Hey, this is Todd Stacy. Welcome to “In the Weeds” with Alabama Daily News.
My guest this episode is former Congressman Artur Davis, who is running for Mayor of Montgomery. The Capital City is in the midst of an intriguing race for the city’s top job, as Todd Strang, who has been mayor for more than ten years now, is set to retire. The open seat has invited interest from several serious candidates, including Davis, Probate Judge Steven Reed, County Commission Chairman Elton Dean, WCOV-TV owner David Woods, retired General Ed Crowell, local attorney JC Love, Pastor Ronald Davis, political newcomer Marcus McNeal, and local musician Bibby Simmons. That’s nine candidates, and there’s talk of even more getting into the race.
Of course, as with any race, there are tiers of candidates. I’ve seen some polling that indicates Steven Reed and Artur Davis are pretty solidly in the top tier, with David Woods, Elton Dean, JC Love and Ed Crowell being the middle tier. With so many candidates, it’s unlikely any one of them win the 50 percent plus one needed to seal the election on August 27th. That means the goal of any campaign is to make it into the runoff, which would feature the top two candidates.
August isn’t that far away, but this race is still very early. Not many voters are really tuned in yet. School is still in, the legislative session dominates a lot of the news, and there hasn’t been any significant campaign advertising yet. So, with candidates working to raise money and win support from local groups and factions, I think it’s fair to call it an open race. In fact, Mr. Davis goes through his polling in general terms toward the end.
I first interviewed Steven Reed a few weeks ago, and that interview is online at aldailynews.com. We didn’t make a podcast out of it because it was more or less impromptu and I didn’t have my microphone, but the text is all there and I encourage you to read it. In fact, Congressman Davis references that interview a handful of times during our discussion. Davis and Reed are clearly rivals. That goes a long way back in Montgomery and really state politics, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more sparring going forward.
As with Judge Reed, I enjoyed my conversation with Mr. Davis. I’ve followed his political career for a long time, and what a career that has been. He spent four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district, and worked his way up to a position in his party’s leadership. He was close enough with former President Barack Obama that he famously introduced him at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. It’s hard to overstate that significance. Obama was about to give his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, and Davis was the one introducing him. After that, he ran for governor of Alabama and came up short in the primary. There were many reasons for that, but the biggest could have been his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and how his opponents used that vote to undermine his support in the black community. Then, amazingly, two years later Davis switched parties, flirted with the idea of running for Congress as a Republican in Virginia, and was a featured speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention. By 2015, Davis was back in Montgomery engaging in local affairs and ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Todd Strange. He told the Washington Post he was back in the Democratic Party but kept a respectful relationship with Republicans.
I asked Mr. Davis about the big questions in the race: how to fix education, what to do about crime and gun violence. We talked about his interesting political history and how the last mayor’s race ended a little chippy. He found that choice of words interesting, and you’ll hear that toward the end. He also made a point to specifically call out Steven Reed. By that I mean, I didn’t ask about it, he just went there. I think that comes from Davis acknowledging that he is running second to Reed at the moment and conventional political wisdom says you gotta mix it up.
One thing that stood out to me is how open Mr. Davis was to charter schools for Montgomery, even to the point of going beyond what Todd Strange has tried to do. Davis clearly wants to set up education as a contrast in this race, and that’s one thing I’m going to watch going forward.
Anyway, here’s our interview. Oh, I need to apologize for the audio. There was an air vent that just would not stop making racket. I tried to turn it off, I tried to edit it out, but no dice. It kind of blends in eventually.
Anyway, here’s my chat with Artur Davis.
Todd C. Stacy: Well, Congressman, thanks for joining us. Thanks for your time.
Artur Davis: Thank you for your time. Good to see you and good to talk to you.
TCS: You’re what, a month or two into your mayor’s race?
AD: Well, we announced on January 22. So what is today’s date?
TCS: It’s the 23rd. So yeah.
AD: Yeah. So we’re, we’re about halfway through this race.
TCS: That time passed quickly. Well, I appreciate the opportunity to ask you about your campaign, why you’re running.
TCS: Let’s just start from the top. Can you tell us why you’re running for mayor?
