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Analysis | GOP Debate: Overtly friendly but not toward Kay Ivey

Sam Mattison

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While the three GOP gubernatorial candidates were in Birmingham debating, their minds drifted towards the empty podium in the room meant for Gov. Kay Ivey.

Former state Sen. Bill Hightower, Evangelist Scott Dawson, and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle gathered for a televised debate last Thursday. Minutes before the debate, WVTM, who hosted the debate, announced they had prepared for Ivey’s arrival despite her rejection of the offer earlier this month.

Ivey’s decision to not participate has drawn ire across the state and the three other GOP candidates made it the focus of key parts of Thursday’s debate.

During the pivotal question toward other candidates portion of the debate, which the Democratic candidates used to contrast ideas, the GOP candidates present used it to bash Ivey for a variety of topics.

To each other, the candidates were noticeably less competitive than their Democratic counterparts. In a Democratic debate that same week, former Chief Justice Sue Cobb and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox endured a brief spat over a minimum wage proposal that Maddox struck down while he was mayor of Tuscaloosa.

No such spat occurred on Thursday, and the candidates seemed to bond over their similar views and disdain for Ivey’s absence. They may share similar sentiments later this month when they gather for another debate hosted by Reckon that Ivey has also announced she will not attend.

Besides the negative feelings towards Ivey, the debate yielded some other interesting points.

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Medical Marijuana

An interesting point of the debate was that all of the gubernatorial candidates supported medical marijuana in some shape or form.

“I’m not against that particular,” Dawson said of medical marijuana. “I think it has to be highly regulated under doctor’s care and there has to be no other medicine available that could treat that condition.

They all drew the line at recreational marijuana, which only Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox has championed openly in last week’s debate.

“Recreationally–no way,”  Dawson said.

“I don’t like the negative effects of that,” Hightower said. “We’re facing an opioid epidemic and marijuana is a gateway drug.”

Support for Roy Moore

Even now 4 months after the December Special Election, Republican Senate Candidate Roy Moore was still present in Thursday’s debate. Hightower and Battle took a page out of the Republican playbook immediately after Moore was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman. That play, mainly used by Washington Republicans, was to ask Moore to resign only if the allegations were true.

“I have supported Republicans nominees throughout my history,” Hightower said. “My position on it was that if the atrocious claims were true, the Senate could have dealt with the candidate. But I could not stomach Doug Jones.”

Hightower went on to say that Democrat Jones, who won the Senate election, had filled his “worst nightmare” in supporting abortions up to 20 weeks, which was a controversial view even among Democrats.

“When the allegations came out against Roy Moore, I said if those are true, he does not need to serve in the U.S. Senate,” Battle said in response to the allegations of Moore. “After that, I said I was running for governor. I’m running for governor. I’m not running for U.S. Senate That’s where I stand on it.”

Dawson took a different approach and said he openly voted for Moore, which Battle and Hightower declined to say whether they did.

“They need to be dealt with,” Dawson said of the allegations against Moore. “But they are not supposed to be considered absolute truth either. There is a balance. When I was looking at this, the worst possible statement is to say that I believe the young ladies, and I am still voting for the candidate. You have to look at these and the tenant of society is innocent until proven guilty–here you have to give the benefit of the doubt.”

Medicaid Work Requirement

Another question dealt with a work requirement for Medicaid that is being pursued by Alabama’s state government. The proposal, which has been referred to the Federal Government for approval, would push hundreds of people out of Alabama’s program.

Democrats have suggested that the state expand Medicaid, a plan that was shut down by Gov. Robert Bentley when the Obama administration offered it to the state.

“What government was designed to do is now being perverted,” Dawson said. “It was never intended to meet every need. When you try to do that, it starts to implode.”

In place of Medicaid expansion, Dawson floated that those left behind on the work requirement could be picked up by charities, communities, churches, and private corporations.

“It seems like it’s always the first resort and the only option,” Dawson said. “I think Alabama should have been on that list of the right to work, and I will push it forward.”

Hightower broke away from Dawson’s view and came out rather harshly against the motion.

“It is brutal and not treating people like they need to be treated, I’m against it,” Hightower said.

The state senator was quick to say that he is not entirely okay with people not working and receiving medical insurance from the government.

“Work is a gift,” Hightower said. “It’s not a curse. It gives us purpose. It gives us meaning. I would want that opportunity to be given to these people as well, but their medical care is very important.”

Battle fell somewhere in the middle of the two views.

“There is a small group in the middle and there needs to be an opt-out for parents with small children who need day care,” Battle said. “The biggest thing is, it is not wrong to ask someone to work. If they can work, I think it’s the greatest thing they can do. You help them become someone who is productive in society.”

A State Lottery?

Perhaps the biggest topic discussed during the Democratic debate last week was the state lottery, which Democrats have been pushing for years. Lately, however, certain Republicans are rallying for the state lottery with the highest support coming from Gov. Robert Bentley in the waning days of his candidacy.

“I am for the vote on the lottery,” Battle said. “I would allow that vote. I don’t think it is a cure-all that everyone talks about, it’s just a financial tool more than anything else. Last time, I voted.”

Dawson and Hightower were firmly in the no camp.

“I’m against the lottery,” Dawson said. “Not necessarily because of my spiritual formation, but also because it is a poor economic decision for the future of Alabama.”

“It’s no answer,” Hightower said of the lottery. “What I really dislike about this is they market to minorities for this. That’s what I don’t like we are also seeing a change in culture in gaming. It’s going online. We are in a changing environment, and I don’t want to have the Jersey boys coming down, walking the state house throwing their money around to more of the politicians like we had a few years ago. I think it’s a bad introduction into government and creates a dependency issue.”

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