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Opinion | Boys State debate couldn’t come at a better time

Joey Kennedy

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What do you think about political debates? Do they matter?

I think they do.

I’m going to participate as part of a panel for two gubernatorial debates next week at Alabama Boys State.

The Republican gubernatorial candidates will meet on Tuesday evening (7 p.m.) at the University of Alabama’s Morgan Auditorium in Morgan Hall, and the Democratic candidates for governor will debate on Wednesday night in the same place and time.

Other questioners are my former Birmingham News colleague Tom Gordon and Rashad Hudson, the Montgomery reporter for CBS 42 News. The debate will be moderated by CBS 42’s Art Franklin.

It’ll be fun. And, let’s hope, informative.

Most of the candidates have agreed to participate; the big one missing will be Gov. Kay Ivey, who has refused any and all debates. It’d be great to ask her why, but she won’t be there.

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Maybe I’ll ask anyway.

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As a voter and a journalist, I’m naturally suspicious when a major candidate for public office refuses to face her opponents and discuss her vision and plans. What, exactly, is Ivey trying to dodge or hide?

Retired Judge O.L. “Pete” Johnson, a longtime Jefferson County District Judge, founder of Jefferson County’s drug court, and the longtime director of Alabama Boys State, sponsored by the American Legion, has called on me before. A few years ago, I was part of a Boys State debate panel for a U.S. Senate race.

And over the years, I’ve been on a number of election debate panels, from mayoral races to gubernatorial races.

Johnson does a great job organizing these debates, and it’s timely in that this one is happening right before the June 5 primaries the following week.

This certainly has been an active primary season, with Ivey caught up in a controversy over whether she is gay, which Ivey has strongly denied. Her opponent, far-right conservative Scott Dawson helped fuel that rumor.

On the Democratic side, former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb found herself defending a convicted sex offender who worked for her campaign.

Current polls are showing that Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle are favorites on the Republican side. For Democrats, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox is ahead of Cobb and former state Rep. James Fields.

While it’s a shame Ivey won’t be there, it does leave the governor open for political hits from her opponents, without an opportunity for her to reply in the moment.

I’m sure the candidates will have to answer questions about the controversies, but I’m hoping we can focus more on their visions and plans for their term as Alabama’s governor.

What are their positions on education, prison reform, economic development, equality, gun violence, mental health reform, infrastructure improvements, the environment, and efforts to weaken the state’s ethics laws?

I’ll likely ask a question about Alabama’s weak animal protection laws as well.

But I’d like to give readers a chance to ask questions, too. So either in an email ([email protected]) or in the comments sections on Facebook posts of this column, tell me what you’d like to ask the candidates, either generally, or specific to one candidate. I’ll share these with the other panelists as well.

Debates are an important tool that allows us to get to know the candidates better. They also present a record so we know what a candidate says he or she will do, then what that person does after winning the election.

During the week when Alabama Boys State is in session, many young people – Alabama’s current and future voters – will get to see these candidates up close and hear their ideas.

So send your questions and let’s have a debate.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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