AD: Well, I think I’m the best person in this field to be Mayor of Montgomery. That’s the short, simple answer. This city – I think anyone who is in your audience or who read your publication, knows this community and knows its challenges. Montgomery has a school system that has become one of the worst school systems in the state of Alabama. That is something which would have stunned me, if you had told me 20 years ago, 25 years ago, when I was a young professional in this community, that Montgomery, Alabama would have a school system that would be comparable to the school systems in Tuskegee and Selma and Wilcox County, I would not have thought that possible. I think that the defining challenge for this community in the next four years, and in the next decade for that matter, is whether we can turn around public education. And whether we can build a foundation for public education that makes this city a magnet for industry, that makes this city a magnet for high wage jobs, and that provides, frankly, the foundation that the children in this system deserve. So, if you ask me, what’s the dominant issue in my campaign? What’s the dominant issue in this city? There’s no question that I would say public education.
I think that of all the candidates in this race, I’m the one who’s been the most intentional and direct about this issue. I think I’m the one who’s laid out the most specific plans, and hopefully we can get into that in the next few minutes. I think I’m also the one candidate in this race whose life story is a testament to what public education can do in this city. I went to Montgomery public schools. I spent a little bit of time in parochial schools when I was in elementary and in Montgomery Academy when I was in junior high school, but I’m basically a public school kid.
My narrative is one of a public school kid who was able to come from the west side of Montgomery, able to come from visiting the Cleveland Avenue library every Saturday, to becoming an award-winning student at Harvard, to becoming a federal prosecutor with a near 100 percent conviction rate by the time I was 30, and becoming a Congressman by the time I was 35. I freely give credit for that path to three sources: God, my mother, and Montgomery Public Schools. And building a foundation so that today’s generation of children in Montgomery can travel that same path, and frankly travel that path without having to go to BTW (Booker T. Washington Magnet) or LAMP (Loveless Academic Magnet Program). BTW and LAMP are spectacular institutions, but they only serve as a small number of children in the system. We’ve got roughly 27,000 children this system and they deserve the kind of foundation that I came from, not the foundation that is so frail and so weak that exists in our public schools today. So that’s the big reason that I’m running for mayor. I think I’ve got ideas and solutions and the capacity to move forward with an aggressive plan to turn our schools around.
TCS: Well, let’s go deeper into public education. What public schools did you attend?
AD: I went to Dannelly, Cloverdale, and Jeff Davs.
AD: Two of which are, by the way, now failing schools. Cloverdale ceased operations in the 1990s. Huntington College now has offices there, and the music theater located the old Cloverdale facility. In fact, the voting center for Huntington is now physically located where Cloverdale School used to be. But Dannely and Jeff Davis are still around, and sad to say those are now failing schools. When I was in the system, those were two of the best schools in the state of Alabama. So it It pains me to now see those schools for several years running classified as failing schools.
TCS: So, what happened?
AD: Well, there are a lot of things that happened, some of which are way beyond the scope of an interview. But, the most significant thing that happened in this community is Montgomery Public Schools stopped becoming a community-wide institution. When I was in public schools in Montgomery, that’s where most of the community went. You always have a group of people who went to private schools for a variety of reasons, and I was part of that group for a period of time. But, for the most part, public schools were representative demographically, economically, and racially, of this entire community. When I went to Jeff Davis, the population and the Montgomery was roughly 60 percent Caucasian, 40 percent African American. That was exactly the ratio of Jeff Davis. The ratio at Jeff Davis of black / white was roughly consistent with this community’s share until about 1999. And around 1999, you started to see a re-segregation of public education in Montgomery. Today, Montgomery Public Schools have, frankly, become an institution that does not look like the City of Montgomery. It’s become an institution that is primarily a group of lower income, 80 percent African American children. And this is the hardcore reality: for people who aren’t in the African American community, it has been easy to write off Montgomery public schools for a very long time. And, I’ll be very candid with you, I think for about 15 years there was sort of a feeling in Montgomery that, well, the public schools are declining, but we’ve got these great private schools, we’ve got BTW, we’ve got LAMP. So, if your kid is a “high achiever” there is still an opportunity for that kid. And, for a long time a lot of folks didn’t worry about it. Well, in the last five or six years, this has moved from becoming a topic of conversation that interested some people to becoming a crisis for this community. We have seen the State of Alabama literally have to come in and take over Montgomery Public Schools because they were being so incompetently run. We have seen the commandant of Maxwell Air Force Base publicly state in an interview that ran all over the country that officers are leaving Montgomery, Alabama, or declining to come to Montgomery, Alabama, because of the quality of the schools. The politically-correct thing would have been for him to say, “oh, there are a variety of factors and education might be one of them.” Give General Cotton credit for not being politically correct and naming the problem as it as he specifically and directly said. Our officers don’t have confidence in these schools, and the reputation of these schools is causing officers to stay away from this community or to keep their families away from this community. I remember when Maxwell used to be an institution that drew people to the Montgomery, Alabama and wove those people into the fabric of the community. Well, now, you’re seeing the opposite. You’re seeing that individuals who come to Maxwell are avoiding this community, and the reason is education, and that’s unacceptable. So, as I look at this field, I hear loud generalities from the people running. I read one interview that you did a week ago, and I heard a lot of, “Oh, I’m going to work with everybody. I’m going to be someone who will be a good partner in education.” That sounds great. We’ve got to have a mayor, though, who has specific ideas to put on the table, and who also is willing to lead and drive the conversation around public education.
