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In first public office, Stewart prioritizing development in Black Belt district

By Ainsley Platt

To earn his seat in the 35-member Alabama Senate, Democrat Robert Stewart, D-Selma, first defeated in the May primary an institution in Alabama politics, Hank Sanders. In November, his contest against a Republican garnered more votes than any other state Senate race.

Now, entering his first elected position, Stewart is prioritizing economic development, health care, education and infrastructure in his Black Belt district.

Stewart is a Selma native who recently returned to the state after living in Washington, D.C., where he still works remotely. Stewart will be the youngest senator in the Legislature.

The senator is a former staffer for U.S. Representative Terry Sewell, a Democrat, who represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional district.

Stewart is already working, learning the committees he’ll be on and starting a roundtable advisory committee, which will be manned by District 23 constituents.

District 23 includes the cities of Selma and Marion and Dallas, Butler, Monroe, Clarke, Perry, Lowndes, Conecuh and Wilcox counties.

Synethi Pettaway, the chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, said she was grateful for Stewart’s election.

“I’ve known him all of his life,” Pettaway said. “I look forward to him doing great things in the Senate.”

Q & A with Sen. Robert Stewart

You are a Selma native. What do you tell people about the area, and what brought you back?

“Selma, and the district at large, are viewed as the epicenter of Southern hospitality. You won’t find better people, better communities, better food, better institutions. I had such a great childhood and being able to represent the interests of the region I grew up in is the honor of a lifetime. I had a strong sense of community growing up, and it’s just a place that really has not gotten its fair share.”

This is your first run for political office. Why this seat?

“I wanted to run for a seat that could have the most impact on communities, and nothing really has more impact, or greater impact, on individuals’ lives than state and local government. So that’s where I want to just get my start. I feel like we have a wonderful state, and our state is at the cusp of change. I really wanted to be a part of advancing the interests of our state to a sustainable future.”

In the Democratic primary runoff in June you ran against Hank Sanders, whose political career is a lot longer than yours. What was your messaging to voters, and how did you win that contest?

“We ran a very unconventional campaign. Our platform was restoring power to the people, and we were so grateful that we had a message that resonated with the people. We listened to the answers, and we’ve got our platform, with our focus on putting people first: economic development, education, health care, and infrastructure – just focusing on the kitchen table issues. I really think we won because we ran a really populist and grassroots movement and focused on the issues. And I think that’s why we were successful.”

Your November race was interesting, because you ran against a Republican who did very well, despite not spending any money according to campaign finance reports. Can you give me a bit of insight on how he got that support?

“Well, it just depends on what county you’re in – our district is very diverse. We have a very diverse district. And while it is a solidly Democratic region, there is strong Republican support as well. I have to represent all the counties, even the counties I didn’t win, with the same fortitude as the counties that supported me.”

 You previously worked for Congresswoman Terri Sewell – how did that experience prepare you for the role of being a state senator?

Really the commitment to public service and constituents, and understanding that politicians work for the people. I gained a lot of insight on dealing with issues, constituent issues, and I worked in five of the eight counties in this district – I was a staffer in the district (for Sewell). I really think that all the people that I met, I wasn’t a complete stranger. I was not completely unknown to the communities or to the region. I think the experience served me well.

There was a multi-part study of the Black Belt region by the University of Alabama Education Policy Center starting in 2020 that highlighted the economic and education struggles in your area. Unemployment is higher, health care access is more limited and population loss is a concern. What needs to be done to help your district and constituents thrive?

“Good public policy is a remedy, right. Ensuring that there’s equity, our state government can make sure that there’s opportunities all over the state. It’s going to take partnership with the governor’s office to focus, because rural communities have been left behind at the expense of investment in larger communities. We have a real opportunity now, for rural development, as people flee large metropolitan areas. I’m one of those who’s done it, and I still work in D.C., I work remotely. I think it’s really important that we address broadband and quality of life and health care and economics. You have what’s called the social determinants of health. It’s pivotal that we grapple with these kinds of issues. It’s going to take engagement from the communities in which I serve. This is going to take all hands on deck.

“… A strong focus – strong, robust focus on economic development, and the Black Belt, and rural communities at large, could really serve to move us to the next level.”

Q: What policies are you hoping to push in order to improve those social determinants of health in your district?

“Medicaid expansion is very important. It’s really important that we have investments in our community colleges, because they serve as engines of economic development and workforce development as well. Even more support for small businesses, and farmers as well, to make sure that we move to the next level.

(My office is) creating what’s called a Senate Roundtable to get involvement with committees. We want to transition our campaign platform into tangible policy outcomes. The Senate Roundtable is an advisory committee, with steering committees focused on people, economic development, health care, education and infrastructure. These people throughout the district can have input, because that’s what it’s going to take. When we have more people involved and engaged, we get a better product.”

Are there any other priorities you have going into your first session?

“Going in with an open mind and an open heart. There can be a lot of rancor and division in politics, but going in in good faith and ensuring that I put my best foot forward for the district and give them the best representation and being accessible, and communicating as well to make sure that people in my district know what I’m doing.”

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