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It was pretty jarring to be looking at minimalist houseware and hipster jewelry on perennial can’t-afford-that Website coolhunting.com and suddenly be confronted by an ad for Bradley Byrne. That is all.
Taylor Road Baptist Church. Many candidates for governor. Election? November 2010. Yet, six candidates gathered in a Montgomery Baptist church to court the votes of those who attended the Christian Coalition’s function: Tim James, Robert Bentley, Bill Johnson, Bradley Byrne, Roy Moore, and, the lone Democrat, Artur Davis. This is a straight-ahead account of the evening, including my comments and asides. Kate put a more cynical take over at Toxic Culture.
The man behind me sports a Tim James sticker. He, like Tim James, is from Greenville. He’s a retired tire salesman who knew Tim James’ father, Fob, back when Fob was the governor. Evidently he sold a lot of tires to the state government when Fob was the governor, so he supports Tim, although he concedes that he doesn’t yet know who he’ll vote for 14 months from now.
The event begins at 7:08, likely after all of the candidates agree that additional supporters are unlikely to come pouring in to the 3/4 full church. Andy Hepburn, the pastor of the Taylor Road church, opens with a prayer, thanking God “for Alabama the Beautiful,” where “people are the greatest resource.” He asks for help from God (insultingly, in my opinion) to “improve our skills and decision making,” and then, running out of steam, adds a catch-all: “We thank you for this in night in every other way.”
The moderator for the evening is Chris Brinson, likely somehow related to Randy Brinson, who is the head of Alabama’s Christian Coalition. Alabama’s chapter of the Christian Coalition is noted for being a bit of an outlier, a loose cannon out of step sometimes with the usually on message national group made famous by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. It recently fractured. Young Chris is touted as being a recent grad of law school and that’s pretty much his main accomplishment. He has clerked for two judges! One in Cleveland, which is evidently where he is now. He introduced by Hepburn, who makes unflattering reference to young Chris as being “stubborn” during some water ski lessons of long ago. He notes that Chris’ “greatest dedication is to Lord Jesus Christ,” and Chris makes a sheepish joke about being back home and ready for football season to start. Nobody laughs.
The candidates are introduced. No Kay Ivey for the GOP and no Ron Sparks for the Democrats. Some young people in the audience have Bradley Byrne signs that look terrible. They wave them often when they aren’t texting one another.
The panel of questioners is weird. Ed Nettles is the pastor of Freewill Missionary and was (at some point) voted Gospel Times’ Minister of the Month. Nancy Herring does anesthesiology at Jackson Hospital and lives in Lee County. Todd Russell is some lawyer. Jeremy Walker is another lawyer who was the head of the Montgomery County Young Republicans. Lenora Pate is, well, another lawyer, one who specializes in health care law. She is on something called The Task Force to Strengthen Alabama Families.
The candidates drew numbers and Roy Moore goes first. He is famous for being the judge who defied a court order. He claims to be really into Jesus. He promptly flubs the name of the Taylor Road pastor, trying to thank, “Pastor … um …. Brother Andy … um … Andy Epsen.” (The correct answer is Andy Hepburn). The candidates are flanked by huge TV screens, so it’s interesting that as Moore makes his opening statement, the camera angle on the screens shows Davis and Byrne behind Moore. Most expect them to be the two finalists when this is all sorted out. They share blank expressions as Moore launches into a tirade about state sovereignty.
Moore is cut off mid rant (just as he mentions the phrase vox populi) and really never recovers for the rest of the debate. He is just heating up when Brinson cuts him off. Byrne’s turn. The former head of Alabama’s scandal-plagued two-year college system comes off as folksy after Moore’s performance. He cites the book of Amos and starts talking about how God has set a plumb line for humans (some kind of architectural reference) and how “God put a plumb line in our two year college system.” In a time of fiscal crisis, Byrne says, we must follow the laws of God and man. Sounds like an economic plan!
Davis goes next, the first to actually thank the Christian Coalition, and tells a long anecdote about Wernher Von Braun that seems to stall out. He says that Von Braun’s last words were, “Now, I am an American,” which I find highly unlikely and was unable to confirm despite some serious poking around on Google. He says something about how God has blessed America (take that other countries!) and how, if he is elected, we will also be glad to be an Alabamian.