So if we can let’s go to some of those ideas.
TCS: Please do. Yeah, I was gonna ask, does a mayor do?
AD: Well, first of all, there is some sentiment, as you know, in the community that well, the schools are a county issue. We don’t have a city system.
TCS: Yeah, it’s a little confusing.
AD: It’s confusing some people. Well, I happen to think that if you’re mayor of this community, you have the biggest pulpit in this city. You have the biggest platform in this city. And if the city’s economic development future is directly threatened by the low quality of public education, if you’re a mayor who wants to bring better jobs to the city, if you’re a mayor who wants to compete with Auburn and Huntsville and Mobile and Birmingham for high quality jobs, if you’re a mayor who wants to turn this city’s economic base into something more than the low-wage base that it is today, you’ve got to understand that education is central to the conversation. So, I happen to believe that the City of Montgomery needs to take a long hard look at playing an institutional role in public education. When I ran for mayor four years ago, I proposed the city school system, and I think that idea still needs to be on the table. I’m the one candidate running for mayor who has talked about the possibility of a city wide school system.
I think that even if for some reason we decide that flipping the 49 schools and city limits from county to city is outside of our bandwidth in the next three to four years, we need to look at a lesser alternative. The lesser alternative would be having a government run the charter schools in this community – having Montgomery take six, seven, eight, nine, ten schools, perhaps, and become the chartering institution under the Alabama Accountability Act. Rather than having a private foundation run the charters, the City of Montgomery maybe the entity enemy that needs to step up to the plate and do it. I think that we also need to look at having a joint management authority over public education. By joint Management Authority, I mean a system in which the city takes responsibility for some schools, perhaps the charters, the county takes responsibility for another set of schools, and the superintendent is hired by the mayor, or the superintendent is hired by a joint management committee that consists of the mayor, the business community, and the school board.
We’ve got to have a direct planned and the intervention. You will never attract a high quality superintendent to Montgomery, Alabama, when that superintendent has to answer to the school board, to the intervention officer to the state superintendent, to the state school board. No high-quality personable agree report to five bosses. That’s why our options for superintendent are virtually always the best person in the building, someone has been a longtime MPS employee and wants a promotion, or someone who’s already retired but wants to come back in and get a few more years to elevate the high end of the retirement pension. We’ve got to have the capacity to go after a high-achiever, national-caliber superintendent and it will not happen under state intervention. So, we need to be prepared to go to the superintendent and to the governor and say, this is a comprehensive plan to turn around public education in Montgomery. It’s going to include charters, it’s going to include investments in community health care, it’s going to include investments and public security and more security officers for these schools. It’s going to include all kinds of investment and job training, because the reality is that the average MPS graduate is not going to go through a four-year institution. The average MPS graduates want to move into the workforce within 24 months of graduating. Right now, 40 percent of children who are graduating Montgomery Public Schools – 40 percent – are not reading a basic 9th grade reading level, but yet they’re seniors. So we’ve got to have a comprehensive plan that addresses top-to-bottom the many deficits that exist in the Montgomery Public Schools, and the mayor has got to be the central figure in having this conversation.
TCS: You mentioned charters. Do you see the Lanier feeder system getting off the ground? I mean, it looked like for second there it was, then it was not. What are your thoughts there?
AD: If we’re going to “charterize” some of the schools in this city, and I think that we should, we’re going to have to do a much better job as a community of explaining why charters are important. I will say to you what I’ve said to people who were active allies of the charter school movement in this community: not enough time has been put into explaining to this community, what charters are, why they’re important, and why they’re essential to reform and innovation in this community. For some reason, some of the advocates of charter schools have taken the position that well, we don’t want to advertise change that is too dramatic. So, we’re going to portray this as sort of a modest, incremental change that will give us a few more tools. When you undersell the change that you’re trying to make as a policy maker, you invite the argument, “why bother at all?” Too many advocates of charter schools in this community have tried to underplay why it’s important and, understandably, the status quo has dug in and said, “Well, if it’s really not that significant, or really won’t change things, why do it all?” Or the favorite, “Well, why not just do that for all the schools?”
