By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
Alabama House District 28 is now an open seat with longtime Rep. Craig Ford deciding to run for Senate. Two political newcomers, Democrat Kyle Pierce and Republican Gil Isbell, are vying to take Ford’s place in what is shaping up to be a competitive election.
The district has been stronghold for Democrats mostly because of the Ford family. Craig Ford was first elected in 2001 to replace his father, Joe Ford, who held the seat since 1974.
Though Democrats have a historical advantage, Republicans say the district’s dynamics have changed to give GOP candidates a chance to win. Etowah County GOP chairman, Sen. Phil Williams, told Alabama Daily News that Gil Isbell’s family has strong connections within the community.
The district falls within Etowah county but does not make up all of the county. The cities that fall in this district include parts of Gadsden, Rainbow City, Glencoe, Hokes Bluff, Attalla, Ivalee, Ridgeville, Egypt, Walnut Grove, Sardis City, and Boaz. As of the 2010 census, there are 40, 515 citizens living in the district.
In the 2016 election, Etowah County as a whole voted for Trump over Clinton, 73 percent to 23 percent. But within District 28, and specifically the Gadsden area, some precincts that went for Clinton by 96 percent. Other Democratic precincts range from 76 to 60 percent in favor for Clinton. The more rural the precinct, the greater the support for Trump, and vice versa.
In the 2014 state election, Democratic Rep. Craig Ford defeated Republican challenger Doug Sherrod 64.7 to 35.1 percent.
Republican Gil Isbell
Cash on hand: $9, 174.19
Amount raised in August: $9,061.60
Democrat Kyle Pierce
Cash on hand: $13,774.11
Amount raised in August: $10,860
Democrat Kyle Pierce
Kyle Pierce is a local attorney with his own private practice in Gadsden. Born and raised in Etowah County, the 28-year old is a first time political office seeker and one of the younger candidates on the Alabama ballot this year.
He is confident that the historic Democratic base will be there for him in November and he’s very encouraged by the grassroots level of support he’s seen so far.
“I am humbled and ecstatic by the kind of support I have been seeing. We are making phone calls three times a week, knocking on doors two days a week, and are receiving some good feedback on our message about how Etowah County deserves better,” Pierce said
While Pierce knows about the voting history of the district, he still isn’t taking anything for granted and believes that voters ultimately vote for the person rather than the party.
“I’ve talked to people across the board and all over the district, and even the rural areas we have been seeing a great response there. They’re not voting based on Democratic or Republican, they’re voting based on who they think can go to Montgomery and fight best for District 28,” Pierce said. “You know, I’m never going to ask anybody to vote for anyone based on what letter comes after their name.”
Pierce believes the Democratic party in Alabama is going through a transition right now and wants to stay away from any of the internal discord and focus on his own race.
“I’m not getting into any of the party fights over the last 10 years if you really want to be honest. But regardless of any of that, we’ve seen people across the democratic spectrum that are Democrats who are putting the effort in working towards winning and ensuring that our policies that bring jobs and support education and support transparency in government are what we put forward,” Pierce said.
Pierce is campaigning on enacting criminal justice reform, particularly as it relates to drug offenders. He sees the issue as affecting job growth and economic development for the district.
“The biggest issue facing District 28 is the need for the intersection of the need for justice reform and job creation,” Pierce said. “Because the biggest thing holding back District 28 from being able to create more jobs or bring in more jobs is the sheer number of folks who are struggling with opioid addiction or methamphetamine addiction. And if we can get those folks the help that they deserve, rather than forgetting about them, then we are going to see so many of the other things fall into place.”
Pierce said the state should support local small businesses rather than just recruiting large companies, but also said Etowah County must address its opioid addiction and abuse problems in order to compete for global companies.
On education, Pierce wants to see more revenue generated for public schools and opposes the Alabama Accountability Act, the law allowing students from failing districts to attend private schools through scholarships funded by special tax write offs.
“I think the Accountability Act is a bad bill because in the nature of the way that it’s done. Some of the concepts are maybe something we can get to down the road once we adequately fund public education, maybe. But the manner in which the scholarships are created and the tax credit that are involved and the way the vouchers are funded off the top of the budget, it’s just a bad bill and structurally unsound,” Isbell said.
“We have to focus on funding the schools that we have. Making them world class and then we can think about providing some flexibility in those areas. Until we can figure out how to make Alabama’s schools in the top 10 percent of the nation, I’m not interested in a conversation about diverting money away from them,” Pierce said.
On the issue of health care, Pierce favors expanding Medicaid and believes it can help address the opioid problem and other mental health issues.