Tim James goes next and promptly cites Glenn Beck, which ought to tell you plenty. He brags about having build some highway in Baldwin County: “It totally opened up the whole southern part of that county to economic development!” and “We built 13 miles in 13 months! That’s a mile a month!”
James takes the novel idea of “wanting to put my business ideas to work on government.” He suggests tax cuts for small businesses just like the ones given to multi-billion dollar German company, ThyssenKrupp. Because TK and Alabama’s small businesses are so similar and, hey, what good is tax revenue anyway? He is cut off while yelling about the importance of reading.
Bill Johnson is next and declares up front that he is anti-abortion and anti-gay. This gets the biggest applause of the night so far. He bashes Obama for saying that America is not a Christian nation. Johnson went to Afghanistan and Nicaragua to “fight Communism” in the 1980s. Just like Reagan. He says that his time running ADECA has put him in touch with faith-based organizations, but doesn’t say how. I wonder if ADECA has been handing out Katrina rebuilding money to churches. He is the only candidate to plug his website.
Dr. Bentley goes last. He claims that we each owe the government $38,000. He also wants to give tax breaks to small businesses. He likes businesses. He wants to resist the “takeover of health care by the federal government.” This gets bigger applause than Bill Johnson’s anti-gay stuff. He is also anti “cap and trade” and supports the 10th Amendment. He claims to be the only candidate to know how to write a budget. He makes a bad metaphor about how he’d be a good sailor on the ship of state during rocky waters.
First question: Nettles to Byrne: “Do you support the health care reform.” He actually uses the word “the” to describe all five versions of Congressional bills about health care. Byrne does not support “the” health care reform. He says it’s about waste and fraud in Medicaid and Jesus healed people one at a time. He does not like “these so-called systems.” He blames fat people for ruining America’s health care system. Also, there would be fewer health care costs if people would stop having sex outside of marriage. This actually gets applause.
Herring to Artur: What about tort reform? Davis says he doesn’t support caps on damages, but would rather screen out frivolous cases before they get to the damages phase. He then switches to federal health care reform since he is up there and dealing with it all the time. He’s against it. He makes his well-tested, oft-deployed argument about how employer mandates will discourage business growth. He also supports good diets in schools to decrease fat children.
Russell to James: What effect could tort reform have on health costs? James face plants. It’s the worst moment of the night. He supports limits (of some sort) on punitive liability. He is anti-binding arbitration. He supports the right to a jury trial. He says this is a question for elected judges. He’s just a business man. More stammering. Also, he says this isn’t an important issue. He wants to talk about “this awful encroachment,” by which he would also like to harvest some applause for bashing federal health care reform. He goes duck hunting in Canada and he just never sees Americans coming into Canada for health care.
Walker to Johnson: What can you as governor do to make health care more affordable? Well, you see, there are no incentives at all to cut costs currently. None. He claims that the costs of Medicaid have doubled every year for the past 4 years. He takes a bit of a shot at Gov. Riley here (there is a bit of tension since Riley made Johnson step down from ADECA to run for Governor) by bashing the Medicaid commissioner for being unable to state what costs the system faces. His plan is to have some faith-based groups (whatever they may be) partner with the state (somehow) and do things like meals on wheels for Alabama seniors.
Pate to Bentley: What can the governor do to help fund Medicaid and also the General Fund and also what do you think about the Clean Indoor Air Act and also colon screenings? Bentley, who has been a doctor for 34 years (dermatology), gets a good laugh by mocking the question. He promises to “get the government out of the business of medicine.” Whether this means he would ban Medicare and Medicaid and SCHIP is unclear. He claims that forces in D.C. are “pushing single payer,” which is obviously false. He calls Medicaid “an entitlement program.” He says the federal Medicaid money ought to go directly into patient medical savings accounts, which can roll over if not spent. Oh, and lifestyle changes too.
Brinson to Moore: What about this hospital certificate of need debate? “They don’t need those.” Let the free market solve it all, says Judge Moore. If he thinks for-profit hospitals will stay in rural Alabama losing money just because of some sense of civic duty, he doesn’t explain further. He quotes Reagan.