The reality is that under the Alabama Accountability Act, which is the governing education policy instrument in this state, whether people like it or not – it’s the law in the state – the only way a school district can make changes, the only way a school district can get from under the oppressive bureaucracy that the state imposes is to make itself a charter school. Now, do I wish Alabama law were written in a way that you could innovate without having to change the name of your school? Yes, I do. Do I wish Alabama law were written in a way that you could make changes to tenure, that you can make changes to governance without having to call yourself a charter? Yes, I do. But I’m not running for State Legislature. I’m running for Mayor of Montgomery. So, those of us in Montgomery have to work with the laws that exists now. I think that the value of charters in this community is it enables us to bring more accountability to teachers and administrators, and it enables to better enforce the relationship between parents and teachers and children in this community. And by that I mean the lousy higher, tougher, more rigorous standards. I don’t think good teachers fear that. My mother taught for many years in her career as a principal. My mother-in-law is a school teacher, I have known school teachers my whole life and I have enormous reverence for that profession. I told a group of educators a few weeks ago that, if you’ve heard the saying “it takes a village,” my village consisted of teachers all over this community that contributed a great deal to my evolution that I still remember I still think the world of. I think that good teachers don’t fear tougher standards. And I’m happy to give teachers a choice. I’m happy to say to teachers that you can opt into a system where you have less protection and tenure is much harder to get, but you’re going to receive tangible benefits in terms of pay and leadership opportunities. Or, you can stay in the system that is more secure, where there’s less risk, and your tenure is what it is now. it’s your choice. I’m perfectly confident giving teachers that professional discretion. But, the argument that some in this race are advancing and that some other people in the community are advancing, that we ought to be afraid of innovation in Montgomery, that we ought to be afraid of policy changes in Montgomery – the folks who were saying that don’t understand the depth of the problem we’ve gotten ourselves into. Our schools – too many of our schools, I won’t say all of our schools – but too many of our schools in this community are fundamentally failing the kids they serve. And the kids they serve are invariably low-income African American kids who deserve better. For us to take some of the most vulnerable kids in this community and consign them to a third or fourth class education… I go back to that point I made earlier. We have the exact same ranking that the schools and Selma, Wilcox County and Macon County have. If you had said 33 years ago that our schools are going to be no better than Camden, Tuskegee and Selma, nobody in this community would have believed that. So this is a mayoral-level crisis, it’s a community level crisis, and candidly, I think I’m the one candidate who’s laying out details to do something about it.
TCS: Let’s switch gears to public safety because you brought that up. It goes hand-in-hand with public education. You were talking about the history, kind of how we got here. I have conversations about it all the time. And I would argue that, in many ways, violence and public safety was also a big part of that . You had some attacks. I think it was in the mid 2000s. Lee and Capitol Heights, there were some others. And, I’d always say, you know, Mama and Daddy will put up with a lot of stuff, but a violent situation at school, a dangerous situation, they’re not going to put up with that. But it goes further, obviously, than public education. What is the biggest public safety / violence problem facing Montgomery and how does the mayor influence that?
AD: We’re understaffed when it comes to law enforcement. We have roughly 480 police officers on duty right now in this community, the city budgeted last year for 515. So we can’t even fill the quota that we budgeted for. For whatever reason, being a Montgomery a police officer has become unattractive to a lot of young men and women who are thinking about a career in law enforcement. I honestly think that we’re training police officers for Auburn and Hoover.
The reality is that we’re not doing enough to attract the best and brightest candidates to law enforcement in Montgomery. We’re not doing enough to keep our best officers. When I run into police officers, whether it’s a neighborhood meetings or a gas station, what you hear over and over is, when we come in, there’s not enough reason for us to stay. Promotional opportunities come and go. Sometimes we don’t know who’s getting promoted, and why we’re not good candidates. I hear from officers that were asked to work, and none of us mind the hours and all of us understand the danger, but we’re not given the partnerships within the department we need. And none of that is a criticism of the leadership of the department. I think Chief Finely has very good job from everything that I can tell. But the reality is that we’ve got to do some things in Montgomery, Alabama to make being a police officer more attractive. That includes pay; that includes myriad opportunities and leadership opportunities within the department; that includes allowing officers who have an interest the chance to get involved in public policy decisions around the police department. There are some police officers who were very interested in criminal justice policy and wish there was a track within the police department that allowed them to pursue those interests. I know of a number of police officers who were interested in going to law school. What if we had a joint program where you could be a police officer and then go to Jones law school at night? And we really made that a particular track that was available for some officers? I used to be an assistant U.S. Attorney. I would have loved to work with police officers who are better trained in the law, because they would have better understood their legal responsibilities under the Constitution. I think there are any number of things that we can do to make being a police officer more attractive for talented young men and women in this community.
