. SO those people are benefitting from our hard earned money and that’s just wrong.”
Infrastructure is another big issue for the state and Stewart understands that roughly 20 to 25 percent of Alabama’s roads and bridges have been rendered obsolete. She believes that there are some federal programs that could be taken advantage of and is willing to have a conversation about possibly raising the gas tax.
When it comes to Faulkner’s past legislation surrounding minimum wage, Stewart first said that she is in support of a current bill that Faulkner has been pushing for that will be voted on in the Jefferson County ballot, which would allow the city of Homewood to exercise home rule to decide if and when it is going to raise property taxes for it’s own school system.
But when it comes to Faulkner’s bill in 2016 regarding cities abilities to change minimum wages of individual companies, Stewart calls his actions hypocritical.
“The contrast being, that he fought for home rule where it met the finances of an affluent community in his own district but simultaneously fought against home rule on the subject of finances when it came to the relatively impoverished city outside of his district. I think that is inconsistent leadership and an overreached and I don’t support that effort, from a leadership standpoint,” Steward said.
All in all, Stewart says she is confident about her chances of winning. She says she knows the needs of the people of district 46 and thinks they will rally behind her cry to bring more transparency to Alabama government.
“I’m very encouraged at where we are. Right now people on all sides of the political spectrum are feeling similarly about the lack of transparency, ethics and accountability, regardless of where folks stand on issues or ideology, there is an absolute common feeling that we are not being represented by our best folks and that the corruption and the scandal has really impaired our state,” Stewart said.
David Faulkner currently has mailers being sent out but no TV ads currently running.