By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
House District 47 is an open seat now that longtime State Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia) decided to run for Jefferson County Commission.
Williams lost in the primary, in no small part due to being indicted as part of a State House bribery scheme. Williams maintains his innocence and many believe his charges will ultimately be dropped. The district swung in favor for U.S. Sen. Doug Jones during the special election last year, which makes for an interesting race.
The two candidates vying for the position are Republican David Wheeler, who was Alabama Power’s Director of Accounting, Finance and Regulatory services and Democrat Jim Toomey, the former Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Loyal American Life Insurance Company.
Wheeler has been a part of the Alabama Republican party for a long time and served as treasurer of the party and past chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. Yet, Toomey says the few years of Republican politicians coming under indictments and the ascent Sen. Doug Jones gives him a lift.
District 47 is one of the southern districts in Jefferson County that sits just beneath Birmingham. It contains the city of Hoover and parts of Vestavia Hills and, as of the 2010 census, contains around 48,011 citizens.
In the 2016 election, Jefferson County as a whole went to Hillary Clinton with 51.6 percent of the vote and Donald Trump with 44.3 percent. The precincts surrounding District 47 generally went to Trump, except for one precinct near Hoover that went 63 percent for Clinton and just 32 percent for Trump.
In the 2014 election, Jack Williams won the house seat with 72.7 percent of the vote against Democrat Salvatore Bambeinelli with 27.2 percent of the vote.
Cash on hand: $86, 977.84
Amount raised in August: $4,370.00
Cash on hand: $21, 019. 78
Amount raised in August: $5,392.57
David Wheeler is retired from his long career at Alabama Power in various positions in the Accounting, Finance, Planning and Budgeting Departments. He was appointed to the University of Montevallo Board of Trustees by Gov. Bob Riley in 2008 for a term ending in 2020 and he currently serves as Chair of the Personnel Committee and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee.
Wheeler has also been committed to the Republican party in Alabama by being the Treasurer for the party and past Chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party.
He wants his voters to know, though, that he is not running in order to start a new career but just wants to do whats right by his voters.
“I am a retired business man, so I’m not going down to Montgomery to start a new career. I’m going down there to solve problems,” Wheeler said. “I favor terms limits. Part of our problem is that without term limits, the people who are elected are more concerned about getting reelected than they are about solving problems. I think that if term limits are good for the governor and lieutenant governor then they ought to be good for the legislature. I think that will force people to address these problems rather than kicking them down the road.”
Wheeler told Alabama Daily News that he is “guardedly optimistic” about his chances to win the district. He knows after seeing the results of the December special election that he may have more of a battle to win the district than before.
He does not think that the situation with Williams has negatively impacted his chances of winning, though and says he has always been outspoken about fighting corruption in Alabama politics. He said he was one of the first people to call for former speaker Mike Hubbard and Governor Robert Bentley to step down.
“Republicans as a whole have had more than their fair share of corruption charges, and I need to go down there and try and help clean that up,” Wheeler said. “I’m not for weakening ethics laws, if anything we need to strengthen them and I’m an advocate for that.”
When it comes to the issues facing Alabama, he says that his main concern is tackling the budget.
“My passion is trying to solve the budget problems we’ve got. Every year there seems to be a new short fall or a new problem that we just keep kicking the can down the road where we find some one time money to fix it then but really, we need to solve this problem long term. I’m not sure there is any single silver bullet out there, but I think we need to put everything out there on the table,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler believes that this election, since there are a good amount of new candidates in the pool, it is a unique opportunity to make a drastic change for the better in Alabama politics.
“If we’re ever going to change the mindset that’s in Montgomery, it needs to happen in these next four years. We’re about to have the largest turnover in the legislature since about 1974. And the guys that are running in the house that I’ve talked to, the new guys, there all running on that we don’t want to accept the status quo. We want to move things forward and do things differently and think out of the box on how we solve some of these issues,” Wheeler said.
One way that Wheeler thinks is an option to address problems in the budget is with a lottery and is in support of voting on a lottery.
“The lottery, I think, is one of those options that we need to look at, not necessarily just to education or just to the general fund, but I think we need to use that additional revenue source to fill any budget gaps that we may have,” Wheeler said.
“I think there’s support for a lottery out there. The devil is going to be in the details, though. We’ve got to put together a clean bill that can’t have any kind of uncertainties in it.”
When it comes to health care, Wheeler first said that the state drastically needs to address the problem of opioid addiction because it is even a problem in upper middle class areas like district 47. When it comes to expanding Medicaid though, he said he would love to support it if there was a way to pay for it.
“Everyone’s for expanding Medicaid, until you start talking about how you fund it. We’re talking about a $300 million short fall currently in the general fund with Medicare at its current level. If you expand that, that gap gets wider and wider and people say that well ‘the federal government is going to pick up the tab’ and yes for a few years they might, but that eventually goes away,
“So everyone is always for healthcare, but if you can show me a way to pay for it or if you’ll support a revenue stream that will support that then I’ll work with you, but right now I just don’t see that.”
Wheeler also said that since he has served on he board of trustees at the University of Montevallo, education, especially higher education, is something that he’s been very close to and understand that college is not meant for everyone.