There’s another problem, though. I’ll very candidly say that there are too many loose guns in West Montgomery.
TCS: That was my next question.
AD: When I was in Congress, I had a very strong Second Amendment record. I consider myself a Second Amendment supporter. I do think the right to bear arms is a personal right and not just something related to militias. I strongly think that gun possession and gun ownership are constitutional rights. But, every right we have within the Constitution has some parameters and constraints. We have a right to free speech, but you can’t defame somebody, or you can’t walk into AMC theater at the eight o’clock the night “Avengers” opens and yell “fire!”
I think that it is too easy for young men in this community to get access to guns. I think it is too easy for people who are abusers and who are perpetrators of violence to get access to guns. Now, this is beyond what a mayor can do. But, understand that the mayor is also the chief lobbyist for this city. If I were Mayor of Montgomery, I would go to the other big city mayors in this state and try to form a coalition to ask the Alabama Legislature to do the following: we need to emulate Florida and Indiana, two strong Second Amendment states that allow third parties to go to court to get protective orders against dangerous individuals owning or possessing firearms. If you’re in Florida or Indiana and you are a parent who knows that your son is fraternizing with gang members, you can go to court and get a restraining order against the kid down the street, who you believe is a gang member, from owning or possessing a gun. You have more ability if you’re a victim of domestic abuse to get a restraining order against someone possessing a gun. Right now the law in Alabama for restraining orders tend to focus on keeping people a certain distance away. In Florida and Indiana, restraining orders focus on preventing possession of firearms. That is a tool that we need in Alabama. And I’m sure there’d be some resistance to that, but the reality is that in Montgomery, Alabama, we have a large number of unsolved homicides every year. It’s a little bit hard to pin the data down. But, of the soft homicides, it appears about 40 percent of them are domestic in Montgomery, which means that there are homicides happening between people who know each other, not just in a romantic relationship or a marriage, but people who know each other and are friends or acquaintances. Well, the reality is that the level of domestic-related homicides in this community suggest that we need a stronger tool to allow individuals to go to court to stop dangerous people from possessing guns. In Florida and Indiana can figured out a way to do it – Indiana is a very red state and Florida sure votes like a red state – if those two strong Second Amendment states have seen their way to giving third parties and courts this authority, we need to follow that same direction. I’ll also say I do not agree with Senator Allen’s bill from Tuscaloosa that would do away with the laws and concealed carry in this state. I know there are some readers of yours and folks who may listen to this who are supportive of that legislation, but concealed carry permits have been around for a long time. And they’ve existed in the reddest of jurisdictions. I understand the arguments that people are making. I understand s=Senator Allen’s position, and I’ve known him for a very long time. But I agree with Sheriff Cunningham in Montgomery. You do away with concealed carry permits, you’re going to have more people who are criminals walking around with guns. Concealed carry permits are one way we enforce the prohibitions that we do have that say that felons can have guns. Concealed carry permits also become a way to, frankly, arrest people who’ve done something which wouldn’t get them off the street, but the fact that they’re carrying a gun without a license is enough to get them or without a permit is enough to get them off the street. Concealed carry permits are law enforcement tool that allows a group of dangerous people to be arrested, and I don’t want to take that away.
TCS: Maybe it’s not a law enforcement thing. You heard about the New Year’s Eve thing (widespread and rapidfire gunshots). And it’s not just New Year’s Eve, though, I mean it’s most nights. I live in Cloverdale-Idelwild, and most nights you hear gunfire.
AD: That’s what I hear.
TCS: And it’s just… it’s just scary. It’s concerning. It kind of leaves you unnerved. And my thought is, things like that, just like the education, people want to feel safe in their community.
AD: Of course, they do.
TCS: But, how do you even start with a problem like that? People just firing guns? They might not even be firing at anybody.
AD: Well, this makes the point that, frankly, loosening the gun laws we have is absolutely the wrong course. And that’s why I think Senator Allen’s approach the wrong one. It also makes the point that courts need more tools to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people. These are things that are beyond what the mayor and city council can do. But, going back to that point that the mayor is the chief advocate for this city. Same way Sheriff Cunningham went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and testified against the bill to weaken concealed carry laws. If I were Mayor, I would have been standing right there with him. The mayors of these big cities in this state have a very particular voice and a very specific kind of pulpit. So I think that it’s legitimate for the mayor of the city to ask the legislature for more tools and certainly legitimate to oppose efforts that will weaken the protections we do have.