“We have two hospitals in District 28 and if we continue how we are, I wouldn’t be surprised if saw at least one of those hospitals shut down if we don’t expand Medicaid,” Pierce said. “We have to expand Medicaid so we can get people healthcare so that they can work. We talk about health care as if it is some nebulous entity but at the end of the day, the Medicaid expansion pays for its self and there’s not a reason not to do it.”
When asked if he thought his age would put him at a disadvantage with voters, he said that he actually thought it was an advantage and that voters want to see energetic candidates who are willing to work hard to help fix their district.
“I’m 28 years old and I think people in Alabama are looking for new ideas to fix some of the things that are holding us back. I’m not in any way or fashion saying that Etowah County deserves better than Craig, I’m saying that Etowah County deserves better than the Montgomery majority and the way things have been done,” Pierce said. “And we’ve been able to use that in our campaign, the fact that we are young and we are energetic and we just outwork our opponents. I think Alabama and Etowah County as a whole, being a working-class town, likes to see people who are going to outwork folks.”
Gil Isbell’s family has been based in Etowah County for many generations now, with his father being the owner of the Isbell-Hallmark Furniture Store that’s been a Gadsden staple for a 100 years.
Isbell works with his brothers in their local dentist office and is also the president of the Gadsden Kiwanis club in Gadsden. He says his work and civic duties have made it hard to find time to campaign, especially now that its football season, but he is confident based on the support he’s seen at the grassroots level for his campaign.
Isbell likes his chances in Novembers, and he also isn’t worried about the district’s Democratic history, believing the party split today is a lot closer than most outside observers might think.
“I’m feeling very good about it. It’s one of those things you can never take for granted. You have to get out and you have to be reaching out, I’ve talked to many different organizations and different teachers groups. My opponent has some of the labor unions behind him, which is great, but I’ve got the local police benevolence behind me, I’ve got ALFA (Alabama Farmers’ Federation) behind me and several other groups that recognize me as their candidate,” Isbell said.
If Isbell and Pierce agree on one thing, it is that voters care more about the person rather than political party. But, with the district’s Democratic history, Isbell said that plays to his advantage.
“Something I have really seen even in our local elections is a lot of new faces because a lot of the incumbents have either stepped down or got beat in their primaries. People are wanting something new, wanting change and wanting potential progress,” Isbell said.
Isbell is campaigning on improving education and he says the state should build on its progress with successful programs like First Class Pre-K to bring up achievement across the board.
“We have to continue to improve on what’s been done. Having preschool programs statewide is great, but getting our children to read by the third grade is needed still because if they can’t read by the third grade then their chances of getting a degree or a good job are diminished greatly,” Isbell said.
Isbell sees education inextricably connected to job growth in his district. He says that if the students can’t obtain the right education then they won’t be able to master the skills they need to get a quality job.
“I not only want to help secondary education but also helping vocational trade and letting people understand that college isn’t for everyone. If we can get people trained in carpentry, electricians, plumbers or welders, then maybe we can attract industries and get those people jobs down the line,” Isbell said.
Isbell wants Etowah County and specifically District 28 to attract companies that will supply a quality job market for people in the area and allow the area’s economy to grow.
One item holding the area back in this regard: quality infrastructure and more equitable funding for local projects.
“Other areas, like the bigger counties or bigger municipalities, they often get a lot of the funds, so we need to learn how to be a little bit more equitable. Oxford off of I-20, they have really grown and developed,” Isbell said. “Economic development is really the big fight for here and it’s not always about quantity. I think now we are really looking for quality of jobs and not just quantity.”
When it comes to health care, Isbell said most of the information he sees on this topic is usually very polarized and split between the two parties. He’s keeping an open mind and wants to see more data.
“What you read in the newspapers is just partially correct and only tells half of the story. So I really don’t know to be honest. So I’m going to be looking more into it,” Isbell said. “What most people like to do is just jump on either side of the issue. Sometimes there’s a compromise, but sometimes there’s not. But if we don’t deal with it at some point in the future, whether that’s next year or 10 years, it will be a tremendous monetary drain on this state, as it will be across this nation as well.”
Regardless of the outcome of this election, Isbell hopes an influx of new blood can help calm the political waters in Montgomery. New candidates with fresh ideas can quell some of the old partisan bickering and lead to more results, he said. .
“Locally we have a lot of new faces. Myself and a lot of other folks have a lot of the same attitude, which is whether you are Republican, Independent or Democrat, we are going to have to work together to get a lot of things done. The head-butting that has gone on in Montgomery and locally, we are hoping is going to evolve into something better because if we don’t we are going to be lagging behind everyone,” Isbell said.
Pierce told Alabama Daily News that he plans on releasing a new 60 second TV ad this week.
Isbell said that his campaign would be sending out mailers around the first week of October.
Have any other tips or thoughts about other close races?? Then contact me, Caroline Beck, on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN or email at [email protected].