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New member profile: Rehm wants more school choice, no grocery tax

Newly elected state Rep. Rick Rehm says voters in southeast Alabama’s House District 85 wanted a change.

Rehm, of Dothan, was the only Republican to beat an incumbent Democrat in an Alabama legislative race in 2022. 

Rehm campaigned on more school choice options and less government. In an interview this week with Alabama Daily News, Rehm said he thinks public dollars should follow students to private schools and he wouldn’t have voted for the 2019 gas tax increase pushed by Gov. Kay Ivey and other GOP leaders. He said fighting the liberal indoctrination of children is a priority.

And while running for his first public office wasn’t originally his idea, he was soon 100% invested, he said.

“Because to me, I’m like a firewall against the leftist agenda that’s harming America today,” Rehm said.

It was Fort Rucker and the U.S. Army that first brought Rehm, a Chicago native, to Alabama in 1990 when he was 24.

Later, it was a career as an air traffic controller and then supervisor at Fort Rucker that brought him back to the region that he’s called home for more than 20 years. During that time, he got involved in county level GOP politics, but said he never intended to run for office. 

It was ALGOP Chairman John Wahl who approached Rehm about running against three-term incumbent Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Newville.

“I said, ‘I’ll qualify and let’s get somebody more likable, more electable, better looking and a better public speaker,’” Rehm told Alabama Daily News. But no one else came forward.

“So I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Rehm won 54% of the vote in the November general election.

”One of the Alabama Republican Party’s main priorities for the 2022 cycle was targeting new areas around the state,” Wahl told Alabama Daily News. “One of those target races was House District 85. When no one stepped forward to run, we started looking for a candidate with a passion to serve their community while upholding our conservative values. Rep. Rehm, with his background in the military and experience with the local and state parties, perfectly fit that vision.”

Though Rehm was outspent in the campaign, he said he “went to every event that would have me” to talk about the differences between him and Grimsley, who was a low-profile lawmaker, but well respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Rehm’s campaign sent out a set of four mailers, the last of which outlined his stance on issues like taxes and abortion rights compared to Grimsley.

“That was very impactful,” he said.

Rehm, who will be 57 later this month, retired three years ago when he was approaching the mandatory age limit for his Department of Defense profession. He said he’s now treating his role as representative as his full-time job and has visited, or plans to visit, local public school leaders and local government officials.

House District 85 includes all of Henry County and the northwest corner of Houston County.

“My purpose is to represent all the district, whether people voted for me or not,” Rehm said. “And so my intent is to give this 100%.

Q&A with Rep. Rick Rehm (edited for clarity, brevity)

Q: You were the only Republican to beat a sitting Democrat in the Legislature this year. How did you do that and what was your message to voters?

A: Well, the main thing in my campaign was to run on issues … I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, I believe everybody should have the right to defend themselves. And so we did an ad relating to that, and that contrasted with the vote that my opponent had against the (2022 legislation allowing concealed handguns without a permit). 

“… Raising the gas tax was very convenient to do during the Trump era when we had low gas prices, but it was starting to pay a toll on the pockets of people and so you know, we discussed that. But the one thing I really stressed a lot was parental rights in the schools. I believe it is their right to know what their children are being taught. I think they should have access and a say on what’s going on, within reason, of course.”

Q: Are you saying you wouldn’t have voted in favor of the gas tax increase in 2019?

A: “I am saying that, yes. …I’m not going to raise taxes, I can tell you that right now. The government always takes and it always wants more. That’s the problem. Where does this end? 

“… Alabama and every other state in the country, they built roads. When they built those roads, they knew at some point those roads were going to need to be repaired and never in all that time did they ever start putting money away for it,  start planning, budgeting like you and I have to do.”

Q: You’ve said you’re concerned about and opposed to the indoctrination of children in schools. What does countering that look like to you?