Let me make one other point. We also have a gang problem in this city and a larger police force
would enable us to better target the gang problem that exists in Montgomery. I know there’s some dispute in some sectors of the city about a whether or not we have a gang problem. If for some reason you doubt that there’s a gang problem in Montgomery I will tell you how to resolve your doubt: go talk to teachers and Bellengrath; go talk to teachers at Capitol Heights; go talk to teachers at Lee and ask them whether they think there’s a gang problem. And they will say absolutely, I just witnessed it an hour ago. When you have children in the schools who are being recruited by gang members and you have gang members openly walking around flashing the gang insignia and wearing what appear to be gang paraphernalia, that’s unacceptable. We have gangs that exist in this city, and I don’t care if they’re not as organized and may not be as coherent as, say, a gang in Los Angeles or Chicago in terms of their organize and structure. If you’re a group of people who’ve gotten together and your purpose is to commit crimes and mayhem, I’m going to call you a gang. The fact that you may not know the secret handshake if you ran to or by member from LA does not mean you’re not a gang. And I think the reality is that this is a problem in our community that we’ve got to face up to. It is affecting our children, and I think it’s a part of this gun violence we’re seeing in our schools. I don’t know exactly what happened at Lee a few weeks ago, but when you are seeing a group of children 14 and 15 get together to rob another kid during the day, something tells me I see the hand of the gang presence in that.
TCS: Switching to economic development. What do you see as the next big economic development opportunities for this city?
AD: Well, it’s cyberspace. It’s information technology. When you look at the strides that we’re making in the area of high tech, when you’re looking at the designation we received just yesterday for “smart cities” designated in the country, for advanced “smart cities,” there’s no question that this ought to be the next wave of jobs in Montgomery. There’s no question that this ought to be the next wave of economic growth. The challenge for the next mayor of Montgomery is going to be to continue this progress and to push it to the next level. And to make this a city that is fully conducive to being what Chattanooga became about 10 years ago. I think that Montgomery, Alabama, has struggled from having too many low-wage jobs. I think that Montgomery, Alabama has not won a major industrial competition since we got Hyundai. Even the Air Force competition we won several years ago was a function of the fact that level work is already being done here. We have not won a free-standing industrial competition since Hyundai in 2001.
When GE decided to put its aviation plant in Auburn instead of Montgomery, when you pick up your newspaper every few days and you read about these companies that are popping up in Cullman, that are popping up and Troy, popping up at Wilcox County instead of Montgomery, Alabama, that tells me that we need to up our game when it comes to economic development. But how we master the new cyber economy, how we maximize the cyber economy in this community is a very important challenge for the next mayor. And I’m pretty confident that all 10 of us in this race are not experts in this endeavor, so you’re going to have to go out and hire and recruit quality of economic development leadership that understands how you make a city as cyber friendly as you possibly can. And how you then use that status as a cyber friendly city to deal with income inequality, how you use it to grow the wage base, how you use it to create more upward mobility in your city. These are the challenges the next mayor is going to face, and I think it’s going to take a mayor who understands how central this is to our future.
TCS: Switching to politics for a minute. You spent four terms in Congress?
TCS: You were a pretty prominent Congressman. You were involved in House leadership at the time, introduced the president at the convention. I mean, you were very prominent member of Congress. Obviously ran for governor after that.
AD: It’s all downhill after after 43, I’ve found.
TCS: Oh, boy.
AD: You’ll learn.
TCS: Life after Congress, huhg.
AD: Well, life after 43. Ha ha.
TCS: Ha ha, well, specifically in Congress because I’m in the process and how experiences bleed into others. Specifically in Congress because you represented part of this area. How did that experience and what did you learn from those years that translates into being mayor?
