By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY and THE WIREGRASS, Ala., October 11, 2018 –
Governor Kay Ivey said the words the pilot had waited for, and in under a minute, the rhythmic thump of the propellers gave way to an ascending whirr and we were off the ground.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Bell 407 is taking us to the Wiregrass, where Hurricane Michael has just left a trail of damage. It’s a perfect day, 70 and sunny with the kind of clear blue sky that only comes after a storm.
Today wasn’t supposed to be a Wiregrass day for Ivey. She was scheduled to be in Mobile and Baldwin Counties for a full day of events, meetings, and economic cheerleading:
9:30 a.m. – Depart for Mobile
10:30 a.m. – Groundbreaking: University of South Alabama Hospital Trauma Center
12:00 p.m. – Meeting with USA officials
12:30 p.m. – Lunch at Wintzell’s (Todd Stacy interviewing)
2:00 p.m. – Press Conference: Alabama Named Top Manufacturing State
3:00 p.m. – Staff Briefings
4:00 p.m. – Dinner
5:00 p.m. – Meeting with Commissioner Chris Blankenship, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
5:30 p.m. – Governor’s Restoration Summit
8:00 p.m. – Depart for Montgomery
Mother Nature had different plans. While Michael spared Alabama’s Gulf Coast and took an eastward track to avoid most of the state, Dothan and most other areas in the Wiregrass experienced winds of 70 plus knots – still hurricane force. Farmers had lost their crops, citizens had lost their homes, power lines had been severed, and trees had been uprooted — to say nothing of the flooding.
Ivey would have to celebrate the state’s accomplishments on another day. Today had become about assessing damage, coordinating response, and offering the area a sense of confidence that only comes from the top.
So, Alabama’s 54th governor is flying at low altitude heading southeast from Montgomery’s Dannelly Field. Three staffers are on board: Press Secretary Daniel Sparkman rides shotgun in the front with the pilot, Personal Aide Catherine Gayle Thrash sits on the right facing back towards her boss, and Photographer Hal Yeager sits on the left across from me, cradling in his lap more cameras than he can carry, wearing a vest full of memory cards and GoPros.
Despite the abrupt change in schedule, the Governor’s Office was kind enough to honor their commitment and let me ride along, with one polite warning from Ivey.
“We’re glad to have you traveling with us today, Todd,” she said. “Just try to keep up.”
She wasn’t kidding, I would later learn.
In many ways the unexpected change of plans is emblematic of Ivey’s service as governor. On this day 18 months ago, she had assumed office after former Governor Robert Bentley resigned in disgrace. Her entire governorship began with careful planning and steady ascent giving way to circumstances beyond her control.
It was a political hurricane for Alabama, and at its most ferocious, Ivey found herself minding the rudder.
“I only had three hours notice that I was going to become governor,” she told me.
“But I knew exactly what we needed to do to start off. We needed to steady the ship.”
Now she’s campaigning for a term in her own right. She made quick work of a primary field that included formidable challengers like Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and State Sen. Bill Hightower. Most any other year, those candidates would have competed for frontrunner status.
But this is not any other year. Republican voters stuck solidly with Ivey, rewarding her for taking command of the state’s top job and navigating past an unfortunate few years of embarrassment for the GOP and the state.
“Whether it’s the workers in the state agencies or our industries we are recruiting or the citizens themselves, it’s important for the people to know that their state is working and that there’s someone in charge.”
Up in the air
“Swing back around to that barn,” Ivey tells the pilot through static on the headset.
The helicopter had just passed over some of the worst structural damage we’d seen up to that point near Gordon, Alabama, along the Chattahoochee River. It was only viewable from the right side of the aircraft and the governor wanted a closer look.
Wind had ripped the roof off the barn below and damaged a good bit of fencing around the property.
“Looks like it got their silo, too,” she says. “But it could have been a lot worse.”
That was the story throughout rural Southeast Alabama. In places like Gordon and Slocomb and Ashford and Cottonwood, the damage was extensive, but not catastrophic. And as the first images came in showing Michael’s path through Mexico Beach, Florida, it was hard not to feel grateful for having been spared the worst.