On to education! Herring to Davis: She talked to some teachers for this question. What about No Child Left Behind? He likes accountability. He sounds like he, a federal Congressman, is running against the federal government. This feels awkward. He is pro-charter schools. He says money can be saved in education by cutting costs. Unclear which. He stabs the absent Sparks by bashing gambling as a source of money for schools. He wants to end the feud between K-12 and higher education in Alabama. Good luck with that.
Russell for James: How would you improve K-12 education? “It’s my passion!” He tries to get fired up about this one. He starts turning red(der). In addition to ranting about how great reading is, his big idea is to get old people to volunteer to be tutors for junior high kids. He claims to have spent 10 years thinking about this idea. He touts the oft-touted George Hall school in Mobile. He says that Alabama education will be “the envy of the free world.”
Bill Johnson is asked how he will make college affordable. This reminds me of the question where he was just asked how he was going to make health care more affordable. Do they think Bill Johnson is some kind of store manager who simply must be asked how he plans to slash prices on goods and services he doesn’t control? He says he has a kid starting college and he himself is feeling “sticker shock.” He will encourage citizens to form some kind of cost control panel that will tell those big colleges to cut those high costs. Those new buildings are just too big and too fancy. He mentions PACT for the first time and takes a shot at Alabama State for 22 percent tuition hikes.
(sidebar: This sparks a series of frenzied text messages from the Kay Ivey campaign guy in front of us, who sends Kay Ivey a text message saying (I swear), “Uh oh … Bill Johnson just brought up PACT!!!”)
Walker to Bentley: Is the Alabama curriculum preparing students for the global marketplace? Bentley claims that Alabama has the most difficult curriculum in the United States, sparking snickers from my section. His next sentence is, inexplicably, that the curriculum may also be failing to prepare students for the global marketplace. He then bridges that into health care. Teachers need health savings accounts. He says this will save $100 million. He says this is what Michigan does. He says this will be “like a pay raise” for teachers. I expect that the teacher’s union will not exactly see it this way, since a health savings account is a lot worse than, say, actual health insurance, when you, say, get cancer.
Pate to Moore: What about the moral and legal obligations posed by the PACT collapse? (more VERY frantic typing from the Kay Ivey dude). Moore rambles on. He takes a shot at the AEA. He supports vouchers. There are too many restrictions on firing teachers. Parents should do better. They are “God’s jurisdictional authority in that area.” He brags about helping stop 2003’s Amendment One, which he calls a “3 billion dollar tax hike.” When pressed with a followup on PACT, he says that the state should honor the promises that it made (pay for school for kids) but also that the government is bad at running a business (like a savings account).
Nettles to Byrne: Why do politicians put themselves before kids? Byrne goes left here and admits that there is some government role in public education (“equipping our teachers”). He takes a big shot at Paul Hubbert (“We have let one person dictate policy for far too long”). He says that we must take “our system” back from Hubbert. This gets big applause. He likes charter schools because they provide “choice.” He like reading. It is too hard to fire teachers. If this is the best that the GOP can offer on education, things are not so great for the Republicans on this issue.
On to the economy! Nettles to James: How will you market Alabama to the world? Another face plant. Asking the business guy about economic development should have been an obvious slam dunk. Instead, James goes back to reading. Reading is good. “Government will never replace mommas and daddies.” Phew. That’s a relief! He says dropouts decrease the educational level of the workforce. And see, principals are like football coaches. “I’m jus’ an ol’ Auburn boy,” he says, adding extra twang. He tries to relate firing a public school principal to Auburn’s firing of Tommy Tuberville. Nobody laughs. He then invokes his dad, claiming, bizarrely, that his father, “was the first one to start talking about education 30 years ago.” He is hit with a follow up about how to fire school employees without costly litigation. He triggers an avalanche of laughs with, “Uh … you just do it!” He then claims that, if elected, he will use the power of the office of the governor to (somehow) intervene in every wrongful termination and breach of contract lawsuit.
