By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
The race for Senate District 10 in Northeast Alabama has turned out to be one of the most closely-watched legislative contests this year.
Current State Sen. Phil Williams, a Republican, is stepping down after two terms. Vying for the open seat are State Rep. Craig Ford, a former leading Democrat turned Independent, and political newcomer Andrew Jones, who is the Republican nominee.
Jones surprised many by defeating State Rep. Mac Butler in the GOP primary by seven points, and Republicans are hopeful that Jones’ appeal as a political outsider will win over voters. Ford, who has served in the Legislature since 2001, and his father before him since 1978, is counting on his popularity with voters and reputation from many years of service to carry the day.
Senate District 10 includes all of Etowah and Cherokee Counties, as well as portions of Dekalb and St. Clair Counties. As of the 2010 census, around 125,075 citizens live in the district. Some of the major cities in the district are Gadsden, Rainbow City, Centre, and Cedar Bluff.
Cherokee County overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election with not a single precinct going for Hillary Clinton. The Dekalb southern precincts were also extremely red and so is most of Etowah County except for the Gadsden area.
In the 2014 election, the district went to Republican Phil Williams in a tight race with 52 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Sen. Larry Means got 47.9 percent. Williams declined to run for reelection this year but is strongly supporting Jones as Chairman of the Etowah County GOP.
Cash on Hand: $106,940.9
Amount raised in September: $74,950
Total raised in October as of 10/29: $124,342
Total expenditures: $379,272.56
Cash on Hand: $ 40,935.10
Total raised in September: $69,450
Total raised in October as of 10/29: $83,251
Total expenditures: $155,785.37
Craig Ford has been the state representative for House District 28 since 2001 and served as the House Minority Leader for the Democrats from 2010 to 2016. He is now trying his hand at winning the Senate seat for District 10 and is also running as an independent this time around.
Ford told Alabama Daily News that his motivations for becoming an Independent were his policy disagreements with the national Democratic party and his disappointment with how the state Democratic party is being run.
Ford said that he no longer saw himself aligning with the ideas or values of what Democrats advocate nationally and that he now more aligns himself with conservative principles and is, in general, doesn’t base his vote on party lines any more.
“It used to be that all politics are local, but now it seems that national politics has dictated to a lot of voters of how local races should go,” Ford said. “I disagree with the state party leadership and I called on Nancy Worley to resign in the past. I feel like they forgot about the principles and what they should be standing for and fighting for as Democrats.”
Ford said that even if Worley had not been re-elected as party chair, he still would have left the party because his conservative ideas and principles are not aligned with the Democrats views’ on policy.
The two biggest issues Ford sees facing District 10 are education and infrastructure. Infrastructure in the district needs to be fixed in order to bring in better jobs and to improve the ones they already have, Ford explained.
“With roads brings jobs. When you can get an 18-wheeler to and from a main highway, it lessens time and time is money to these large corporations. To get an 18-wheeler to and from without stopping, and we are handcuffed here with the southside bridge, I-759, highway 411, highway 77, and in Dekalb County, they need road work. So it’s a huge issue infrastructure,” Ford said.
When it comes to education, Ford’s main concern is to fully fund public education, including plus ups for pre-k and teacher pay raises. He opposes charter schools and favors repealing the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows children in failing school districts to attend private schools through tax-credit funded scholarships.
“Pre-K is of the utmost importance, and I have been on the education committee for a few years where we have funded it and we will continue to fund it,” Ford said. “The problem with pre-k is that after the third year the school systems have to pick up the tab, so we need to offer more incentives in that area to help fund pre-k at a state level instead of turning it over at a local level after the third year.”
When asked if he would like to see an education lottery, Ford said he wouldn’t mind an education lottery but thinks the lottery has to be passed in the next session regardless of where the money ends up because the state is missing out on some major revenue.
“I have been the lottery legislator down there [in Montgomery] for the last four and five years and we almost past it last session but this is the time to pass it. We’re looking at ways to raise money without raising taxes. And this is a voluntary tax that gives at least $330 million to Georgia,” Ford said.
For ways to help fund infrastructure projects, Ford doesn’t think that raising the gas tax would be the best way to bring in money and could get controversial when discussing which projects should get the funding. Ford did say that the lottery should be looked at as a way to fund infrastructure needs.
Medicaid is the next big topic on Ford’s mind. He said that he doesn’t think the state has any other option than to expand Medicaid before any more hospitals close. He was pointed in his criticism of the state’s largest health insurer and said more competition is needed to bring down prices.
“Blue Cross and Blue Shield have a monopoly on Alabama and that’s wrong. Blue Cross and Blue Shield have hurt health care in the state of Alabama. They’ve hurt physicians reimbursement, they’ve hurt our patients, so I think it’s a bad idea to allow them to be the only ones. We need to open up the state lines and allow competition,” Ford said.
Mental health is another big concern for Ford and something he thinks should be addressed in the next legislative session.
“We’ve shut down four out five mental health hospitals in Alabama. We have a lot of people that need treatment and they deserve treatment. I believe it is our duties as citizens and Alabamians to take care of the mentally ill and make sure that we fully fund mental health,” Ford said.
All in all, there are many similarities between Ford and Jones. However, Ford points to his experience as a legislator and a long-term business owner as setting him apart as a candidate.
“I’ve been a small business owner for 20 years and I employee 14 people and provide jobs for people in this community and I understand the needs and struggles of being a small business owner and being married with children,” Ford said. “I know the ups and definitely the downs of raising kids and being married. I think that brings a lot of experience to the table.”
