By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
THE WIREGRASS, Ala., September 29, 2018 –
Walt Maddox is a numbers guy.
We’re on his campaign bus somewhere between Enterprise and Elba on a muggy September Saturday when most Alabamians have settled in for a day of college football. The University of Alabama is playing Louisiana Lafayette; Auburn is playing Southern Miss; Maddox’s beloved UAB Blazers are hosting the University of Charlotte at Legion Field in Birmingham.
But the Mayor of Tuscaloosa and Democratic nominee for Governor of Alabama is on the bus, and he isn’t settled.
His campaign staff is in the back prepping stickers, signs and talking points for the next event, side-eyeing College Gameday on the satellite-connected televisions. Maddox is in the front, sitting in his right-side window seat with his laptop open on the table, and he’s talking numbers.
“Our biggest deficit is name recognition. The data shows 93 percent of Alabamians know who the governor is; only 57 percent know who we are. That’s why we’re out here on the road.”
He’s scrolling down a slide deck of graphs, flitting through charts and percentages showing the current state of his campaign for governor and the exact margins he needs to pull an upset win over incumbent Governor Kay Ivey.
He speaks with precision, like someone who has digested his fair share of survey research data.
The specific numbers were off the record, but their case was generally compelling – almost as compelling as Maddox’s honest confidence.
“Do a few things need to go just right? Absolutely. But we know we’re doing very well among key demographics and we feel very, very good about that.”
Maddox is barnstorming the Wiregrass today for the latest leg of his “Believe!” bus tour. Comfortable campaign bus or not, it’s a grueling stretch of travel: he’ll depart Montgomery at 6:00 in the morning and return home to Tuscaloosa around 10:00 that night. It’s an ambitious schedule of events: he’ll host meet-and-greets in Enterprise and Troy, hold press conferences in Elba and Florala, open a new campaign office in Dothan, and headline an old-fashioned political rally in Union Springs.
It’s hard to imagine a tougher grind of a day for a statewide campaign on the last weekend of September. The region of choice makes it tougher still. The Wiregrass is about the farthest you can be from Tuscaloosa while still in the state. It’s also rock-solid Republican territory. Coffee County, through which the bus currently winds, went for Donald Trump with 77 percent of the vote. Covington County, our next stop, is redder still, voting for Trump with 83 percent. Houston County: 72 percent for Trump.
Walt Maddox knows this. He has these percentages and more printed out on the back of his four-page campaign itinerary. So why is he deep in enemy territory and far from a football stadium? Because these votes matter too, and in a race he can only hope to win on the margins, he needs every one.
“You know,” he continues, “somebody might say that coming to Elba, Alabama with 4,000 people, how does that help you? Well, you know, today we’ll likely have the local newspaper here talking about something that’s important to this community. They’ll get to know that, ‘hey, this guy who wants to serve us as governor, he cares about Elba, Alabama.’”
That something important he’s talking about? His plan to expand Medicaid, a major plank in the Maddox campaign platform that he says will improve health outcomes for middle-and-low-income Alabamians and save many rural hospitals from closing.
The bus arrives in Elba, and staff scramble to set up a makeshift press conference at the recently-shuttered Elba General Hospital. It’s one of a dozen closed hospitals Maddox argues could have been saved if Alabama had gone along with the Affordable Care Act’s plan to entice states to expand their Medicaid coverage.
“So we wanted to come by Elba today and highlight another community hospital closing,” Maddox says to a small crowd of supporters. The local newspaper is here, and Social Media Director Scott Hardy is broadcasting live on Facebook.
“It is more than doors being shuttered. It’s the fact that this community of 4,000 people has lost access to health care. It means this region is losing that peace of mind – the ability to know that if something happens, there is health care right around the corner.
“We’re going to expand Medicaid on day one, hour one. And communities like Elba across the state that are holding on by a thread can have peace of mind that our administration is going to be working towards a better health care plan for Alabama.”
With that, he wraps the press conference telling supporters he hopes they can still make it home for the ‘Bama kickoff. Staffers strike the podium and signs, loading them back into the cargo holds for the next stop while Maddox answers a few questions from Ferrin Cox, longtime publisher of The Elba Clipper.
