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Matthew Stokes: With friends like these…

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Alabama Daily News Columnist Matthew Stokes

It is never good to have your electoral obituary written before the actual election.  Walt Maddox got a taste of that this past week when Kyle Whitmire of declared Maddox’s campaign lost and finished.  

Oh, there was plenty of criticism to throw at Governor Kay Ivey and, by extension, thousands of Alabama voters.  The strongest words were reserved for Maddox, who had to follow a very narrow path to Montgomery, and whose campaign went off the rails good and hard.  Whitmire is something of a nonpartisan liberal and one gets the sense that he was hopeful Maddox could have won and helped Alabama move into the twenty-first century in a real and palpable way.  

That is highly unlikely to happen at this point. Maddox has floundered in part because the state doesn’t seem that interested in anything he offers. Some of the blame lies with the voters’ apathy to the electoral process and their overall deferral to the Republican Party, but voters are not the only ones to blame.  It turns out that Maddox’s campaign is ultimately a paper tiger.

Maddox has tried to present himself as a policy wonk who understands our state’s problems as well as how to fix them. The problem is that voters don’t seem to agree on the nature of these problems, much less on Maddox’s proposed solutions.  

I have a tinge of sympathy for Maddox here, because I do think our state has a lot of issues looming on the horizon that do not seem to move a lot of voters.  Even so, it is incumbent upon a candidate to move to where the voters are to be found, and Maddox and his staff have not done that. I would wager there’s a lot of blame to go around, from Maddox’s aura of destiny after several terms as mayor of Tuscaloosa, to the small but very real progressive echo chamber convinced that a blue wave is imminent in Alabama, to the the social media praise from speechwriter Lars Andersen, the latter of which almost resembles John Cusack holding a boombox over his head in “Say Anything.”

The reality is that Maddox simply doesn’t have a strong record of accomplishment.  The recovery from the April 27, 2011 earns Maddox a lot of credit, but that credit is also spread among individuals, families, businesses and non-profits in Tuscaloosa.  The University of Alabama has grown tremendously, but the wise play for any mayor is work alongside the University if you can or simply stay out of the way. Beyond that, what can Maddox say in his defense?  The transition from mayor to governor is tough because the dynamics of each office are different, and there’s always a bit of challenge explaining how one goes from a city of less than a quarter-million to a state of four million.   In all of Maddox’s campaign, he has offered no evidence of where he had moved the needle in Tuscaloosa, because he had not done so. Maddox was left making promises about what he would do because he could not demonstrate what he had done.

Where Maddox did offer policy proposals, he gave something that sounded an awful lot like a younger, shinier version of the old South Democrats with whom we all grew up.  These are the sorts of policies embodied in previous state Democrats like Roger Bedford, Jim Folsom, Jr., and Don Siegelman. These politics could have been a lot worse, but arguably they have run their course.  

I think there’s a place for centrist Democrats in our politics, but Maddox can’t figure out what he wants to be. Is he a centrist like Bill Clinton’s run as governor (minus all the many personal peccadilloes)? Is he a progressive like his Birmingham counterpart, Mayor Randall Woodfin?  Maddox doesn’t seem to know, and so the voters don’t either.

There are warring camps within the Republican Party nationwide, as some try to hold on the Reagan-Bush-McCain-Romney vision of free markets and open borders while others embrace a more restrictive Trumpian vision. Those are hearty arguments, but in all cases, voters in Alabama are looking at Democrats and still affirming that they don’t want that. The news that George Soros is pouring a couple of hundred thousand dollars into the state in support of Maddox can’t be helping matters, either, even if the GOP habit of treating Soros like a nefarious bogeyman is a regrettable tendency.

That’s what makes the last minute effort to accuse Kay Ivey of being both corrupt and unhealthy so pathetic.  Everyone in Montgomery was waiting for the knives to come out regarding Ivey’s age and health, but instead we got some sort of Montgomery Deep State conspiracy that everyone has sat on for three years.  When a rumor stays quiet for that long, that is often because, in all likelihood, it’s worthless. We’re a week into this mess, and that appears to be the case.

The campaign of a bright young politician that began with such promise will now fade out, leaving Democrats scrambling to figure out how to keep a Senate seat in 2020 and retake the governor’s mansion in 2022.  Walt Maddox could have been so much more, and in time he may be. For now, though, he remains a bright face in an empty suit.

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

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