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No fireworks in Democrats’ final debate for governor

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls spent their final debate Wednesday focused on policy, instead of taking jabs at each other, as their party seeks a revival in the GOP-dominated state.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, former state legislator James Fields, Doug Smith and Chris Countryman appeared in the Wednesday debate hosted by Alabama Boys State, a civics and leadership program for teens.

Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the governor’s office in 20 years, but the candidates — casting an eye toward the November general election — argued Alabama needs a change in leadership.

Cobb said the state has been damaged by the “drama and embarrassment” of a series of GOP scandals, including a Republican governor who resigned in the wake of a sex-tinged scandal and a Republican House speaker convicted on ethics charges.

“We’ve got to have leaders that will not embarrass us, will do the job and provide the visionary leadership Alabama deserves,” Cobb said.

Maddox in his opening statement recalled as a teen hearing then Democratic candidate Paul Hubbert in the 1990 gubernatorial election talk about improving access to health care and education. Twenty-eight years later Alabama remains, “48th, 49th and 50th in everything that matters,” Maddox said.

“Alabama is at a crossroads between the past and the future,” Maddox said.

In the hour-plus debate, candidates spoke in favor of Medicaid expansion, establishing a state lottery and the need to boost economic opportunities to keep young people from leaving the state.

Fields, in response to a question about funding infrastructure, said he opposed raising the tax on gasoline — a measure favored by some politicians in both parties — because he said it would be a tax, “on the poor.”

“We are going to put the tax where it needs to be and that’s on property. Folks, poor people don’t own a lot of property but we want to continue to tax the poor,” Fields said. He said he also favored removing the tax on food.

Countryman said the state needs to invest in renewable energy sources to curb dependence on fossil fuels. Countryman said he also favored legalization of medical marijuana and to look at the possible legalization for recreational use.

Smith, an economist, said the state has stagnated in economic growth.

The forum in front of the mostly teen audience was cordial despite contentious moments in earlier debates between Maddox and Cobb. The two are considered the front runners in Tuesday’s primary contest.

The winner will face the Republican nominee in November.

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