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Matthew Stokes: Maddox is impressive, but has questions to answer

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News

A funny thing happened late last Tuesday as Alabamians, or the handful of us who were interested, took stock of the June primary results.  

News stations around the state went live to Tuscaloosa where something of a church service was taking place. There was no choir or praise band but there was most certainly preaching.  The source of the preaching was Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox, newly minted as the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor of the state of Alabama. Working up a frenzy that would rival the back half of any good country sermon, Maddox promised a litany of changes that he would bring to Alabama.  

Like another recent Democratic light-bearer, he stopped just short of promising the oceans would cease to rise and the planet would begin to heal. Either way, Walt Maddox is certain a new day is about to dawn in Alabama.

One must admit that Maddox is an impressive candidate.  Indeed, he’s the most impressive statewide candidate that Democrats have managed to muster up since at least Don Siegelman.  Maddox has served several terms as mayor of Tuscaloosa, and he did a very fine job of seeing the city through the horrific aftermath of the April 27, 2011 tornado. He’s also been at the city’s helm during a time of unprecedented growth, though how much of that is really the work of Robert Witt and Nick Saban is anyone’s guess.

As far as candidates go, he’s a good one.  Indeed, I think he’s likely to make the state GOP sweat a little bit, and that’s a good thing. As a conservative who recognizes that the Republican Party is still the best avenue for advancing conservative policy ideas (though that seems up for debate these days), I want the GOP in fighting shape so that it does not grow lethargic.  A state of college football fanatics should remember that while it’s fun to steamroll the opposition, it’s good to have close games so that your team doesn’t forget what it takes to earn a victory.

Maddox is an interesting case, because while he’s the best candidate the Democrats have put forth since the Clinton administration, he’s still trying to win in a state that is very conservative. That’s no small order.

The state’s Democratic base has been rejuvenated in the wake of Doug Jones’ defeat of Roy Moore, though that’s an awfully low bar to celebrate. Evangelicals are less worked up over a potential education lottery, as well, so it will be harder to muster anti-gambling fervor against Maddox.  

Maddox is not without some good ideas, too. I’m particularly fond of his plans for career academies to help involve private small business in the development of the trade-based workforce. His core problem is that he’s fallen into the same trap as plenty of other politicians, wherein he tries to convince the voters that he is beyond partisanship, a new leader who doesn’t hoist the flag of ideology but instead devotes himself to pragmatically solving the problems of Alabama.

There’s just one problem with this.  It’s a load of garbage. If a politician is to be taken seriously as a thoughtful human being, then his or her party affiliation suggests a belief in a number of underlying ideas about the best way to advance liberty, manage an economy and navigate the tricky relationship between people and their government.  

For the last fifty years in America, that means that Democrats have broadly accepted the liberal consensus that dates back to the New Deal, while Republicans have, to one degree or another, accepted the conservative ideas of limited government that came to the forefront with Barry Goldwater and took on full flowering with Ronald Reagan.  

I don’t think Maddox is the sort of San Francisco liberal that would sip wine with Nancy Pelosi, but I do think he should be quite clear about being a Democrat and, most importantly, that he accepts the basic ideology that undergirds the party’s policy positions.

What does that all mean for Alabama, you ask?  Fair question, because I’m a pretty firm believer that the more local our politics, the more our partisan differences start to blur.  (Which is one reason why the framers of our Constitution wanted to decentralize power away from the federal government).  

Still, it’s going to be incumbent upon Maddox to explain how he’s going to make sure all those rural hospitals are funded, and not just in the short term.

What’s the plan for funding over the next twenty or thirty years? What will he offer the students and parents in schools that are really, truly failing to educate them?  Will public sector unions return to the positions of undue influence they enjoyed for decades? Suppose he gets his precious education lottery. Will he make sure that education funding kept afloat by lottery proceeds while the core funding is diverted to other needs?  When lottery proceeds plateau or decline – as they always do – how will Maddox continue funding education initiatives?

Two of Maddox’s biggest endorsements come from Roger Bedford, and old school Alabama Democrat, and Randall Woodfin, arguably the state’s most progressive politician. To what extent is Maddox on board with their agendas?

The second concern is that as a Democrat, the day may come when the national party calls in a favor from Governor Walt Maddox. Will he side with the national party, or will he stand with the people if Alabama if the two positions are at deep odds.

All of these questions are fair game, and a clear, honest campaign will address them.  The point is not, in any way, to be play “gotcha!” with Maddox or his supporters. Maddox should be transparent and open about who he is, where he derives his ideas, and who supports him.  

While any knowledgeable voter recognizes him as a Democrat, Maddox is bending over backwards to avoid acknowledging that reality. Mayor Maddox: own it. Mayor Randall Woodfin tweeted support for Maddox on primary night, hoping that together they would flip Alabama blue.  

If their shared goal is truly to turn Alabama into a majority Democratic state, with all the policies and ideas that come with it, say it to the voters, loudly and proudly.

If Maddox and his campaign can’t do that, then perhaps they’re in more trouble than they want to admit.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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