By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Longtime Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox — a quiet upstart in the Alabama Democratic Party who has drawn the eyes of many in the party despite maintaining a relatively low profile in statewide politics — is considering a run for Governor next year.
Maddox, 44, has been the mayor of Alabama’s fifth largest city since 2005 and recently won his fourth term in May. For several years, Democrats across the State have been pushing Maddox to consider a run, believing that his success in one of Alabama’s largest cities could be translated to a Democratic resurgence in Montgomery.
Maddox confirmed Thursday in an interview with APR that he had launched an exploratory campaign but hasn’t made a final decision about whether he will run. If he chooses to run, he’ll run as a moderate Democrat — despite the urging of some friends and colleagues who thought he would do better on the GOP ticket.
“It would be dishonest to change parties because of our State’s political climate,” Maddox said. “It would be dishonest with the voters; it would be dishonest with my family; it would be dishonest with myself.”
Being competitive in a gubernatorial race in Alabama as a Democrat — much less winning — would require a big shift in the State’s electoral landscape. The state hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998, ended his term in 2003.
Since then, the elections have been largely safe bets for Republican candidates including former Gov. Robert Bentley, who won by nearly 30 percentage points in his 2014 re-election bid. Siegelman’s race against then-candidate Bob Riley in 2002 was the last time a Democrat wholeheartedly challenged a Republican candidate.
Maddox hopes to change that.
“People are going to be interested in the individual and what that individual can do to help them — their lives and their children’s lives,” Maddox said. “We have reached that point, and I think Alabama is ready to be proud again. They’re ready to look toward Montgomery and be proud of its leadership.”
Though he never went negative toward his own party in his interview with APR, Maddox has been notoriously quiet about his membership in the Democratic party before. He has painted himself as a centrist interested in appealing to voters across party lines.
“For 136 years, the Democrats didn’t succeed,” Maddox said. “For the last seven years, the Republicans haven’t succeeded. We, as a State, have been captured by the parties and not by the people.”
Maddox rose to statewide prominence in 2011 after the April 27 tornado outbreak when he was praised for his handling of the aftermath. More than 40 people died in Tuscaloosa that day and tens of millions of dollars in damage was done.
More than 12 percent of the city was destroyed, leaving thousands unemployed and the economy of the city in question.
The New York Times, a month after the storm, hailed Maddox as an “efficient, earnest, unwavering hero of the storm, praised by federal officials and tornado victims alike.”
Since the storm, Tuscaloosa has more than recovered. Most of the areas of the city destroyed by the storm have now been replaced with new shopping centers, apartments and homes. The city now has an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, much lower than the the statewide rate.
Before becoming mayor, Maddox served as a personnel director for Tuscaloosa City Schools and later on the Tuscaloosa City Council before deciding to run for the mayorship. In 2005, he made the jump, and he hasn’t looked back.
“What we have done in Tuscaloosa has been results oriented,” Maddox said. “For nearly 12 years, we’ve demonstrated what results-oriented government means and you can see it in every corner of our city.”
Maddox said he was tired of leadership in the state who are content with Alabama being ranked near-last in almost all quality-of-life categories. He said 2018 is an opportunity for a change in style of leadership.
“In recent years, our politics has been about bumping heads. Our politics has been about distraction. Our politics has been about fear,” Maddox said.
“The people of the state continue to get farther and farther behind because the leadership in Montgomery are more concerned with playing the game than they are with changing the landscape so that we can compete with Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida — not only now, but in the future.”
Over the course of a single year, Alabama lost all three of its top political officials — from former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, to Chief Justice Roy Moore and finally culminating with the resignation of Gov. Robert Bentley. New scandals have also engulfed Sen. Luther Strange and the Alabama Board of Education.
Maddox said those were evidence of a bigger problem.
“Beyond the fact that we lost leadership in all three branches of government due to corruption or the unwillingness to follow the law, our state is hurting,” Maddox said. “We need leadership that is going to focus on what everyday Alabamians are experiencing.”
The Tuscaloosa mayor said he was perhaps most concerned with the dire straights of the health care industry in Alabama, including Medicaid, rising private insurance premiums and rural hospitals struggling to keep their doors open.
Dozens of small rural hospitals are on the verge of closing.
“That would be calamitous for our state, for Alabama,” Maddox said. “We need leadership that is going to have the willingness to address it.”
Though he hasn’t yet released comprehensive policy memos, Maddox said he would like to develop a set of detailed policies that will move his campaign forward, focusing on implementation and results.
His health care policy memo would most likely include expanding Medicaid in compliance with a portion of Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. ACA’s Medicaid expansion was meant to make up for restructured reimbursements in the Medicare program, which provides insurance coverage for those 65 and older.
Without the Medicaid expansion to make up for lost dollars, the loss in Medicare dollars hit Alabama’s hospitals — hospitals that largely rely on caring for the Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries — even harder.
“As it comes to rural hospitals, think about what happens if rural hospitals close,” he said. “That means the residents in that county — thousands of people — face more than just losing a hospital. If they have a heart attack or a stroke, whatever it may be, they go from having health care in minutes to health care in over an hour.
“That can be the difference between life and death.”
Maddox said he believes a Medicaid expansion, which would largely be covered by federal dollars currently, would be one of the first things he’d do if it’s still available.
“It will bolster our health care system here in Alabama. Ultimately, it’s going to be good for all Alabamians,” he said.
Maddox said he would bring a comprehensive policy approach to all of the issues facing Alabama including education, infrastructure, prisons and health care.
“If you look at every quality of life category that we are judged by, we are not succeeding,” Maddox said. “There is going to have to be a laser-like focus to go and begin tackling those problems.”
Those issues have been bandaged and put aside, Maddox said, leaving the people to deal with the fallout.
“All of these problems that we are getting accustomed to, there are real people who are hurting behind these statistics, and they need leadership that is going to be their voice — leadership that is going to be their advocate, leadership that is not going to forget that they are there to serve everyone,” Maddox said.
On the Democratic side, Maddox would join Alabama Democratic powerhouse Sue Bell Cobb, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Maddox will have to defeat her and any other Democratic candidates to make it to the general to face off against a Republican.
Both battles could be difficult for Maddox. Cobb enjoys wide support within the Democratic party in Alabama, and she herself was also the focus of pressure to run for the office.
The Republican field is already more crowded than the Democratic primary despite the fact that Gov. Kay Ivey could seek re-election next year. She hasn’t made an announcement yet.