Matthew Stokes: Is Maddox truly progressive?

Matthew Stokes: Is Maddox truly progressive?

It is a common tendency among Democrats to proclaim themselves as progressive.  While many of people still use the word liberal to describe their Democratic friends and neighbors, that word has become an epithet, and so progressive is the more common term.  

It’s a fair point, as it was the progressive movement in American history that gave birth to modern liberalism. It only makes sense that Democrats on the left would take up this banner.  Beyond that, many within the party and the movement not only think of themselves as inheritors of the progressive tradition, but also as the ones to move us all into the future. Remember Barack Obama’s call to action?  “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” The American left not only views itself as enthusiastic, but as the ones working to bring us all to an innovative future.

This brings me to Walt Maddox.  The Tuscaloosa mayor is struggling to keep up with incumbent Governor Kay Ivey.  In some ways, I think this is an indictment of a lazy electorate that is not even bothering to hear from Maddox, but I have to admit that part of the problem stems from the fact that Maddox is just a really boring candidate.  While I’m personally proud to have spent several years in Tuscaloosa, I’m starting to wonder if Maddox’s time as mayor just has not prepared him to really address all of the issues that face our state. Maddox wants to present himself as the young, enthusiastic, and forward-looking candidate, but so far that effort has mostly fizzled.  I think Maddox’s experience with Uber is a good reason why.

First, a quick word about technology.  I respect the position that finds technological advances disconcerting.  I spend too much time online and on my iPhone, and my wife and I severely limit screen time for our own children.  Indeed, I think educators are making a critical error in assuming that technology is the best means of educating children in the present moment.  I do not fault a person or an institution for being slow to make wholesale changes with regard to technology. Not all technologies are worth adopting, and many more are only worth adopting after careful consideration.  Uber, Lyft, and other ride sharing services are easy calls, however. These apps have disrupted traditional cab services in major cities, and there are arguments about how to integrate new technologies with existing economic behaviors.  That’s an argument for New York City; it is not an argument for Birmingham, and it certainly isn’t an argument for Tuscaloosa. Seriously – have you ever tried to hail a cab on the Strip?

All the same, Maddox’s response to Uber is telling.  According to an October 2014 piece in al.com, the city of Tuscaloosa, under Maddox’s leadership, was only willing to negotiate with the ride-sharing company unless Uber agreed to a series of burdensome regulations.  While the regulations were theoretically in place to protect riders, they created a negative incentive for Uber, and it became too difficult to run the business.

Consequently, the company and its drivers were unwilling to commit to them.  Moreover, the city threatened drivers with arrest for failing to comply. Maddox made a video – complete with dry erase board! – explaining his paternalistic rationale for opposing Uber. You can watch it here, embedded in this additional piece from al.com, also dated October 2014.  It gets better, though. In May 2015, Cameron Smith noted in al.com that Maddox was in communication with Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty about attempts to keep Uber and other ride-sharing services out of Alabama altogether.  This was supposedly done under the pretext of consumer safety, but oddly enough, other cities and states had made it work just fine. It’s been said that on the campaign stump, Maddox resembles a Baptist preacher at a revival, but in that video, he seems more like Dana Carvey’s Church Lady.  (Millennials, ask your parents).

While this issue has been forgotten during the campaign, I think it gives some insight into Maddox’s thought process.  He did not see Uber as innovative technology that could benefit the people of Tuscaloosa. He saw its presence as an opportunity for regulations, licenses and fees.  This betrays his image as the candidate of progress and development. His posture on this relatively simple issue was backwards..He did not trust individual citizens to make good judgments with their own money and resources.  He and his municipal allies saw in Uber an chance to bring in fees, even though such regulations usually burden the economy and stifle innovation. Voters who think Maddox is going to lead Alabama into the future should think again.  He might well do so, but only with businesses willing to play by his rules. In other words, he’ll get along just fine with the good old boy networks who practice cronyism as every turn.

Mayor Maddox demonstrated a pointless resistance to a helpful new technology, and was unwilling to allow citizens to freely use their resources to benefit themselves and others.  What confidence do we have that Governor Maddox would be any less backwards and controlling?

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at yellingstopal@gmail.com.