By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Off the heels of his gubernatorial announcement, Tuscaloosa mayor and Democratic candidate for governor, Walt Maddox, said he is hopeful a Democrat like himself can be successful in the gubernatorial race.
“I absolutely believe there is a pathway to victory,” said Maddox, who announced Thursday morning he would officially be running for governor, in an interview with The Alabama Political Reporter. “In large part, it’s because we’re turning a page in Alabama’s history where we’re no longer going to allow the politics of fear to drive the decisions at the ballot.”
Maddox — a 44-year-old upstart in the Alabama Democratic Party — has been the mayor of Alabama’s fifth largest city since 2005, maintaining a relatively low profile in greater statewide politics. But he has now decided this might be the time for him to make a move.
“It’s undeniable that our state government is in crisis,” Maddox said. “Much of that crisis has been caused by the failure of leadership. In the last 18 months, we’ve seen our governor, our speaker of the House, and our chief justice leave under a cloud of shame.”
Maddox said that because of that failure of leadership, nearly every major function of this state is either in crisis or on the verge of crisis, citing issues with the state Medicaid Agency, the general fund and other primary functions of state government.
“If we’re going to rebuild this state, not only for ourselves but for the next generation, we can no longer let the politics of fear drive our policymaking in Montgomery,” he said. “Montgomery has lost its way, and it’s time that we get back to results-oriented government.”
Since announcing his exploratory campaign in late June, Maddox has raised about $53,040 in contributions — not much compared to his competitors. His main Democratic opponent, former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, has raised more than $163,800.
Both Maddox and Cobb have been the focus of pressure from their party to run for governor. Both enjoy wide support, although Cobb has more statewide electoral experience. Maddox would need to build support across the state to challenge her in the primary.
Maddox said he plans to ramp up his fundraising efforts now that he has officially announced his campaign. In total, Maddox has about 312 individual contributors — more than any other campaign — and he believes more will come to support him.
“We’ve been astonished that we’ve had so many individual contributors invest in our campaign. Based on individual contributors, we lead all gubernatorial candidates,” Maddox said.
But without bigger donations, Maddox will stand no chance compared to Republican candidates that are pushing $1 million in contributions and incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey, who has already raised more than $1.2 million.
It would require a big shift in the state’s electoral landscape for a Democrat to be competitive in a gubernatorial race — much to win. The state hasn’t had a Democratic Governor since Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998, and ended his term in 2003.
Since then, the elections have been largely safe bets for Republican candidates. Gov. Robert Bentley 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 said focusing on issues that are affecting Alabamians, like health care, is his plan.
“The failure to expand Medicaid in Alabama is the root cause of seven rural hospitals closing or scheduled to close in the last 7 years,” Maddox said. “The only reason why we didn’t expand Medicaid was purely because of politics. What that means is that 331,000 Alabamians — the majority of them working and veterans — have lost the chance for health care.”
Maddox said rising insurance premiums and the effects on rural hospitals, which provide large portions of the state’s health care, are only part of the equation.
Maddox has 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 if he is elected as governor next year.
“Economically for our state — beyond just the moral embarrassment of it — we have lost $1.8 billion annually in investment,” Maddox said. “That is a new economy that so many of our 54 rural counties lost out of just solely because of ideology. That is unthinkable.”
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.
“As the mayor, I have the luxury of not worrying about Republicans and Democrats. I focus on people,” Maddox said. “That mindset is not going to change if we’re successful in this gubernatorial run.”