AD: Well, Congress exposes you to public policy at a very high level. If you’re a good congressman, you understand a lot of public policy. If you’re a good Congressman, you understand how ideas impact people’s lives. If you’re a good congressman, you understand the importance of leveraging federal grant opportunities and federal programs into municipalities. My experience representing the 7th District, I think, is very good preparation to be mayor of this city. If I’m mayor of this city, I’m going to understand that Montgomery has to have a relationship with Washington, no the matter the identity of the person at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’m going to understand that Montgomery has to have a relationship with the governor, no matter who the governor of this state is. If I’m mayor of this city, I’m going to understand that a part of the things that Montgomery wants to do can be paid for by various federal sources if you know how to look for them. I’m amazed to this day that Montgomery never had a Hope Six housing program. When I was in Congress, I was successful two years in a row at saving the Hope Six housing program. I’m amazed that Montgomery was the only big city in this state that never had a Hope Six program and the program sort of withered away in the last several years. But, that’s an opportunity when government should have taken advantage and we would have benefited from a mayor who understood the importance of Hope Six, or understood what that program was. I look at the parts of the tax bill that passed last year – the the opportunity zones. Well, Governor Ivey designated number of opportunities zones. Birmingham had roughly doubled the number that Montgomery got. At this point, Birmingham is not that much bigger than Montgomery. The reality is that we should have been much more competitive in that process. We should have been much more intentional about designing a strategy. And we need to be tapping the sort of massive community involvement and these opportunities zones that Birmingham has put in place under Randall Woodfin. The reality is that if the mayor of this city understands the broader policy issues and understands the intersection in Washington, DC, there’s a benefit. There are a number of people in this race, and there are a couple who’ve been very successful in the private sector or the military. That’s great experience. There’s one who’s a probate judge, there’s one as a county commissioner. Those are all great experiences. I’m the one person in this race who has held a high level political job, done it well, done it, I would candidly say, in an exemplary fashion.
The reason I was a part of House leadership was the record and reputation I had in Congress. The reason that I was reelected two cycles in a row by the biggest margin of anybody who faced a primary in this country in 2004 and 2006 – that was a function of my effectiveness as a congressman. The reality is that I’m the one person in this race who’s proven I can hold a high level political job and do it successfully and do it well. I do think that’s an important credential. But there’s also something else I proved I can do in Congress: That’s work with people across lines, across racial lines, across ideological lines and across party lines. And yes, it’s true. I’ve had experience in both political parties. So this is what that means. I know how to stand up in front of a group of people on one side of town, and a group of people on the other side of town, who ostensibly have nothing in common, and know how rally both of them behind the cause.
TCS: That was my next question. You dabbled a bit in Republican politics. Is it so that you kept that as a benefit?
AD: Well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t think there’s anybody else in this race who has stood up and given speeches to both the Tea Party and the NAACP. I had done that in the course of my experience. And here’s what I’ve learned that if you actually strip away the national issues, and you get to people’s core values: you’d be surprised how many core values are shared between the kind of folks who go to Tea Party events in Wetumpka and the kind of people who go to NAACP events at Alabama State. They’re both equally concerned about the future of their children. They both want better jobs for their kids. They both want their kids’ educations to be as good as they possibly can be. They both expect public schools to be able to provide that education instead of having to have to pay out of pocket to pay for private schools. If you’ve actually been in the business in your political life of talking to people from both sides, you come away with a strong sense of how aligned they are in many common values. I think that’s an advantage in this race. I think that’s an advantage over one of my opponents who has spent his entire career primarily interacting with Democrats and making the case to Democrats and making the case within the narrow confines the political machine he comes from. I’m someone who knows how to bring this community together, and it’s making a difference in this race. One of the things we were most heartened about in our last round of polling several weeks ago: I lead simultaneously in the wealthiest district in this city, Council District 9, and in the poorest council district, Council District Four. When you’ve got the same guy in a crowded field who’s leading in CD 9 and CD 4 – CD 9 is the most Republican, most affluent district in the city; CD 4 is the most Democratic, most low income district. When you’re able to lead and both of those places, it says something about what kind of a unifier you can be. It says something about your potential to bring the city together.
TCS: The last race ended kind of chippy four years ago. Why was that? What happened?
AD: You used that same phrase when you interviewed Steven Reed a few weeks ago. So, I’d have to ask you what chippy means.
TCS: Well, first of all, I was living in D.C. at the time but paying attention to the race, and I was in town for the last week leading up to election night. And it seemed like y’all ended well…
AD: Here’s what I would say. I have been in five or six contested political races. I had one or two where I was opposed, but I’ve never been in a political race that did not get, to use your term, chippy. I’ve never been in a political race where you haven’t had some exchange of elbows. I think that’s the nature of politics. I have great respect for Mayor Strange. Obviously, I’m not going to run the city the same way he would. I don’t think anybody this race is going to run this the city the exact same way you would. There’s a individual stamp every mayor puts on this office. I think he ran a very effective campaign four years ago. I think that he used his resources more effectively than we did. He did a much better job attacking digital than we did. He did a much better job, again,in managing his resources. I come back to that, it was an important factor in that race. He’s not running this time. I will say that in the hundreds of calls I made, the hundreds of people I’ve interacted with in this race, not a single person has said to me, “I can’t
support you because you ran against Todd Strange last time.” Now, there were a couple of big donors who were friends of his that aren’t returning my phone calls. I could surmise that with those two guys, and they know who they are, that may have something to do with it. But that’s two guys. The reality is that – I repeat that point – I’ve not had one person say to me, “Davis, I agree with you. I like your views, but I just can’t get past your criticisms of Mayor strange four years ago.” So I don’t think that’s that much of a factor. I think all of us running in this race are going to have to honestly define ourselves by where we want the city to go in a future-oriented sort of way, not a retrospective sort of way.