A: “I think we made some great steps already with the (2021 law restricting transgender students from playing K-12 sports) and then also the (2022 bathroom bill requiring students to use the restrooms that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate) and it’s kind of connected with the (ban on medical transitioning of transgender minors). I think right now, I still have some more learning to do when it comes to exactly the process for inside the school…” 

Q. You mentioned going to events and speaking where they would have you. I noticed on your campaign finance reports, you only spent about $26,000. That’s not a lot for a State House race and it’s significantly less than what Grimsley spent. How did you do that?

A: “I think the total spent was $30,000. … But my feeling from campaigning and talking to people is that they were ready for change. …It was just this feeling that nothing was ever being done or there was no change for years, they didn’t see any progress, so they were ready for a change. Plus, I agree, 12 years is a long time for any politician to be in any spot, that’s stale.”

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in your district that you see and what, what could you and your colleagues in Montgomery do to help address them?

A: The biggest is economic development. We need better paying jobs, and we need more industry. And that’s the challenge. So one issue I believe we have is that in order to help that, you must help the schools, the education system. You get prospective companies that come in and they say, ‘Man, this is a great opportunity. Taxes are low. Our costs will be down. There’s this pool of good people who want to work.’ And then they start looking at the schools that their kids will have to attend. And, you know, they may not be up to par to what they’ve seen in other places, and that’s an issue. So not only do we have to make sure education is being looked at for the sake of educating our kids, we have to do it from an economic development standpoint.”

Q: In your campaign materials, you said you support school choice. What does that look like for you and what could the Legislature do to expand that? Do you think public tax dollars follow students to private schools?

A: I do, I believe in school choice. I think that money should follow students. And here’s why: Competition is the only thing that breeds innovation and improvement. You know, why is Lowe’s so good? Because they’ve got a Home Depot right next door. That principle doesn’t go away just because we’re talking about education. That alone will increase productivity in the schools and be a benefit. There could be a downside in immediate impact, but later I think it will drive innovation and improvement.

“…School choice isn’t always between a public school and a private school. I want public schools to compete with each other as well.

“… However, any proposal, I will need to really look at it. I’m not going to rubber stamp something just because it’s titled ‘school choice.’ I want to make sure any negative impacts are limited.”

Q: You campaigned on ending the state grocery tax. That’s been a Democrat talking point for several years and more recently some Republicans are supporting the concept. Why does it make sense to you? There’s still a lot of work to be done on that front, right?

A: “Oh, yeah, this will not be an easy task.

“…There’s no conservative that says, ‘No, don’t lower my grocery bill, please.’ Everybody’s on board with that. Now, where there are differences, a lot of conservatives will say, ‘Well, you got to pay for that from somewhere else.’

“… I wouldn’t be against a hybrid like, maybe not all groceries but how about all produce, meat products, eggs, cheese. Something in that ballpark.”

Q: You’ve said you’re against government intrusion and government overreach. Last session, during debates about the transgender youth medical treatment ban bill, opponents of the bill said, let us make our own decisions for our children —

A: Says the party that wants to require you to have a vaccine, force you to have a vaccine. It’s hypocritical. But I should let you finish the question, I know where you’re going.

Q: You know where I’m going: Where’s that line on intrusion? 

A: You can apply that same argument to Alabama’s ban on abortion. One of the toughest issues throughout my entire life is the abortion issue. As somebody who absolutely does not want government telling a person what to do, or how to live their life, that makes that issue so tough. But what is the primary function of government? In my opinion, it is to protect your rights and to enforce contracts. …So what are we doing in this (abortion ban)? We are protecting a living human being that just has not had the privilege of being born yet. Now, I understand that you are now imposing a lack of liberty on the mother … but I would say that’s better than death. You know, you’ve got two choices: You’re inconvenienced, or this living person is dead.

“On the (transgender medical treatment) issue, we’re going to prevent doctors from mutilating children who do not have the age or mental capacity to make these decisions…”

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