Maddox is passionate about the Medicaid expansion issue. He’s determined to persuade even skeptical conservatives that he’s right. Talking on the bus later, I shared an anecdote about a friend who, having learned I was interviewing Maddox today, asked me what he was running on.
“Well, his two biggest issues are a lottery and expanding Medicaid,” I relayed off the top of my head.
Without even noticing the lottery part, which I’m confident he supports, my friend went directly to criticizing Medicaid as a wasteful government program.
That’s a swing voter, I explained to Maddox. Can you persuade a generally conservative public that expanding Medicaid makes sense?
“You know, we will ultimately know on election day. That will be the great test of this,” Maddox said. “But I believe it’s an issue we have to talk about.
“And let me say this: there is no doubt we need to improve efficiencies in all of state government. I know as mayor, I worked very hard to reduce inefficiencies in the City of Tuscaloosa. We’re one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, and yet, go look at my budget from 2007 to 2019.”
Here come the numbers again.
“Fifty nine percent of my budget this year was personnel. In 2007 that was 60 percent. In 2007, debt was four percent of our budget. Now it’s five percent, and that’s after the tornadoes. As an administrator I would be very excited about that.”
I think that, if you let him, he would talk about budgets and percentages and efficiencies all day. But the wonk in him eventually gives way to the wordsmith to sum up his Medicaid argument.
“So we’ll go on parallel tracks. Because Elba doesn’t have time and Haleyville doesn’t have time and LaFayette doesn’t have time. It’s parallel tracks: use the expansion and we’ll also go and look for efficiencies.”
Maddox argues that increased taxes won’t be needed for Medicaid expansion. He says matching funds from the federal government and new revenues from taxing existing casinos will cover the costs.
“That’s just not me”
Maddox casts himself as a fresh, moderate, next-generation Democrat who wants to focus on “things that matter” rather than the wedge issues that tend to dominate modern campaigns.
Maddox proposes increasing funding for education through a state-run lottery, improving infrastructure through funding raised by increasing the gas tax, and, of course, increasing access to health care by expanding Medicaid. He talks about these planks at every stop.
His campaign was quick to self-define Maddox on the wedge issues of abortion and gun rights, two litmus tests for many Alabama voters. His very first general election campaign commercial touted his pro-life and pro-gun rights views. Yet, Maddox does not support a statewide ballot initiative pushed by the pro-life community to establish the right to life in the Alabama Constitution. He’s also endorsed by Moms Demand Action, a group advocating stricter gun controls.
These distinctions offer just enough daylight for a wedge, and Republicans have worked diligently to drive it in. Ivey, who is endorsed by National Right to Life and the National Rifle Association, has hammered Maddox on these topics, attempting to paint him as a liberal more in line with national Democrats.
Maddox told me he sometimes worries that these hot topics and the volatile national political environment distract from the issues he wants to discuss.
“Sometimes, you know, there are those on the consultant side of the campaign that say, ‘you need to be more flashy, you need to be on the attack, you need to hit those hot button issues.’ But that’s just not me.”
It might not need to be him. On his team of staff and consultants, Maddox has some of the sharpest scythes in the Democratic tool shed.
The campaign includes many young and energetic staffers who have been with Maddox for some time. Campaign Manager Madolyn Kirby has been with Maddox through his last two campaigns for mayor. Director of Field Operations Will Dodd came on in August 2017. He keeps the bus tour moving and manages Maddox’s hour-by-hour schedule as body man.
Communications Director Chip Hill is a veteran of the Folsom Administration and more than a dozen Democratic campaigns. Never shy at trading barbs, Hill is known for his ability to work the media and spar with the opposition.
General Consultant Joe Perkins is a legendary Democratic operative long feared by Republicans who wind up in his crosshairs. Founder of the Matrix polling and opposition research group, Perkins loves winning and hates leaving fingerprints. His work alongside longtime Alabama Education Association head Paul Hubbert preserved Democratic power in the Alabama Legislature long after Republicans turned much of the South red.
