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Matthew Stokes: Democrats, do your worst

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

In the middle of a very busy news cycle, one can be forgiven for overlooking the shakeup in Alabama’s Democratic Party.   Given an election for new leadership, state Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Worley is facing two opponents for her seat; former candidate for lieutenant governor Will Boyd and former congressional candidate Tabitha Isner.  Though both came up short last November, they embody a young, competent, and enthusiastic wing of state Democrats who could mark a significant changing of the state’s political guard.

As Alabama Democrats look to reinvigorate themselves, there are several questions to pursue.  First, how will the new progressive Democrats promote investment in the state? Whatever you think of the Republican Party, its elected officials have done a solid job of cultivating outside business.   Would a Democratic vision be that much different? The recent debacle over a revised ethics bill often circled back to how economic development was viewed: was it lobbying or something else? Leaders of both parties should work for realistic clarity here.  Bribery should remain criminal, but garment-rending from outside watchdogs should not deter politicians from pursuing a sensible policy that doesn’t force haggling over a minimal lunch tab. Democrats may find that criticism is not so easy if they make their way back into power.

The two parties are obviously split on taxes.  Critics of the recent gas tax and infrastructure bill accused Republicans of acting like Democrats, but there are real limitations on how much the GOP is willing to raise taxes.   Democrats have long argued for a reduction or elimination of grocery taxes. Voters likely support those measures, but what about property taxes? Specifically, what about the gorilla in the room that is the tax on timber land?  Are Democrats ready to make the case for raising these?  If new leaders are savvy, they could revolutionize the state’s tax base, yet they must prove that increased taxes do not impede economic growth.

There are other concerns.  Public sector employees are a natural constituency for Democrats.   Is new leadership willing to push back against these voters when faced with an opportunity to cut costs and streamline government?  Are young progressives willing to restructure public pensions and retirement benefits in order to save costs, or do they suppose that increased taxes can cover those costs?  In either case, can they sell their positions to voters?

This gets us to education.  Many aspects of our education system in Alabama are a real mess, from the state board of education all the way down.   There is substantial bipartisan energy for improving things, and young progressives are doing great work at the local, grassroots level.  I’m curious to see what form that good work would take on larger scale. We’ve already seen forward-thinking education reformers lose their nerve over charter schools within the city of Birmingham.  Would the same thing happen at the state level?

Republicans, led by Sen. Arthur Orr, have made a recent push to ease up on occupational licensing requirements.  This could easily be a bipartisan effort; Walt Maddox made a similar argument during his gubernatorial bid. Progressive Democrats could prove something by arguing that social justice doesn’t simply exist in the form of bureaucratic programs, but instead can work to liberate individuals to pursue a living free from expensive, burdensome regulations.

On the cultural front, Democrats in other states – Virginia, New York, Vermont – have been unable to rein in the impulses of their extreme flank and passed or attempted to pass bills that liberalized their state’s abortion laws.   Will Southern Democrats pursue a similar strategy? Doing so would likely antagonize their opposition, making electoral victories short lived. Democrats interested in long term governance would do well to let these issues lay dormant.

But wait!  

Haven’t Republicans spent plenty of political energy on school prayer, Bible classes, and abortion?  Yes, they have, but how has that worked for them? I’m not convinced it’s worked well overall. While I’m grateful to see abortion curtailed, beyond that the end result has been political virtue signaling and identity politics for Southerners.  Can Democrats help undo this? Say what you will about the policies of Mayor Pete Buttigieg; his rhetoric is positive and uplifting, designed to unite audiences as Americans instead of dividing them along other lines.

I’ve posed a lot of questions here, but they’re not rhetorical.  I really want to know how young Democrats would organize and govern.  Alabama is best when we have two competent political parties forcing one another to be better. And that doesn’t mean the Right versus the Far Right.  Despite a lot of misgivings about the Republican Party, I still prefer that it wins.   But I want it to win by using its best arguments, and that can only happen when sparring with the sharpest folks and ideas that Democrats have to offer. We should all want this.

We should want it because it means if our preferred ideas triumph, they’ve been refined into something politically tenable.   It also means that if the worst happens, and the other folks win, then they’ve been through the same process and demonstrate a capacity for responsible leadership.   It is more preferable to live under an opposing party that has had too contend for its position than one mindlessly sent back to office by the voters every two years.  That was the experience of state Democrats for decades, and the end result of that rule was a spectacular flameout.

It is likely that Alabama remains a Republican state for a while, given our demographics and voter trends.  Still, I wish the new generation of Democrats well. It’s boring winning against incompetents, and you run the risk that your own side grows lazy and complacent.  Competition often makes us nervous, but in the long run, it only makes us, and our great state, better.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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