Herring to Johnson: These new global warming laws hurt small business. How will you help business? Bill Johnson actually says that Alabama is so pro-business that it will ignore federal laws. He says that we need something like the ADO that will help Alabama towns grow their exports. This isn’t a bad idea. He also is the only person all night to acknowledge that Alabama is home to some immigrants. He said those people all have networks in their home countries that (somehow) can be exploited to help Alabama companies export more products.
Russell to Bentley: What sets you apart in your ability to recruit new jobs? Bentley says he is against unions and “card check.” He wants to be like Gov. Riley. He wants more tax breaks.
Walker to Moore: What about unemployment? I like tax breaks for small businesses. He wants to remove a policy that he claims to have been implemented in order to generate 500 billion dollars. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying. The policy? The annual appraisal of property. Moore claims to be able to save the state a TON of money by shifting to once-every-four-years appraisals. Weird.
Pate for Byrne: What about the unemployment trust fund and Riley’s refusal of $100 million in stimulus money for the unemployed? She also tacks on something about how gas tax money can’t be used for public transportation. All of her questions are super long and complicated jumbles of disconnected policy ideas. Byrne says he would provide some training in Chambers County for the KIA plant in Georgia. Evidently this will also help all of Alabama’s other counties too. He says he supported the welding program in Monroe County, to which he adds the dubious claim that this was the first ever technical training program in that county. He says he agrees with Riley’s refusal of the stimulus money because it would have been “federal control” that would have “hurt business.”
Davis from the moderator: What about tax fairness? He doesn’t mention the grocery tax, but he does say you have to look at what makes the economy grow as well as basic fairness. He credits Riley with lifting the income tax trigger from $4,600 a year. He wants a new Constitution. This gets big applause. He cites Jefferson County’s bumbling with their finances as a reason why we need local control. He wants to hold a constitutional convention. He also has the highlight of the night when he draws a line in the sand on the stimulus money, the only issue on which the candidates explicitly disagree. He says (correctly) that taking the money would help part time workers in Alabama, especially women with kids struggling to make ends meet, and this is a moral issue. He even quotes Reagan. It’s the best moment of the night.
Nettles to Johnson: Why don’t minorities trust the GOP? Do you also pledge to keep race out of your campaign? Johnson promises not to “play the race card,” whatever the hell that means. He then proceeds to talk about race, which may violate his pledge. Johnson cites his time on Birmingham’s city council. He was on some Black Belt Commission. He is actually pretty good when he talks about prisons and Katrina relief. Comes off as pretty credible.
Herring to Bentley: What about gambling? An audible groan ripples through the audience. He’s against all gambling. He takes credit for killing all gambling bills when they come to the statehouse. But then he says that he’d like for the state to have a statewide vote on banning all gambling, but he’s “not sure the gambling interests would let that idea pass.” Well, which is it? Does the gambling lobby keep getting whipped at the Legislature or are they so powerful that they can block a statewide referendum on gambling? Bentley then claims that he’d like to even ban all of the Indians from gambling too, which he could not do, even if elected to be the governor.
Russell for Moore: Vague question about “freedom from” versus “freedom to.” This is where it’s clear that Moore has just run out of steam. The old Roy Moore would have gone berserk here, taking the momentum back from the flagging conversation. Instead, he is remarkably sedate and blabs about how he is against special interests.
Byrne says there is no more money for additional prison construction. He suggests increased prison labor so that people will somehow pay their own way through prison. He brags about having run some schooling programs in 12 prison sites. He thinks non-violent offenders might be able to get GEDs and be productive members of society. He is against taxes.
Pate to Davis: What about the 1901 Constitution and special interests and also ethics reform and also what about PAC-to-PAC transfers? Davis is good here: “Corruption is a moral issue” and “When you break the laws, you are also sinning.” He wants to limit campaign contributions. If you get indicted, you should be suspended from your job. This gets quite a bit of applause. He’s very good on this and also on constitution reform. He pledges to travel the state to drum up support for a constitutional convention. He also hits gambling, saying that poor towns in Alabama deserve better than casino jobs.
We left as Tim James is taking what we assume is the last question. He says that government is good at only one thing: killing. He said America has “won most of our wars,” but other than that, government “messes everything up.”