The itch to be aggressive would eventually win the day weeks later when the campaign would propagate claims that Ivey suffered a “mini-stroke” on a 2015 trip to Colorado.
Maddox would accuse Ivey and her staff of covering it up by silencing a state trooper. Ivey says she never had a stroke, just altitude sickness that led to a brief hospitalization, and her doctor would say she never showed signs of stroke. She and her staff would emphatically deny any charge of a cover up, calling Maddox’s gambit a “desperate false attack.”
The Maddox campaign is in a tough spot. Without a game-changing moment to alter the trajectory of the race, Ivey will likely win easily. But attacks deemed too personal can backfire, as one of Ivey’s GOP primary opponents learned.
Back on the bus and headed to Florala, the furthest Maddox will go in criticizing Ivey is to point out that she refuses to debate him.
“We do have an advantage in that we’re running against an opponent that has chosen not to engage the voters directly. I believe that in and of itself sends a very clear message to voters about the differences between the two candidates.”
Top of the Ticket
One theme that emerges early in the day and builds throughout is just how important Maddox’s candidacy is to down-ballot Democratic candidates and party faithful.
Tabitha Isner, running for Congress in Alabama’s 2nd District, traverses much of the same terrain as Maddox today, sharing the stump with him at meet-and-greets in Enterprise and Troy.
Democratic candidates for State House around the Wiregrass eagerly await the Maddox bus pulling into town. Joanne Whetstone, running in House District 90, and Joel Lee Williams, running in House District 89, are on hand at their designated stops to cheer the top of the ticket and piggyback on the enthusiasm and media attention that comes from the Maddox tour.
In Dothan, about 30 party volunteers pack Maddox’s new campaign headquarters to meet the candidate and perhaps grab a selfie. They are here to be energized by a Maddox pep talk, soft chocolate chip cookies that really are addicting, and the brief relief of air conditioning before returning to their door-knocking duties.
About an hour north in Troy, 40 local Democrats are chit-chatting in a Holiday Inn Express conference room as the bus pulls in. Candidates push yard signs, campaign literature, stickers and t-shirts on the crowd, though most of the loyal Democrats appear to be well-stocked already.
It’s Williams’ job to introduce the featured guest and he’s pumped. Maybe it’s the sugar cookies and sweet lemonade, or the “Rocket Man” we can hear from the hotel hallway, but Williams is excited and proud to be a Democrat.
“I have the distinct honor to introduce you to the next governor of the State of Alabama!” he crows.
It’s energizing to have the top of the ticket swing through Troy, Williams tells me. It helps local Democrats who have “gone into hiding” to come out and be proud to support the ticket.
“It gives us credibility for a guy who has a shot at winning to be right here helping us. One reason he’s helping us is because his shot of winning is that much better when we have a shot to win.”
Williams is running against Republican Wes Allen, who is currently the local probate judge. It’s his second straight attempt at running for State House. In 2014 he lost to State Rep. Alan Boothe by just 84 votes.
“Every vote I get is probably a vote for Tabitha and for Walt, and vice versa. If we can just get people who are Democrats to say they are Democrats and not recoil and go into hiding, we can win,” he says.
Leading the top of the Democratic ticket is a responsibility Maddox embraces. At every stop, he makes sure to mention the down-ballot candidates by name and say nice things about them.
“Everywhere I go in this part of the state, there’s Tabitha,” Maddox says of Isner, the congressional candidate. “And she’s working incredibly hard for all the right reasons, and that’s to make a difference.”
“Heather, we are proud of you and I’m proud to be on your ticket,” Maddox tells Secretary of State candidate Heather Milam. “And Donna Smalley – wow,” he says of the Supreme Court candidate, a four-feet-ten ball of energy who gave a rousing speech before. “And that goes for Robert Vance as well.” Vance is running for Supreme Court Chief Justice, but is not in attendance.
“Hey Joel, I have to run,” Maddox tells his excited host, and it’s time to load up the bus.