“Governor, if you’re ready, we will head on to Dothan,” Sparkman, the Press Secretary says. He is in communication with the Dothan/Houston County Emergency Management Office where Ivey is expected soon.
Ivey gave her approval and the aircraft careened westward toward the Circle City. At this point we had been viewing damage from the air for at least an hour. Trees on top of trucks and trailers, power lines mangled from bent and broken poles, and several barns without roofs amounted to the worst damage we saw to property before we got to Dothan.
Small talk is difficult through the helicopter headset, but during a down moment she manages to ask me about a mutual friend.
“How’s Martha? Have you heard from her?” Ivey asked, referring to my former boss, U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, who represents the Wiregrass in Congress. The two are friends who have shared many a stump at Republican events.
“I actually just did this morning,” I told her. “She’s worried about her farmers. There’s a lot of damage to cotton and timber and tomatoes and she wants to get the word out.”
We had detected some farm damage below, but it was difficult to see crops from the air. I showed Governor Ivey a photo of some cotton crop ruined by the storm. She took my phone, scrolled to the next photo and pursed her lips. A child of the Black Belt, Ivey knows there’s no harvesting soggy cotton blossoms scattered on the ground.
In total Hurricane Michael would cause more than $208 million in agricultural damage, according to Auburn University’s Cooperative Extension System. Cotton was hit the worst, but peanuts, livestock, timber and poultry were affected too. About 200 center-pivot irrigation systems were destroyed by the storm.
“It’s good we came down,” she said, handing my phone back. “We talked about going down as soon as the weather cleared. The sooner the better to see the damage up close – tree damage, power outages, farms and so forth.”
“It’s also important to encourage those state and local emergency personnel because they do a great job.”
At the moment, there is an election three weeks away; a really big one. Ivey could soon make history by becoming the first woman not married to George C. Wallace to be elected Governor of Alabama.
The Camden Republican has assembled a team full of young, talented politicos to run her campaign operation while she runs the state.
Campaign Manager Mike Lukach cut his teeth in Tennessee politics and has worked GOP congressional and presidential campaigns in Minnesota, South Carolina, Illinois, and West Virginia.
Communications Director Debbee Hancock spent six years working on Capitol Hill before leaving for the private sector. Her comms experience includes clients like Children’s Health, WeWork and Uber.
General Consultant Austin Chambers is a principal at Atlanta-based CS Strategies and has worked gubernatorial, congressional and senate races throughout the Southeast.
Senior Adviser Brent Buchanan is a familiar name in Alabama political circles. He has run Alabama campaigns for almost ten years and founded the survey research firm Cygnal that now does Republican polling throughout the country.
Steve Pelham is Ivey’s chief of staff. He is her closest adviser and has been with her since she came into office as lieutenant governor in 2011. Pelham got his start with former Congressman Terry Everett, working as his district director and managing his campaigns, and later went on to work in the Bush Administration as Alabama’s USDA Rural Development Director.
They are running a full-scale political operation that must increasingly play whack-a-mole to combat, disprove and sidestep the ramped-up attacks from Ivey’s Democratic opponent, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Again, it’s a big election.
Yet, you wouldn’t tell it by traveling with Ivey, at least not today. There are no politics in her activities – and there shouldn’t be – but it makes it awfully hard to write a campaign profile piece. I don’t want to talk about politics on a day like this, and she doesn’t want to be asked about it.
In a way, this makes sense. Though she is actively campaigning, with several events every week, her most effective path to victory is doing the work of governor.
“People can trust what they see better than what people promise,” she says. “As a candidate you can say anything and promise anything. But, when you are holding office, you are accountable. You have to show responsibility and transparency, so I’m just trying to do my best job at governing to demonstrate that this is the kind of governor you are going to get moving forward.”
She has chosen not to debate Maddox, just as she opted out of debates in the GOP primary. Her opponents and most in the media have decried her decision. A frustrated Maddox said it was “the height of arrogance when you refuse to come before the people that pay your salary.”
It is the boring choice, and it’s also the politically savvy one. With near-universal name recognition and approval measuring in the mid-60s, Ivey has little to gain and plenty to lose by sharing a debate stage with an opponent aiming to foul her as the clock runs down.
