In what has become a rarity in Alabama, two candidates for federal office – Dale Strong and Casey Wardynski, both vying for the Republican nomination to replace Mo Brooks in Congress – held a televised debate Tuesday evening.
But in a practice that has become all too familiar, the debate, hosted by WHNT-19 in Huntsville, quickly devolved into Republican talking points on national issues, often at the expense of providing details on local issues, and incredibly pointed personal attacks on each other.
Both candidates said they wanted to either dramatically trim or altogether eliminate federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, and both said they are in favor of term limits.
Wardynski, at times, strayed farthest from reality. He proposed a plan to move several federal agencies out of Washington D.C. in an effort to reduce the size of the “deep state” – a reference to a shadowy group of influential political insiders and high-ranking government employees who help shape national policy.
While answering a question regarding what issues are most pressing for the 5th congressional district, Wardynski placed near the top of his list “election security.” He then spoke at length about the doubts people have in the electoral process in America. Much of that distrust, Wardynski failed to mention, is due in large part to a number of Republican elected officials pushing the Big Lie – telling American voters that the 2020 presidential election was rigged or somehow stolen from Donald Trump – despite overwhelming and clear evidence that no such fraud occurred.
Not to be outdone, as his no. 1 thing to change legislatively in Congress, Strong pledged to draft legislation that would end the American asylum system and force people “to stay in their country.”
“We’re allowing people to invade our country,” Strong said. “They need to stay in their country.”
Strong then listed a number of Central American countries from which asylum seekers – usually people fleeing violence and real threats to their lives – should be forced to remain until their petitions for asylum are taken up. No country on Strong’s list is in the top three for either asylum applications or asylum grants.
The two also addressed their most well-known scandals – Strong’s involvement, as the Madison County Commission chairman, in removing the county’s confederate monument and Wardynski’s relationship, when he was superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, with the CEO of a company who had a contract with HCS.
Strong claimed the commission’s decision to move the monument actually preserved and protected it, since it was moved to a Huntsville cemetery. He also said no taxpayer dollars were used, although WHNT investigative reporter Brian Lawson pressed him repeatedly over payment records that seemed to suggest Strong knew more about the removal than he was saying.
Wardynski said his relationship with Pinnacle CEO Karen Lee began in the months after his wife passed away in 2015. When it became serious in July of that year, he said he informed the city and announced his retirement.
Strong accused Wardynski of receiving “personal sexual gratification” from the Pinnacle contract. Wardynski fired back that in five years as superintendent, he never once saw Strong at a board meeting or school event.
And on they went.
At one point, in response to Strong’s suggestion that Wardynski received “sexual favors” in exchange for the Pinnacle contract, Wardynski referred to Strong as “a scumbag” who “lives in the gutter.”
“I left the school system because it was the ethical thing to do and he turns that into sex,” Wardynski said. “That’s where his mind goes. We don’t need that.”
In a rare substantive exchange, both candidates said they would protect Redstone Arsenal and the numerous federal government contracts that have helped to enrich the Huntsville area. Wardynski noted his work in the Trump administration to protect the Arsenal, while Strong noted that the Madison County Commission, under his leadership, had helped to give the Arsenal and the surrounding areas room to grow.
Such an attitude from the next north Alabama congressman would be a shift from the current occupant of that seat. Brooks has bemoaned government spending and has drawn criticism from local leaders and others for not always pushing for federal contracts for the area.
The runoff election between Strong and Wardynski will be next Tuesday.