It’s almost dusk when we pull out of Troy headed north on Highway 231. The team is tired and quiet. The Auburn game has just started but is in a lightning delay, not that anyone from this Tuscaloosa-heavy team was eager to watch it. They barely got to enjoy Alabama’s latest shellacking of an opponent earlier today. Maddox sneaks bits and pieces of the UAB game on his laptop, and the Blazers prevail. Maddox played defensive line for UAB back in the 90s, though he admits he didn’t exactly play much.
One clever staffer grabbed a quick burger before the bus left Troy, and it smells delicious. The rest of us are left to the sustenance of Slim Jims and Golden Flake cheese crackers.
I’m not sure if Maddox has eaten all day, but for some trail mix and an apple or two.
“He’s like that,” Will Dodd tells me. “He eats like a bird and I’m not sure how he doesn’t pass out.”
There’s one more stop on today’s schedule, a rally in Union Springs. At the moment, the most appealing part about the destination was the promise of hot dogs. Little did we know the excitement ahead.
Union Springs is an old, picturesque southern town in Alabama’s Black Belt. It is majority African-American and by far the most Democratic area Maddox will visit today.
Also unlike the other visits, Maddox and his team don’t have to do all the work. When the bus slows to a stop in front of the Bullock County Courthouse, a celebration awaits.
We are jolted by the unexpected and satisfying sound of a marching band playing “Louie Louie,” the familiar staple of high school bands. But it’s not a high school band or even a junior high band, but a locally organized children’s group called “Chilly’s Ice Cold Band.”
It’s like something straight out of The Music Man and plenty to pump the team up for this one last visit. Maddox would later invite Chilly and the band to play his inauguration, if and when.
Inside Pizzazz by Nazz, the banquet hall down the street, local Democratic candidates and supporters are packing in to get the festivities started. This is a rally – an old fashioned one meant to inspire local Democrats, increase voter registrations, and recruit volunteers.
It’s also ostensibly a reminder to all Democrats, lest they be tempted by any random Republican, to vote “Straight Ticket Democrat.”
Most every Democratic candidate that will appear on the ballot is here, and it’s Bullock County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Ron Smith’s job to introduce them. He had tried to cheer equally for all, but he’s saved some gusto for his headliner.
“If he can do what he did for Tuscaloosa, I do believe, my brothers and sisters, he can do it for the State of Alabama,” Smith says yielding the floor.
Maddox reads his audience well, sensing they have come to interact and cheer, not just nod along. He riffs on a series of grievances laid out by previous candidates.
“We have some of the highest residential power rates. Is that right?”
“That ain’t right,” the crowd provides.
“We are one of the most restricted states when it comes to the opportunity to vote. Is that right?”
“That ain’t right!”
“When it comes to our court, it seems to monolithic in its decisions and lacks diversity. Is that right?”
“That ain’t right!”
“No, that ain’t right,” Maddox says, “and tonight you’ve heard from a slate of candidates that’s going to go to Montgomery and make it right.”
It’s the longest speech of the day by far. He’s hitting his marks, familiar themes like Medicaid expansion and passing an education lottery, but he’s preaching, not promoting. The congregation is convinced, and Maddox has picked up a few more believers.
It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from Union Springs to Tuscaloosa and the bus is flying down the road. The team is tired after a long day and unwinding by listening to music, scrolling through Instagram, or watching College Gameday Final.
The sun has long set and the blinds are drawn. Maddox is back at his laptop, catching up on emails. There are questions about the City of Tuscaloosa budget, so he’s back in the numbers. But not for long. He walks to the back of the bus to thank his team and cut up with them a little. I’ve been on these buses before – there’s really nothing like being able to enjoy a few moments of camaraderie with a candidate you admire, and that’s evident by the smiles in the back.
“We’ll make a stop at a gas station if anybody would like a drink,” he announces. “Todd, what’s your drink of choice?”
I told him I would not refuse a Miller Lite tall boy right about now. There were no Millers to be had, but Will let me have a snap of Old Forrester and we all leaned back, exhausted.
“See, we’re Democrats. We can do that,” Maddox said.
“You can write that.”