“We’ve reached a period of time when it’s not necessary for everyone to go to college, everyone isn’t cut out to go to college. And right now with the cost of education going up, you’ve got kids coming out of college with mountains of debt and they can’t find jobs. But I’ve been told with that right certifications whether it be with welding or HBAC, these young people can have great careers that will sustain them throughout their life,” Wheeler said.
When it comes to school chose, Wheeler prefers it be dealt with at a local level and does not want to keep taking money out of the education fund.
“What we’ve got to do is get the legislature out of dictating what schools can do. Things like this A-F score card, serve no purpose at all and it’s detrimental to public education. We’ve also got to stop stealing money from the education trust fund, we need to be funding more rather than taking money out of it,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler also thinks that the infrastructure problems have gone on for far too long and is willing to consider a raise in the gas tax to create more revenue for the infrastructure budget.
“I think our infrastructure is in a crisis situation. You don’t have to even do a lot of driving in an urban area like this to see what bad shape the roads and bridges are in. We’re going to have to have 21st century infrastructure to support a 21st century economy. We need to look at what sources of revenue would help this, and if the gas tax is the answer then I think we need to look at that, but we also need to look at it broadly as well,” Wheeler said.
Jim Toomey served for 40 years as the Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Loyal American Life Insurance Company in Mobile and as a Divisional Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Protective Life Insurance Company in Birmingham.
He explained that one reason he decided to run now was because he is retired and won’t be divided between his actual job and properly serving the people of district 47.
“I’m running now, well for one reason, because I can, because I am retired. I don’t see how anyone can run for this job when they already have a job. But I’m running because I see dysfunction and bipartisan politics in Montgomery and I believe I have the skills to work with people on both sides of the isle to move Alabama in a positive direction,” Toomey said.
Toomey believes that people are willing to overlook party lines in his district and vote for the best candidate, but also sees voters aligning more and more with Democratic ideals ever since the December special election.
“I think the special election with Doug Jones showed there is a blatant demand for more democratic ideas, and as Doug Jones said, people want to talk about more kitchen table issues. People want to hear about and talk about issues, they don’t want to hear about things that don’t matter to our economy and to our well-being, like the 10 commandments and confederate monuments,” Toomey said.
When asked if he is confident about his chances of winning the district, he said he thinks he has a “legitimate chance of winning.”
“The best predictor of the future is from the past, so in the special election with Doug Jones – and I’m no Doug Jones and there is no Roy Moore in this election – but I do know that Doug Jones won this district by 22 points, which is a big margin. So I don’t want use the word confident. Anything can happen in a political race but I’m as confident as I can reasonably be.,” Toomey said.
Toomey, like Wheeler, also believes that there needs to be a bigger priority to adequately funding schools.
“As in every district I believe, adequate funding for education is an issue. We have to prepare our student for 21st century jobs and it’s hard to do that when we’ve had eight straight years of budget cuts to our education budget,” Wheeler said. “I believe we should focus our funds and our actions on shoring up traditional public schools instead of creating a solution that benefits a very few while reducing our resources for very many.”
He also spoke on the education lottery which he says there is enough interest from the Alabama public that the citizen’s should be allowed to vote on it.
Toomey does not share the same views on the issue of Medicaid expansion though and thinks that the state needs to go forward with the expansion because it will pay for its self.
“One of my top priorities is accepting the Medicaid expansion. It pays for its self and as a matter of fact I believe it is an outstanding economic development program if accepted. We’ve lost 10 rural hospitals in the last eight years and with that a lot of jobs. And I believe that if Medicaid is expanded then there is a strong possibility that those 10 hospitals will return. We also get a 10 to 1 money return on the money we put up. So from a business standpoint and I am a former business person, it’s just a no-brainer to accept the expansion,” Toomey said.
Ethical leadership is another major concern for Toomey.
“Alabama has had more than its fair share of corruption in its public officials and this particular district. The guy that currently holds this seat was arrested by the FBI and indicted several months ago on federal corruption and bribery charges,” Toomey said.
“So ethical leadership in this district is important. The District 47 voters are going to get an honest day’s worth out of me. And I’ll make sure every day that I make them proud that they voted for me.”
Toomey is in favor at looking at a possible raise for the gas tax as well and says it could be a fair way of obtaining more money for infrastructure problems.
“I do support raising the gas tax to address our infrastructure issues. I don’t know a whole lot of other ways to get funding for infrastructure other than the gas tax, you just can’t do it without money. And we’re talking about roads, so that tax sounds like it would be an appropriate tax.
“Rather than having a negative impact on people who are not using the roads, so I think that’s an appropriate tax to raise,” Toomey said.
Similar to Wheeler’s thinking, Toomey also said that he did not get into politics to start a new life long career, but that he only wants to provide what’s best for the people of district 47.
“I’m not running for this public office to find another job, I want this job . I’ve never run for public office before. The Alabama House is also known as the people’s house and there are 105 of us and I want to represent the people of district 47 to ensure a better future for our children,” Toomey said.
David Wheeler has run newspaper ads in the Hoover Sun and Vestavia Voice. He plans on running radio ads and mailers later in the campaign.
Got any other ideas or tips on interesting races, then contact me, Caroline Beck, on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN or email at [email protected].