They’re going to be a bunch of debates in this race. I would be surprised if during any of the 10 to 12 debates that I know are being organized right now being scheduled right now – I’d be surprised if a single person asked the question “on December 3 2016, and Todd Strange did this. What would you have done on December 3, 2016?”
I think people focused on the future. And as I’ve, as I’ve said to Mayor Strange, if I’m mayor of this city, the first big meeting I’m going to have with him – the election runoff is October 8th – The first big meeting I’m going to have is with him on October 9, to sit down and talk about the transition. And I hope we’ll do it over lunch. And I hope we’ll have a three hour lunch to really talk about where we’re going this city, and to talk about how we can preserve the things that we need to preserve, how we can maybe dig harder into some areas and you said some trouble with and to really talk about personnel to talk about who ought to stay and who ought to go. The next mayor of the city will need to have that relationship with Todd. And I think that even though he won’t be mayor of this city, I’m pretty certain that Todd’s going to continue to be a very influential figure in this community. And the kind of conversation I’ve talked about for this community needs to have around public education and wellness ties, trying to be a part of that. And I’m going to ask him to play a very fundamental role and developing this plan to free us from the state intervention. I think he’ll be willing to play that role and I certainly will ask him to.
TCS: You mentioned a runoff. So, horse race wise, What’s going to happen? I mean, it’s still four months away three months away.
AD: You know, I always tell people, if you want to see our polling, you got to pay the invoice. You know, so you have to sort of take which you can get. Here’s what we’ve seen in our polling: this race has been remarkably stable for about a year and a half. We did our first polling over a year and a half ago and the numbers aren’t that different than they are now. The reality is that Reed’s numbers have not moved very much. My numbers haven’t moved very much. Candidly, Dean’s and Woods’ numbers haven’t moved very much. Crowell is a new entrant. Right now, I think this race is a race where Reed does have an edge. I think I’m second. I think Crowell and Woods and Dean are all sort of bunched together around 8-9 percent. I think that the other guys are all around one or two. That can all change. No question that if one of the guys around one or two runs a fantastic campaign, that could change. There’s no question that if one of the guys bunched around three, four and five, end up getting the resources or run the right campaign, they can move up. If we run a bad campaign, we can move down. I think that right now 80% of voters in this city are not focused on this race. And I think that the polling today pretty much reflects name recognition and not much more than that. I think you will see a time when people lock into this race.
Now, I will say this: I did have a chance to read the interview that you did a week ago. I think that Steven Reed is a smart guy who knows how to avoid answering questions in an interview. I think he is a guy who’s been well trained politically by a political master. But what I consistently hear is, where’s he going to take the city? What are his ideas? Does he have plans? Does he have proposals? Can he go beyond the generalities about working with everybody, and the generalities about trying good ideas that have been tried elsewhere? I thought was interesting that on his Facebook page last week, he posted an article about LeBron James’s school. Well, I don’t know that he read the article because if you read it, he would have realized that LeBron James school is a charter school. Well, Steven has criticized charter schools before various groups in this city and has said that’s not a part of his vision as mayor. But he says on his Facebook page that this is the kind of change I’d like to see as mayor of Montgomery. Read the article, Judge. LeBron’s school is a charter school.
The reality is that – it’s that sort of disconnect between rhetoric and policy, or that disconnect between what he says he wants some particular views that he has – that I think do give people some pause. I think Steven has done a decent job building a base among younger voters in this city, and we have to cut into that. I think that Steven has done a very good job in terms of building a social media presence, and he’s done a great job of engaging people in social media. He’s better at that than we are. I don’t think that Steven has laid out anything resembling a vision of where he would take this city, and I’m very confident that we’re going to continue to outstrip him in that regard. And I think the debates will be telling them that regard and if it’s a one on one race between August 28 of October eight, I think the differences will be very clear to people in this community.
TCS: Probably not the last time we’ll hear some contrast there. Congressman, thank you for your time.
AD: Thank you for your time.