By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Recently, we had the pleasure to speak with Representative Patricia Todd (D-Jefferson County). Todd is head of an AID organization in Birmingham, she is a passionate advocate for the rights of her fellow Alabamians. She is a liberal progressive who believes in working with people of all political persuasions to find common ground and understand to benefit all. She is a smart and thoughtful woman who has a lot to say and a reason to say it. This is part one of our conversation.
APR: Lately, we Alabamians have gotten a fair amount of bad press but we always seem to be painted as backwards folks, we are no doubt traditional.
TODD: It is definitely a conservative state, definitely the Bible Belt and people who have lived there all their lives have a very narrow kind of perspective about the world. You find people who come here who have lived in other areas or internationally and they have a far broader perspective and are usually a lot more accepting of people who are different.
And the other thing about being in politics, which I have been doing this for a long time, but I have become so disgusted and disenchanted with the national discussion about any issue. We have lost the ability to have civil discourse and to be able to sit and talk about a issue and talk about all the opportunities and choices and make good policy decisions or have a discussion where you are trying to build consensus.
I think things we face today are so critical that it demands our full attention and nonpartisanship because everybody in this country wants us to grow and be successful and have thriving communities where you can find jobs and have great education. You know, everybody wants that but it does take work. You can’t keep drawing the line in the sand and saying, “Well, you are of the other party so I don’t want you to get any credit and I may have to keep these secrets to myself and use them later.” We should be beyond that.
APR: You would hope, on the website is a one and half hour interview with Artur Davis, no matter what your feelings are of Artur, I think he is a very smart man.
TODD: Oh absolutely!
APR: One of the things that he said was that because the Democratic Party had been in power so long, and really only ruled by a few people, in his mind Joe Reed and Paul Hubbert, he felt that it had run out of ideas. And if the only idea that you have is that we are going to give you bingo and take more money from gambling interests then sooner or later people are going to stop voting for you. Most people in our state are more conservative, so Democrats are going to have to tell people what they are going to do for them. Tell them what they will do differently than Republicans.
TODD: Well, yes. You are absolutely right. Of course, I believe that the two-party system is completely broken. I think it is the reason that Congress gets locked up. I mean it costs us so much in this divisiveness that we have created where you have to be on one of two sides of an issue. Our country and our opinions are far greater than two options. I think that is why you have a lot more people saying that they are independent who will look at the ballot and vote for both democrats and republicans…if we can even get them to the polls.
The majority of people who are eligible to register to vote, are not. I don’t know what that percentage is, but it is 25 to 30 percent, I would think. So, that automatically decreases the amount of people engaged. And then you have people who are even willing to go register to vote, and then you have the people who are interested enough to go to the ballot that day. We have all that data, we have tracked every election. It is heartbreaking and the fact that we are still so divisive, it’s either you are for or against it and it is never that simple.
APR: You are right, but don’t you think that politicians paint things in that light simply because they don’t think that the voting public is paying that much attention anyway?
TODD: Well, I think they are trying to appease a group, either the folks that elected them, or people that they are getting money from. I am not saying that all legislators are like that. There are some that really want to make change. But it is on a spectrum where some people, like myself, are going to speak the truth are going to work with either party. I try to listen to the opposition, think about options that might be better that we can all live with and work to make that happen. I don’t think about, “Oh, gosh, this is going to cost me votes?” or, “Oh, gosh, I’m not going to get that money again from ALFA,” or “Oh, I may not be re-elected if I don’t do this, that or the other.” I just don’t think that way.
APR: Well, then you are very different than many politicians I know.
TODD: I know. I just think about, I have a lot of faith in the American people and the people from Alabama. I think we all know that we could be better. I think lots of people are frustrated with the lack of leadership or vision. We still have the racism issue here and it does make a difference when certain decisions are made on both sides.
It has gotten to the point where when people talk about an issue it is more about them. They think more about “how it helps me” instead of stepping back and looking at it from a community perspective.
APR: Right, but you are fighting human nature, don’t you think? To do things in our self interest is sort of primal.
TODD: Yes, it is. But, here we are in the Bible Belt where the Christian faith teaches you that you should go out and do good for others. So, this is an interesting thing to me that we have so many people who, the churches are packed on Sunday morning, but yet they leave that church and then, “Its all about me.”
APR: I wouldn’t disagree. Do you think that the retirement of Mr. Hubbert and Dr. Reed is going to make a difference in the party or has too much credit been given to them? Do they really have the power that people like Bradley Byrne and Artur Davis say that they do or had?
