This Tuesday Tuscaloosa is holding municipal elections and the job of Mayor is on the ballot. Voters will choose between incumbent Walt Maddox and newcomer Stepfon Lewis. In August Birmingham will make a similar choice between William Bell and Randall Woodfin. Three of the candidates share one thing in common. They’re democrats in a deeply Republican state.
These are the two names Tuscaloosa voters will see on the ballot for Mayor. Walt Maddox is the incumbent and Stepfon Lewis is the challenger. Forty minutes away, a similar race is underway.
Randall Woodfin is running against incumbent William Bell for Birmingham’s Mayor’s seat. While Woodfin and Lewis are newcomers to the mayoral game, Walt Maddox’s name is already being mentioned in conversations about higher office. As a democrat he might see some resistance in a red state. Mr. Woodfin knows his pain.
“It’s no secret I was the state director for Hillary Clinton so clearly, I am a democrat.” Mr. Woodfin sees success for democrats as a three step process: Money, organizing, and message. “Message will beat money and organization. If you got all three, you’re kicking ass.”
Democrats will also have to appeal to people like Tuscaloosa candidate Stepfon Lewis who doesn’t identify with one party or the other. “I might want free college for everybody, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like abortion. You know, you know it’s all these different things that tie into parties that, you know, like it’s some big jig saw puzzle that all your pieces fit, that all people’s pieces don’t fit into either party.”
Mayor Maddox sees one area in particular where democrats can start to appeal across party lines—even in a state that voted overwhelming for Donald Trump.
“Right now we have fifty local hospitals, rural hospitals in our state that the expansion of Medicaid could help bolster them, continue the strength, the economic vitality of that hospital and provide health care in their region.”
Maddox thinks this is an issue of not getting out to the right audience whether it’s red or blue.
“To me, the democrats are on the right side of an issue. But why aren’t we out there in Lowndes County talking about it, why aren’t we out there in Madison County talking about it, why aren’t we out there in Lawrence County or Limestone County talking about that?”
Mr. Woodfin attributes some of democrats’ success in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham to demographics. In particular he feels they’ve done a good job appealing to African Americans and black women in particular. As Tuscaloosa’s first black candidate for mayor, Mr. Lewis would like to work to increase representation for those groups.
“If we’re going to have a real sense of diversity, you know we can’t get around, we can’t get around women’s issues, we can’t get around abortion, if the whole panel is men. We can’t get around diversity if the whole power structure is white.”
Mr. Lewis is also concerned about economic inequality, a worry Randall Woodfin shares.
“Birmingham is a great city. And currently we are a tale of two cities. For all the growth we are experiencing in one center location, which is downtown, we are also experiencing a high rate of crime.”
In both towns another subject besides equality and health care is getting a lot of attention.
“We need to declare a state of emergency around education. That’s not a school board issue alone. That’s not a parent issue alone. That is a village project, which includes your Mayor and council. We have to engage at that level as well.”
Woodfin served as a school board member and is currently an attorney for the City of Birmingham.
“Well I was an administrator with the school system; I was executive director of personnel. And so I, my master’s is in Public Administration.”
Maddox was also a city councilor when he ran the first time. The resume got him elected then. Now he has twelve years of experience as Mayor to add. His opponent brings experience as an activist in the community.
“My experience is in leadership, bringing people together, white, black, to help people, to benefit others, more than you benefit, we benefit ourselves.”
Mr. Lewis’ campaign had an unusual challenge. He had to get his voting rights restored due to a twenty-five year old felony conviction.
“I’ve had mothers and fathers and cousins and brothers reached out to be about ‘Well this happened to my brother, or this happened to my father, or this happened to, so how did you go about getting them back?’ And to tell them the process of going to the probation and parole office, what forms to get filled out and how to get started, you know this turned into something totally different.”
Lewis says his quest to overcome his felony conviction gave him the chance to put the issue of voting rights for former prisoners. Now, he’s just facing the challenge for beating a familiar incumbent. In Birmingham, Randall Woodfin knows that feeling too.
“You have people, even if they acknowledge things are wrong, even if they want change, even if they see the city needs change, they are hesitant to be vocal about that for fear of pettiness or vindictiveness or being outcast or blackballed by the current administration. In plain language, that sucks. It’s unfair. It shouldn’t be that way.” Mr. Woodfin doesn’t like the idea of career politicians. Walt Maddox disagrees.
“My decision to stay is not mine, it’s the people of Tuscaloosa. And if I wasn’t doing a good job I certainly believe they would probably send me home.”
Mr. Woodfin does make one exception.
“Walt Maddox is different, and I don’t consider him a career politician. He is a different breed. And people like him should be allowed to stay in the office as long as they want? You know why? Because he is busting his ass to help the people of Tuscaloosa.”
Maddox wants to build a political career past his time as Mayor, but he has some conditions.
“Number one, could my family survive such a challenge? How would that impact Stephanie? How would that impact Taylor? How would that impact Eli? Number two, if I were elected to that office, could I govern? I love being mayor because I can actually get things done. Solutions to problems don’t boil themselves down to being a Republican or a Democrat. And number three, could I win the election?”
At any level, Mayor Maddox has some advice for those getting into politics: it’s not all glamour.
“The mayor, the duties of the mayor quite frankly are not very sexy. I mean eighty percent of your time you’re the, you’re running the day to day activities of one of the largest corporations in Alabama.”
Stepfon Lewis feels he has a good reason to pursue the job. “This is more than just a want to be a candidate or a want to be in the position of mayor, this was a vision given to me by God to get involved.”
Mr. Woodfin turns to another authority for wisdom about the election in Birmingham.
“It’s pretty consistent what your grandmother told you, right? Nobody cares what you know until they know you care. And so part of what you know is your background, your professional experience, but our people are hurting, and I would venture to say them knowing I’m putting their interests first will trump my qualifications.”
In the end it will come down to the voters. For Maddox and Lewis, that’s Tuesday. Lewis is excited.
“When my wife you know tries to say ‘Where you want to go on vacation?’ and I’m like ‘Baby I can’t see anything past March seventh. Please stop asking me about any dates past March seventh.’”
Polls in Tuscaloosa will remain open until seven p.m.. Birmingham elects their local officials on August twenty-second.