As it is coming down to the wire now in the last week of campaigning, Ford said that he is confident of where he stands. He believes that switching to run as an Independent has been a good choice for him and something that made sense to do.
“Ever since I’ve been elected I’ve always been an independent and an independent voter. I’m going to vote what’s best for the district and the people not for a party,” Ford said. “I love running as an independent, I’m not going to allow anyone to tell me how to vote or what to do, I’m going to continue to do what’s best for Senate District 10.”
Ford also says that he’s not worried about losing support from his former Democratic base and doesn’t think straight ticket voters will hurt his chances either.
“I’m banking on straight ticket Republicans and straight Democrats. I hope they’ll bubble in their party and then double bubble me. Regardless of party, it doesn’t matter to me. We’re all Alabamians and we all need to work together to solve these problems,” Ford said.
Ford told Alabama Daily News his strength is in Etowah County, but it all comes down to who decides to show up to the polls.
Andrew Jones is the Republican candidate in this race, and he has been really pushing his identity as a lifelong conservative in hopes of contrasting his dedication to conservative values and principles to Ford’s recent change of heart.
Jones likes to point out his status as a political newcomer and says being an outsider is an asset for him and for the people of District 10. His professional background consists of owning his own coffee roasting business and helping run his family’s fourth-generation cattle farm.
The most pressing issue that Jones sees facing District 10 is the need to improve infrastructure. Jones says Ford could have done more with his 18 years in the House.
“We have major infrastructure needs that have not been met over the past few years. My opponent just wants everyone to believe that even though he’s been the Representative for 18 years, that these things have just happened and he didn’t have anything to do with it. But the fact is we need someone who’s going to make infrastructure a priority and we’ve been focused on that since day one,” Jones said.
In order to make sure the state has the funds to deal with those infrastructure problems, Jones has a two-step plan. First, he wants to make sure that all of the funds from the gas tax are actually going towards infrastructure projects. Second, he wants to have a plan in place for when a federal infrastructure bill happens.
“What I mean by that is most of the federal infrastructure bills being discussed talk about a 70/30 federal match. So that means we need to have 30 percent in order to match the 70 percent that the federal government would provide. Currently, that doesn’t exist. So we need to make sure we’ve rearranged priorities and make sure all the funding that’s designated for infrastructure goes there. And then if that’s not sufficient then we can talk about the gas tax,” Jones said.
As November 6th keeps inching closer and closer, the race for District 10 has also gotten a lot more heated with both campaigns throwing out attack ads against each other. Jones has come under fire from Ford with recent ads saying that he is in favor of charter schools and is taking money away from public education, but Jones says none of that is true.
“I’ve always said that I’m for public education. I’m a product of public education. I’m not for taking any money whatsoever out of public education. I’m a big believer in public education, expanding pre-K, providing opportunities for small schools, supporting teacher pay raise and I’m not a proponent of charter schools although that’s been alleged in this campaign as well,” Jones said.
Jones also said that he does think there are problems with the Accountability Act and thinks it should be amended. If it can’t be fixes, a repeal should be considered, he said.
Ford also accuses Jones of not supporting a lottery, but again, Jones said the truth is the exact opposite.
“I’ve always said that I support a public vote on the lottery. I think it’s too important of an issue for a bunch of politicians in a smoke-filled room to decide. So I think the public needs to vote on that. There are three areas that I believe should be a high priority, if we were to have a lottery. And those are education, funding for mental health, and infrastructure,” Jones said.
When it comes to expanding Medicaid, and the related issues facing Alabama with health care, Jones said that the principle of expanding Medicaid is a good idea, but worries the state will not be able to afford it, so he is cautious of giving it his full support.
“The thing is we have to make sure that there is adequate funding to sustain it once we decide to expand. The worst thing in the world would be to expand, not have the resources to sustain that, and then have to pull back,” Jones said. “We need to make sure before we expand that we’re able to meet the needs of an expansion.”
When asked what his response was to Ford’s comments about Jones’ inexperience and the fact that Ford has already served in the legislature for 18 years, Jones said that the experiences he has gained are actually what Montgomery needs.
“What has he accomplished? I think we need real world experience in Montgomery. I have experience in business and farming and I have a public policy degree. So I believe I bring a combination of experience that’s unique and something that we need desperately in the legislature,” Jones said.
Jones also does not believe that Ford is as staunchly a conservative or cares about conservative principles as Ford claims he does. Jones believes Ford’s past record in voting with liberal tendencies and more Democratic stances should not be forgotten when considering who to vote for.
“You know a zebra can’t change his stripes. People have a record and you can’t wake up one morning and just decide that you’re something else and leave your record behind and that’s where I come down with Mr. Ford’s record,” Jones said.
And that is ultimately what Jones thinks this race will come down to. Jones believes that the voters will decide their candidate based on what values they align with the best, and thinks Ford has not been consistent enough in his stances on values.
“You can’t say that you’re against illegal immigration and that you are pro-life if you skip those votes because they’re uncomfortable to take. And there are situations where he has voted on, basically every other bill that day, but not take a position on immigration and pro-life issues. I think that’s a big problem,” Jones said.
All in all, Jones says he is pretty confident heading into the end of his campaign and says that all of the polling he has done so far has always shown him coming out ahead of Ford by five, six, and sometimes eight points. He said he’s confident that voters will know who the true conservative is in the race and that the Republican base will come out for him in the end.
Here are the most recent video ads for each campaign: