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Interview, Part 1: AG Luther Strange Talks about Staffing, BP, Bingo and Prison Overcrowding

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Recently, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Alabama’s Attorney General Luther Strange.

Strange is entering his second year as AG and we wanted to have a conversation about the work of the last year and the things facing the state in the new year.

Much has changed around the state since Strange has taken office among those in law enforcement there is a renewed confidence in the office of the Attorney General. Luther Strange is a man that quietly exudes trust, confidence and character. His conversation is full, honest and enlightening. Since taking office Strange and his team have face momentous challenges from immigration reform to man-made and natural disasters. On every occasion, Strange has tackled each event with his unmistakable calm and conviction.

APR: Our general idea today, was to let you talk about whatever is on your mind but I know a lot of people want to hear what you are thinking on immigration. Now, you guys have been beaten like rented mules on immigration so, I don’t know if you want to talk about that today.

STRANGE: I do want to talk about that and answer any questions you might have. I can give you kind of the waterfront view here of what all we are doing in terms of priorities.

The first, of course, was to establish a strong team in our executive office which we have done. We have added about half a dozen very bright young lawyers. Many who have clerked for judges and, for example, our solicitor worked on the Supreme Court.

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Really sharp 30-something lawyers that have private firm experience that wanted to come and do public service and then I hope will go back into the private sector and maybe run for office someday or be a judge. This is very important.

We put in place probably the best investigative, white-collar public corruption team in the country, really, with Matt Hart and John Gibbs, two really experienced prosecutors and Tim Fuhrman who was former FBI bureau chief in Mobile/Montgomery and one of his deputies.

Public corruption and white-collar crime is something that I have talked a lot about. We are going to focus on that going forward.  So, personnel and putting together the right team was important. We’ve done that and I am really comfortable that we have a super group.

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And then, of course, the issues.

Starting with the oil spill, that has probably been my top priority in terms of time. The oil spill case against BP. You know, Alabama sued BP. The first thing I did when I came into office was to replace the private law firm that Troy King had hired on a contingency fee basis and brought the case in house. Now, we don’t have to pay any outside legal fees and we can keep the recovery [monies] for the citizens.

The case is being tried in New Orleans in what is called a multi-district litigation case, which are these massive cases with thousands of plaintiffs, private plaintiffs, five states, the United States Government, and eight defendants to manage. They require very special judges in these very special cases. The good news is the judge appointed me to ordain a council for the states so that Alabama has a seat at the table, literally, which gives us a great opportunity through litigation to really make our case. So that is really good.

The amount of money that we could possibly recover is very high. I don’t have an estimate but it is very significant because you’ve got economic damages to our economy and you have environmental damages to the state. And so, we are working very hard on that case. And that is going very well so far.

The trial is scheduled for February 27. Sometime between now and then there will be discussions about trying to settle this case. There are a lot of people in the legislature that want to get some of the money from this settlement to fill in holes and so you will just have to stay tuned on that and see how it goes.

Our job is to focus on the trial. The Governor’s office, Cooper Shattuck, and the Governor’s team are doing all of the damage analysis, what damages we suffered and all, what the numbers are. The BP case has been a huge issue for us.

APR: Before you took office the matter of Bingo seem to be an everyday topic in the news, what is different now?

We have changed the debate on the gambling controversy. What I did when I came to office was to go to all of the law enforcement in the counties where there is a bingo amendment, a charitable bingo amendment, and I told them all, “Here’s the deal. Slot machines are illegal, period. The games you are operating have to be traditional bingo the way the court defined it in the Cornerstone case, which is the test, and it is a six-point test. Card traditional bingo the way that you and I understand it. And the third thing is, it has to be for a charitable purpose. You can’t pay someone to operate the game. It has got to go to charity.” So we told them all, “Look, we are going to come and investigate your places and we are going to shut you down for not complying but we will allow you to go to court and if you can prove that what you are doing is legal, then you can operate. If you can’t, you are going to be shut down.”

And so, we have taken it off the front pages. It is in court now. We actually have one case pending before the state supreme court that I hope will give us the final answer on these machines that they are illegal and that will help to knock that out. That is where that stands and that has been good because that has been such a controversial issue when I came into office. It really got Bob Riley all tied up in committing resources to that.

APR: One of the things that you are doing that is kind of unique is that you are bringing these cases in house and not farming them out to other law firms.

STRANGE: That’s right. We have reduced our legal bills by a very significant amount. The number of lawyers we hired are doing the work they were doing outside for a lot more money than we are paying now to do it with our own staff. We have saved an awful lot of money there. Plus, we got rid of the task forces and that saved an awful lot of money, too.

Of course, we are working on some of the other legislation that came out of the last session. The redistricting, for example, of the school boards and the congressional districts. We got that approved in record time by the courts and justice department. So that is good. Now we’ve got upcoming the legislative redistricting. That is going to be tougher I think because it typically is, but I like what we have done so far.

We are in court now on the PAC-to-PAC and the Dues Checkoff legislation that goes after AEA. And we have been basically winning those cases. There is one part of it…this idea of what is electioneering. This view we have of AEA is this, I think that when they say they are “educating their voters” they are basically campaigning for or against somebody. And they will tell you that they are just informing them of the issues. I think, given their history, that it is very clear that they are telling people how to vote. But that issue is going to be before the state supreme court and hopefully we will get an answer from them soon.

APR: I just recently did a story on our prisons and the overcrowding situation and how sentencing reform is being talked about as possible factor in relief. The story received a lot of traffic and people are talking about sentencing reform these days.

There was some interesting testimony before the federal Sentencing Commission pointing out that in effect the mandatory minimums have had some a counter effects on the prisons. There is a sense that the line of justice on this has really gone the opposite way. Now we are kind of uniformly punishing folks and the punishment is not fitting the crime. Many are saying that we have lost the sense of just desserts.

STRANGE: Yeah, I do. I actually was on a panel at the Federalists Society Meeting in Washington, DC, about a month ago. We talked about that with Judge Clement who is on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and other experts from around the country. I probably was invited because of Judge [Bill] Pryor, who was my predecessor. Bill was particularly interested in truth in sentencing that was an issue that he was really concerned about so I have become familiar with it and I have been working with Cam Ward [Senator Cam Ward is Chairman of the Joint Commission on Prisons] on that. I read your article I think it captured where we are with the prisons being at 190 percent capacity or more.

We are incarcerating a lot of people and the question is are we really being fair to victims who expect people to serve the time that they have been sentenced to? Particularly with serious crimes, are we being fair to victims and are we truly going after and punishing the bad guys? Are we giving the people who maybe have a chance to take back their lives a chance to do that?

The way I break it down, and I have talked to Cam about this because I am going to work closely with the legislature on it, I think that there are three areas. There is one area which is the death penalty, we have lots of people on death row and they are there for long periods of time probably an average of well over 20 years. That is a very long time for victims to have to endure.

Texas and some other states have found a way to expedite that process insuring that people have all of their rights of appeal, no innocent person is ever executed, all of those kinds of things. So you want to be tough on the worst of the worst and I think there is a way to expedite the sentence for these crimes.

And the second area is, are you going to sentence the really bad guys to the sentence that they are actually given? That is the truth in sentencing part. Somebody commits a terrible, heinous crime and they get sentenced. The victims want to know when are they going to get out, in 10 or 20 years, or 3 years?

The third area, and this is probably the toughest area, Cam and I have talked a lot about this, what can you do with the people who can possibly be rehabilitated? Or who are caught up in drugs? Or have done something that if they had been given the right discipline and possibly treatment they could be salvaged and saved from a life in prison?

What I am interested in looking at, and I have been doing this, is to find out what works in practice. I actually had the former attorney general of Virginia come to Montgomery to talk to us about that. And I have met with some key people from the Texas system. They have been able to do a lot of work in this area. Those states are strong on crime, strong on enforcement, tough on crime but they also have limited resources and we are looking at their results.

There is another area that maybe you and Cam talked about that I am interested in learning more about and that is this risk assessment process. Risk assessment has become almost a science and if you have the right people accessing risks of various offenders when they come into the system and at every stage throughout the system of prison until the time they are released. There is a pretty good statistical science now that can tell you pretty accurately what they need and how likely they are to re-offend. Right now we are not doing very much of that. But if it is something that can be implemented you are more assured that you are going to do the right thing with some of these low-level offenders.

One of the things that makes this whole thing complicated is, there is a good example that happened about six months ago. An officer was killed in Anniston, his name was Justin Sollohub, he was just 26 years old. He was chasing a guy around the corner in the projects. The guy he was chasing was a pretty well-known druggie, he chased him around the corner and got shot and killed. The guy [had previously been released] after a very short-term sentence for dealing drugs. Now, he had never killed anybody but he was released. A situation like that makes people have to say, “Well, you know, you can’t be releasing these people because you don’t know what they are capable of doing.” That is a tough thing and that is why it is going to take working with our judges and with our prosecutors to make sure everybody is on the same page including the victims groups to come up with a system that works.

APR: As you know my wife Susan helped facilitate a couple of half-way homes in St. Clair county while we were there. While there were problems, these were women, who are much easier to manage than men in these situations, but there was success among a few of those women and really success among a handful of them. So there is a reason to look at this smaller community situations like this.

She worked very closely with [District Attorney] Richard Minor, [Circuit Court] Judge Phil Seay, and [Circuit Court] Judge Jim Hill. These men knew a lot of these offender, they knew their family, they knew the background and they were able to make some assessments that “this one” would be okay, and “this one” wouldn’t. Since so many of these mandatory minimums are federal, how do we get, or can we get more control in the hands of the local DA and the local judges.

STRANGE: I think you have to have the judges’ support. A judge would have to buy into this because if they don’t and they are being mandated by someone from Montgomery or whatever, they are not going to be happy and it is not going to get anywhere. So, that’s where, I think, you have to have a buy-in from the judges. They want to protect their discretion because of just exactly what you said, they understand, by and large, who these people are and where they come from (what part of the county), what their lives are like and how bad the crime was. And, so I think, that any solution has to go in that direction. Where it gets to be tough is you cannot have some racial disparity or doing favors for friends and all that. At some point, you have just got to rely on the system to work.

In the next part of our conversation, the Attorney General talks about the effects of the state’s law enforcement and prosecution of crime, his first year in office and immigration.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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CDC confirmed expanded “close contact” definition to Alabama officials in August

It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website.

Eddie Burkhalter

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New federal guidance on how a person is determined to have been in close contact with someone infected by COVID-19 won’t impact how Alabama works to mitigate the disease, said the state’s top health official. That’s because the state was already aware of the expanded definition in August before the change was made public last week.

It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website when it was giving more precise definitions to at least one state health department and receiving questions from public health officials about the definition.

The delay in announcing the change is raising questions about how state health officials nationwide have been determining the public’s possible exposure to the deadly disease and if contact tracing and mitigation efforts will be made more time- and resource-intensive with the more inclusive definition in place.

The CDC on Wednesday expanded the definition of “close contact” to mean a person can be at risk of contracting COVID-19 if that person is within six feet of an infected person for a period of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

The previous definition stated a person should quarantine if they were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Alternately, in other areas of the CDC’s website, the language stated “a total of 15 minutes” in the definition of close contact.

“What they changed their definition to is something they had verbally confirmed to us months ago, and we have always been using that definition,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR on Friday.

Harris said a support team from the CDC was in Alabama in July as the Alabama Department of Public Health was preparing plans to reopen schools. Harris said the question was asked of CDC staff because his department was getting questions on the definition of close contact from school officials.

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APDH staff took the definition then of “a total of 15 minutes” to mean that there could be several exposures over a period of time equaling that 15 minute threshold, so they asked CDC to clarify that assertion.

“When those folks were here we asked the CDC people directly. Can you confirm for us what that means, and they said, it adds up to a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” Harris said. “And we even got somebody to commit to that in an email somewhere.”

Melissa Morrison, CDC’s career epidemiology field officer working at the ADPH in Montgomery, in an Aug. 13 email to ADPH’s director of the office of governmental affairs, quotes a statement Morrison attributes to her CDC colleague, CDC public health advisor Kelly Bishop. Harris shared the email with APR.

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“Yes, I did get a response from the contact tracing team. The 15 minutes for a close contact is cumulative, and they said ‘The time period for the cumulative exposure should start from 2 days before the cases’ illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection date) until the time the patient is isolated,” Morrison quotes Bishop in the email.

In the August email, Bishop goes on to say, as attributed by Morrison, that “as of now there is no established upper limit on the time period (i.e. 48, 72 hours etc).”

The CDC’s expanded definition was reflected in an Aug. 20 statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“The 15-minute time is a cumulative period of time. For example, a close contact might be within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 5 minutes each at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. This is a standard based on guidance from the CDC,” the statement reads.

In an email to APR on Friday, Harris said he’d discussed the matter with Morrison on Friday who “emphasized that the guidance this week from CDC was NOT a change but rather a clarification. They simply used the MMWR corrections story as a convenient time to make the point.”

Harris was referring to a CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released Wednesday that detailed findings by Vermont health officials showing that a prison worker contracted COVID-19 during an eight-hour shift in which the worker had 22 close contacts with an infected inmate totaling 17 minutes.

The CDC in statements to numerous news outlets, and to APR, cite that Vermont study in connection to Wednesday’s definition change.

“That’s kind of why they said it out loud,” Harris said of the study and the Wednesday announcement. “But I have to say, when I saw that updated guidance I thought, ‘I can’t believe anybody ever thought otherwise.’”

Different pages on the CDC’s website on Saturday defined close contact as both being “a total of 15 minutes or more” and “a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period,” confusing the matter further, and numerous other state health departments had not yet updated their websites Saturday to reflect the CDC’s expanded definition.

A CDC spokesman in an email to APR on Wednesday noted the Vermont study on the prison worker and said “CDC clarified the amount of time it would take for someone to be considered a close contact exposed to a person with COVID-19.”

“The CDC website now defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Previous language defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a confirmed case,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley told APR by email Wednesday.

Pauley didn’t respond to APR’s question on Friday asking why the CDC waited until Wednesday to update its guidance online, given that ADPH had confirmed the definition of close contact in August. He also didn’t respond to a request to verify the statement Morrison attributed to her CDC colleague in the August email.

“To us, we thought if it says a total, that means you must be adding up smaller amounts to get to 15 minutes, or you wouldn’t use the word total,” Harris said. “When they changed it this week, I don’t know the details of why that happened, but I think, obviously, everybody didn’t have the same message everywhere.”

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UAB’s Department of Epidemiology, told APR on Friday that her understanding prior to Wednesday’s expanded definition was that a contact was defined as someone who was exposed to the COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 min or more at a time and explained that the updated guidance complicates how public health officials will engage in contact tracing.

“This means significant efforts for contact tracing moving forward, in effect needing to identify every person that person came into contact with during the possible exposure timeframe,” she said.

It was unclear Monday how the definition change impacts Alabama’s Guidesafe COVID-19 exposure notification app, which notifies a user if they come into close contact with an infected person. The app was developed by ADPH and University of Alabama at Birmingham, thanks to a partnership between Apple and Google’s combined development of the technology, and alerts users to possible exposure while keeping all users’ identities anonymous.

Sue Feldman, professor of health informatics, UAB School of Health Professions, in a message to APR on Friday said that due to the anonymity of the app, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to update the app to take into consideration the CDC’s expanded guidance.

“We are taking this into consideration for our next update,” Feldman said in the message.

Also unclear is how many other states that have similar exposure notification apps, also using Google and Apple’s technology, aren’t yet using the expanded definition of a “close contact.” Colorado is to roll out that state’s app on Sunday, and according to Colorado Public Radio News the app will notify a user that they’ve been exposed if they come “within six feet of the phone of someone who tested positive for at least ten minutes.”

New York’s exposure notification app also appears to use the old CDC guidance, and will alert users if they come “within 6 feet of your phone for longer than 10 minutes,” according to the state’s website.

The updated definition, which health departments refer to when conducting contact tracing, is likely to have a serious impact on schools, workplaces and other group settings where personal contact may stretch over longer periods of time including multiple interactions.

It greatly expands the pool of people considered at risk of transmission. “It’s easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told The Washington Post. “I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts.”

The clarification comes as cases and hospitalizations are rising both in Alabama and nationwide. Alabama’s 14-day average of cases has increased 41.2 percent over the past two weeks. The percentage of tests that are positive has increased from roughly 13 percent to more than 20 percent over the past 14 days. The U.S. average of new daily infections is now at its highest point of the pandemic, with 481,372 cases reported in a week, according to CNN and Johns Hopkins University.

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Alabama women to Ivey: Support fair processes

Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets.

Josh Moon

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a Coronavirus update Press Conference. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of about a thousand Alabama women takes issue with Gov. Kay Ivey’s recent support of Republican Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and it encourages Ivey and other state officials to instead support fair processes.

Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets. In response, the letter from Alabama women calls the process to nominate Barrett, which is occurring after more than 50 million votes have been cast and in a Senate that is predicted to change from Republican to Democratic control, unfair and “anti-democratic.”

The letter, which doesn’t criticize Ivey or request that she rescind her endorsement of Barrett, asks instead that Ivey and other state leaders honor women by implementing and following fair processes that provide women with equal opportunities.

The full letter is below:

Dear Governor Ivey,

We are a group of women. We are current and future mothers, grandmothers, caregivers, leaders and champions of all citizens of our great state. We are moderates, progressives and conservatives. When we agree with our leaders, we say so, as we have in your support for education, workforce development, and sensible mask policies.  

We also speak up when we do not agree. Thus, we want to respond to your letter in support of Amy Coney Barrett because it does not represent our views. 

Like you and Judge Barrett’s father, we want to tell all young girls that they can do anything their male counterparts can do and they can be anything and everything they want to be. We want it to be a truth, not just a signal “that the most qualified individual will get the job”.  In addition to those things, we want them to know and believe that the process will be fair, because no matter the job, the process should be fair. And our children and young people (boys or girls) should be able to trust that democracy works and can be counted on. How can we assure them when this process has been so rushed and undemocratic?

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We are women who oppose Judge Barrett’s confirmation, because confirming her at this time, when 50 million Americans have already cast their votes, is anti-democratic. Regardless of what ways she does or does not think or talk like us, what matters is that a confirmation should not take place after the election is underway. 

We do not expect you to rescind your support of Judge Barrett. However, we urge you and the other women leaders who have advanced to top positions in our government to stand with us in asking for a fair process that takes place after the election. A process that helps us to believe that our voices and our votes matter because the American people should have the right to choose who nominates the next Supreme Court Justice.

Respectfully, 

Emily Hess Levine
Lindsey Chitwood
Megan Cheek
Kira Fonteneau
Ronne M. Hess
Cindi Cassis Branham
Anna Brantley Fry
Joellyn M. Beckham
Kristen Berthiaume
Alexandra Ruthann Bullock McElroy
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The letter is signed by more than 800 women. The full list of signatures was sent to APR with the letter. We have chosen to list only the first 10 for the sake of brevity.

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Study: COVID-19 infection rates more than double without lockdowns

Infection and fatality rates would have been higher without stay-at-home orders, a new UAB study found.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that if there had been no stay-at-home orders issued in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would have experienced a 220 percent higher rate of infection and a 22 percent higher fatality rate than if such orders were implemented nationwide.

Seven states never imposed stay-at-home orders, or SAHOs. The study analyzed daily positive case rates by state against the presence or absence of statewide SAHOs between March 1 and May 4, the period when such orders began to be implemented. Twelve states lifted their SAHOs before May 4.

The researchers defined SAHOs as being in effect when a state’s governor issued an order for residents of the entire state to leave home only for essential activities and when schools and nonessential businesses were closed.

“During March and April, most states in the United States imposed shutdowns and enacted SAHOs in an effort to control the disease,” said Bisakha Sen, the study’s senior author. “However, mixed messages from political authorities on the usefulness of SAHOs, popular pressure and concerns about the economic fallout led some states to lift the restrictions before public health experts considered it advisable.”

The research also sought to determine if the proportion of a state’s Black residents was associated with its number of positive cases. It found that there was.

“This finding adds to evidence from existing studies using county-level data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and underlines the urgency of better understanding and addressing these disparities,” said study co-author Vidya Sagar Hanumanthu. 

The research can help advance a greater understanding of racial disparities in the health care system as a whole, and help leaders make future decisions about shutdowns as the virus continues to spread, Sen said.

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“While the high economic cost makes SAHOs unsustainable as a long-term policy, our findings could help inform federal, state and local policymakers in weighing the costs and benefits of different short-term options to combat the pandemic,” she said.

The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

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Elections

Jones to attend Auburn student forum, Tuberville hasn’t yet responded to invitation

Jones has agreed to attend the forum, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

The College Democrats at Auburn University and the College Republicans at Auburn University have asked U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, to attend a student forum on Wednesday.

“We are excited to invite the candidates running for our U.S. Senate seat and provide this opportunity for any Auburn student to hear directly from them, and we hope it will inform our student bodies’ decisions with the November 3rd election only days away,” said Carsten Grove, president of the College Democrats at Auburn University, in a statement.

Jones has agreed to attend the forum, Auburn University College Democrats confirmed for APR on Sunday, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend. The student organization  was still awaiting a response from Tuberville’s campaign.

Jones has for months requested Tuberville join him in a debate, but Tuberville has declined.

“AUCR takes great pleasure in coming together with AUCD to co-host the Alabama Senate candidates in this forum. We are looking forward to a very informative and constructive event,” said Lydia Maxwell, president of the College Republicans at Auburn University.

Dr. Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science, is to emcee the forum, which will be open to all Auburn University students in the Mell Classroom Building at 6 p.m., according to a press release from the College Democrats at Auburn University.

Students will be permitted 30 seconds to ask a question of either candidate, and each candidate will have two minutes to answer, according to the release.

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Capacity at the forum will be limited and precautions taken due to COVID-19. Any student with an Auburn ID is welcome and attendance will be first come, first served.

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