Nevertheless, there are issues at play in this election. Ivey and Maddox actually agree on some policy questions, sometimes on a superficial level and other times, even, on the details. They both support more gas tax revenue for building and repairing roads and bridges. Ivey isn’t pushing a state lottery to fund education like Maddox is, but she doesn’t oppose one and would support letting people vote on a legislative plan. Fighting the opioid epidemic, improving mental health services, enhancing workforce development – line items and funding mechanisms may differ plenty, but these priorities, more than either would likely care to admit, are essentially the same.
One issue with plenty of daylight between the two candidates is health care, specifically Medicaid expansion. Maddox has made it the central focus of his campaign.
So I asked her about it. He makes it sound so easy, I said. What are we going to do about Medicaid with hospitals closing and all of that?
Ivey pounced on my lazy word choice.
“Well ‘all of that’ is a big subject,” she returned.
“There’s a lot that needs to be addressed moving forward. Number one, I’ve got a team in place led by [Medicaid] Commissioner [Stephanie] Azar meeting one-on-one with key health care providers all over the state to ask them specific questions of what can and should be done to make sure that we have quality healthcare and to make sure it is accessible to the people of Alabama.
“There are seven counties that don’t have any kind of healthcare, for example. We’ve got 54 rural hospitals; some of them are facing difficulties but some of them are thriving. So who’s doing what right and how can we get all of the rural hospitals thriving?”
To be honest, I was expecting talking points. Health care is a complicated subject, and most comms staffers would advise sticking to a script, but Ivey expounded.
“They’ve given me some preliminary options, and I’ve sent them back to the table to get some flesh on some of these options. So I’m working on that effort to come up with solutions for rural hospitals.”
But is that solution expanding Medicaid?
“To just say ‘expand Medicaid’ – that’s the only thing people in the opposition can reach out and say because they don’t know enough to have any other options. And I would just suggest to you that expanding Medicaid is just a very, very, very, expensive prospect. I’m more focused on other avenues to bring in more revenue, like this online sales tax.”
She’s talking about the state’s recent move to begin enforcing sales tax on out-of-state online purchases, a rare new source of revenue for the state.
“I think if we keep enforcing it, that that fund has potential for huge growth when more and more items go for sale online.”
Further complicating matters is that expanding Medicaid isn’t a snap call by the governor. It involves a process starting with the governor, but flowing through the Medicaid agency director, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare in Washington D.C. and a top panel of the solidly-Republican Alabama Legislature.
“Election Day will soon be here,” I said. “What’s your closing argument? Why should the people vote for you?”
“Because I’m committed to helping them achieve results for themselves and their families so they can have better opportunities in life. I’m going to do it with an open, honest, and transparent administration. I’m going to do the very best that I can to make our state even better and to make our government more effective.”
She saves the red meat for last.
“And here’s what else: I’m going to support our conservative values by protecting the unborn and defending life, defending the second amendment and protecting our guns. That matters to people and it matters to me.”
Go unto Dothan
Governor Ivey moves fast. Not fast like sprinter or power-walker fast, obviously, but quick and decisive like someone who doesn’t take time for granted. When she’s ready to move on, she goes, and staff had better keep up. Whether to another destination or item of discussion, the governor does not tarry.
Having landed in Dothan, we are walking through the Garden District, an older neighborhood that is the city’s hardest-hit residential area. The sprawling oak and sycamore trees that give the neighborhood its characteristic shady charm were no match for hurricane-force winds. Their limbs are now fallen on roofs, cars, and utility poles. In the car ride over, Mayor Mark Saliba told the governor that power remains out for around 50,000, and officials think it could be three of four days until they are back online.
Along with Mayor Saliba, State Representatives Paul Lee and Donnie Chesteen are onsite with the governor. This is Lee’s House district and it will soon be Chesteen’s Senate District, as he faces no Democratic opposition in his run for the State Senate.
Sometimes people roll their eyes when politicians fly into disaster zones and become part of the story. Yet, in this area that often feels neglected by Montgomery, Ivey’s visit seems well-received.
