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Matthew Stokes: Ivey using politics, not conspiracy

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News columnist

With just under two months to go until election day, I had hoped to throw in a few more columns on cultural topics like youth sports (honestly, they’re too intense).  Instead, the Alabama gubernatorial race has taken a bizarre turn towards the conspiratorial.

The conspiracy runs something like this. Governor Kay Ivey is refusing to debate her opponent, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.  She’d rather attend small community gatherings, trade shows and business conferences, and that’s left the Maddox campaign frustrated. Not content to make the case of Maddox’s leadership on their own, his supporters have taken to claiming that Ivey is hiding something – a tax increase, perhaps – or that governor is merely a talking head for a group of advisors who secretly run the state.

Let me state from the outset that I wish there would be a debate.  I wish candidates would publicly confront one another while explaining their records and defending their positions on the issues.  I think it respects the democratic process, and as I’ve explained in previous columns, our democracy is simply more than words on a page.  It is a series of norms, behaviors and unwritten rules that show respect for the process itself.

This is not just a problem between Kay Ivey and Walt Maddox, but between both parties all throughout the country.  I hope to return to this topic in subsequent weeks, because I worry that wherever one party holds a large degree of power, this is the attitude that takes root.

With that said, the claim that Ivey is hiding “something” is downright bizarre.  She is a known quantity, having worked in and around Montgomery for quite a while.  Many people are skeptical of career politicians, and I often share that sentiment, but there is something to be said for those who devote their life to public service.  Career politicians have an opportunity to hone their skills. Moreover, in a smaller state like ours, there’s not much room for one to hide scandal, impropriety or outright eccentricity.  If those things are there, we all know. If, as the Maddox campaign suggests, Ivey is hiding something, she’s doing a stellar job.

The accusation itself, as applied by Maddox communications director Chip Hill, is pretty weak.  Referring indirectly to disgraced former governor Robert Bentley, Hill noted last week that “the last time a Governor refused to debate, within weeks of him taking office, he proposed nearly a billion dollar tax increase and embroiled the state in one of its worst political scandals.”  Hill went on to suggest that just as we didn’t know what Bentley was hiding, neither do we know what Ivey is hiding.

This is silly. There is no indication that Ivey is proposing any sort of major tax increase, and the accusation is pretty rich coming from Maddox’s camp. It’s also a pretty safe bet that Rebekah Mason is nowhere near the Ivey campaign.

In politics and life, the simplest answer is often the most obvious one.  Kay Ivey has a good record of public service, but often that work has taken place in a very low key manner.  She has never had to debate in a large, public setting. Simply put, she and her team seem to be worried that she would not hold up well in a debate.  Maddox and his team share the same calculation. Given that the golden boy mayor from one of the state’s most well-travelled cities can’t seem to get any traction in this race, baiting Ivey into a bad debate performance is one of the remaining cards they have left to play.

The problem, though, is that as dispiriting as a bad debate might be, it does not prove that Ivey is unfit for governor, nor does it suggest malfeasance on the part of her or her staff.  Every candidate has advisors. Every candidate has a comfort zones wherein they prefer to operate. While every almost any candidate is good with the public, the sort of candidate who can discuss policy on the fly and with great deal – a Reagan, Clinton or Obama – is rare.  Maddox may be a good politician with big aspirations, but he’s a long way from that category.

The simplest answer here is that Ivey likely isn’t very good in a debate setting, and Maddox hopes to expose her as not up to the challenge. The obvious cruelty of this aside, debate performances alone do not prove that one is qualified or unqualified for the position in question.  Walt Maddox has been a mayor of a moderate sized university city for over a decade. If that is not enough to qualify him for governor, then a slick debate is only lipstick on a pig.

I said from the outset that I would prefer candidates from the two major parties debate one another, and I am disappointed that many voters, including many in the media, seem indifferent to this.  Yet Ivey’s position here is a political calculation designed to avoid a bad look in public. Nothing more, nothing less. If her refusal to debate is damaging to the democratic process, so, too, is the bizarre suggestion by Maddox, his campaign, and his supporters that this mean Ivey is hiding “something.”

If there’s something out there, by all means expose it. Go public. But suggestion and innuendo do nothing to instill confidence in any candidate and this, too, erodes the democratic norms that upheld our electoral system.


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