TODD: Yes. They were the major donor to the party. Now, let’s remember that Dr. Reed is leaving AEA but he is not giving up his position up within the party. He will still be vice-chair for minority affairs and that is where he really controls things. I don’t know who would succeed him but I do know that his sons are very engaged in that as well.
Don’t get me wrong. I think our party has done a far better job than the Republican Party, obviously in the diversity of who we represent because we are diverse. We have black, white, yellow, gay, straight, conservative, liberal whereas Republicans really don’t have that.
APR: Yes, I will say that the Democrats are more diverse. But I also think that there are plenty of open-minded people who vote under the GOP banner.
TODD: Well, I think that there are Republicans that are more libertarian who believe that it is “government off [our back] and so what you want to do with your personal life is fine.” I hear that a lot from Republicans who feel government is too big.
APR: So, then, how do we begin to heal the divide then if that is the case?
TODD: Well, you go out and start talking about it. You’ve got to allow those kinds of conversations to happen instead of having a debate format. We even set it up to be divisive. Why not just have a conversation.
Do you remember, Bill Moyers, I believe, did this years ago on TV where he got four or five people together and they just talked about an issue? Why can’t we do more stuff like that?
APR: I would love to and one of the ideas for this project is to set up a studio and have a once a week “What’s the Big Idea?” Have people in from all stripes and say, “Okay, this is the big idea this week. What do we do about it?”
TODD: Well, let me tell you something, there is something like that that has happened. The School of Public Health at UAB has a new project called “The Edge of Chaos.” They have taken part of their building and set it up to be like a think tank room. I don’t know if they have certain hours or what, but I am looking into that. They set that to be exactly what we are talking about. You may have a problem and you have people coming in and suggestion solutions and then you are dialoging. That’s exciting to me.
APR: The new session is right around the corner what do you look forward to and how do you feel the atmosphere will be when the new session starts?
TODD: Well, we’ve had a year to sort of look at and see how things were going to be handled having the Republicans in charge. I think everybody will be a little better prepared this session than last. Of course, this is a time when we are all getting our legislation drafted and trying to look at what the budgets are going to be like. Budget hearing will start in January. We’re all focused on that. I think it will be a very smooth session. I think we will have heated discussions about immigration. We have to do something about the budget we can not continue to have this year after year of just barely hanging on and that means you have to look at revenue. Everybody just doesn’t want to do that but we wouldn’t be good policy makers if we didn’t look at that, take it seriously and look at all of the options available to us. We leave a lot of money on the table that other states are collecting. We have a lot of entities in the state that do not pay their full 4 percent sales tax. If we did away with all of those exemptions, not charitable or religious organizations, but everything else, we would have take tax off groceries.
APR: Why do you think there is not a will to do that?
TODD: Because of people and the “no new tax” pledge. They get stuck there and are unable to negotiate.
APR: I think most people believe that if people or companies aren’t paying their share and there is not a real reason to grant an exemption or that it is a good-old-boy deal or corporate welfare then it is not a new tax, it is closing tax loopholes.
TODD: Yes, but these entities are big, big interest groups that have a lot of money and power in Montgomery. That is exactly why we have the exemptions or the discounted sales tax rate. Every single one you look at, and I have got them all, for example, new cars, when you buy a new car in Alabama you pay 2 percent sales tax. If you go in and buy groceries, it is 4 percent. Now, honestly, which one is more important?
But look at why that is so the automobile association obviously fought very hard to get that discounted sales tax rate and the governor wanted that so that they could recruit new manufacturers into Alabama. I get that. People don’t remember that. The truth is that people don’t make a decision about what car they are going to buy and they can’t even tell you what the sales tax rate is on the car anyway. I have tested this, every group that I have spoken to I have asked two questions, “Can you tell me how much sales tax you paid on the last car that you bought?” Nobody knows. And I said, “Did it make the determination on what car you were going to buy based on sales tax?” “No.” It’s a no-brainer, but people are so afraid that they will get backlash because now it is going to cost me more to buy a car. But you know if we don’t have these kind of dialogs where we can talk about it and somebody come back and say, “Well, maybe we bring that up and leave the rest alone.” But it is things like the food for baby chicks…hello, ALFA…parts for ships…hello, Mobile…. It is so clear to me when I look at this stuff that no wonder we have gotten into this situation.
In part two, Representative Todd go deeper into what she believes needs to come out of the nest legislative session.