“You can see a lot of people are surprised to see the governor walking down the street or up to their yard, but I can tell you they are pleasantly surprised. It’s a big encouragement to the community because we’ve been through a lot the last 48 hours,” Lee said.
“She has a great way of connecting to people,” Chesteen added. “There they are with chainsaws, sweating, moving debris, and here’s the governor right there letting them know she was concerned about us.”
Ivey made one unexpected connection while walking out of the driveway of a damaged house.
“Governor, I am so sorry to bother you,” said Carol Jones as she hesitantly approached. “I just wanted to say thank you and let you know I think you know my cousin. Did you know Betty Ann Nettles?”
“Well sure,” Ivey said, but I couldn’t quite catch the details. The two hugged and visited for a few minutes the way Southern ladies do after church.
“I was pretty nervous just walking up to her like that, ” Mrs. Jones told me later. “I would have worn something different if I knew I was going to meet Kay Ivey,” she says, as if there were a dress code for cleaning up tree limbs.
It’s almost time for the scheduled briefing at the EMA headquarters, so we hustle back to the black SUVs and drive off, winding our way around fallen trees and power lines, now helpfully marked with cones and caution tape.
The Dothan-Houston County Emergency Operations Center is a brand new facility, less than two years old. It was built for emergencies just like this to bring all the various agencies under one roof to coordinate a response.
Television crews and reporters on laptops are waiting in the media room, but Ivey delays the briefing for a few minutes to stop and thank the workers manning the phones and computers inside the response center.
“What you’re doing is vitally important and I’m grateful for it. President Trump called me earlier on my private cell phone and he wanted to know how Alabama was doing. He pledged support from FEMA, et cetera, and I just wanted you to know that,” she told them.
After the briefing, Ivey visits with local officials privately. It’s a chance for staff to catch their breath, find the restroom or grab a bottle of water. They do it in a hurry, though, not knowing when the governor will move on.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was one of those staffers in former Governor Bob Riley’s office, so I should remember the drill. And yet, after a few minutes passed, I was running to catch up, grateful I made it to the truck before it left the parking lot. What can I say? She moves fast and I was warned.
Steadying the Ship
Governor Ivey had no choice but to move fast when assuming office. The pomp and circumstance of her swearing in was essential, as was the speech that followed. Combined they took a little more than four minutes, and afterward there was a state to run.
On her mind in those first hours on the job were the various economic development projects the state was recruiting. How would they respond to Bentley resigning? How could Alabama hope to remain on those project shortlists after such a scandal?
Her first meeting on her first day in office was with Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield. Other cabinet level meetings would follow, but Commerce came first.
“Going back to my days at ADO (Alabama Development Office, the precursor to the Department of Commerce), I’ve known for a long time how important economic development was to this state. We needed to give them confidence.”
Ivey’s previous service in various government roles makes her unique among Alabama governors. She worked in the first Fob James Administration, served as Assistant ADO Director in Governor George Wallace’s last term, and was the Reading Clerk in the House of Representatives under Speaker Joseph McCorquodale.
Ivey would be elected State Treasurer in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. She flirted with a run for Governor in 2010, but a contentious field led her to pursue the Lt. Governor job instead. That was no easy task either because it involved taking on Jim Folsom Jr., a popular incumbent who was the last Democrat to be elected statewide until Doug Jones in 2017. But she won, and she did again in 2014.
Ivey’s leadership style is different than her most recent predecessors. Riley, who served from 2002-2010, was a shrewd and dapper economic salesman who would dominate any room he walked into with charismatic authority. Bentley was at first admired for his meeker bedside manner, but his regular recitation of “I’m the governor” belied an insecurity within himself – and festered confusion among others – about who was actually in charge.
Ivey isn’t overbearing, nor is she one to be patronized. She doesn’t command attention by forcing it or by asking for it, but rather by quietly expecting it. And it works. To paraphrase Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, Kay Ivey isn’t bossy — Kay Ivey is the boss.
Will the voters let her keep the top job?
“People always very graciously say ‘thank you for what you’re doing for Alabama and I’m going to vote for you.’ It’s a nice thing for them to say – I sure hope it’s the truth!”