By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Probate Judge Steven Reed recently announced he would run for mayor of Alabama’s Capital City, adding his name to a growing list of candidates to replace outgoing two-term Mayor Todd Strange.
Reed has an impressive education background, a political pedigree and deep roots in the Montgomery community, all of which makes him a formidable candidate for the city’s top job. He also has something else: a current top job of his own. As Montgomery County Probate Judge, Reed is the top elected official in the county. It’s a plum position with good pay and benefits – one that Reed could have probably held onto for as long as he wanted – plus a good potential launching point for a future campaign for Congress or statewide office.
So why would Reed want to leave that position and become Montgomery’s mayor? It’s about influencing the city’s future, he says, and that’s tough to do from the probate court.
Alabama Daily News sat down with Reed to ask him about his campaign for mayor, his views on the issues of education, economic development and crime, and where he sees the race heading leading up to the August 27 election.
Todd C. Stacy: Let’s just start at the beginning. Tell me why you’re running.
Judge Steven Reed: Well, I’m running to influence outcomes more than I can from the probate court. I’m running to influence outcomes in this community, both with our present and our future. And I just think I’m the best person to address some of the issues that we have right before us. Some of these I’ve tried to address from the probate court but haven’t really been able to get the traction as probate judge who doesn’t have a vote on the county commission or, you know, haven’t really been able to get some of the ideas through at the city level either. I feel a concern that I don’t want to see the city getting passed by and not keep up with the communities and cities that I want to keep up with.
TCS: What cities are those?
Richmond, Virginia. Chattanooga, Spartanburg and Columbia South Carolina. So many cities are kind of moving forward and progressing and we’re not doing the same thing at the pace that we need to. I think we’ve had some some good things take place, but in this global market where you know you got be running and pretty fast and if you’re just kind of jogging along there then it’s real easy to get lapped. And I think we have cities that really don’t have the assets that we have, but they’ve been more aggressive than we have, probably have more vision about how to implement what they want their communities to be.
TCS: You’re the probate judge – the top elected official around here. And yet you sound frustrated by things you can’t control at the city level.
SR: Oh certainly. It’s certainly frustratiing. You know, I think what we’ve done in the probate court has been trying to identify problems and come up with innovative solutions to make government work for the people in the efficient manner. And we benchmark in the courts and not just probate courts but just court systems around the country as to how we can do more and how we can do better with everything that’s underneath the umbrella from the legal to the administrative to the elections – everything that’s on under the umbrella. And I believe we’ve been able to do that. At the same time, we probably have not been able to do as much as I would like to see us do at the county level outside of the court system itself. And, you know, you respect all the roles and responsibilities of the commissioners and I do. But at the same time I just think that there are some opportunities that we have to capitalize on as a community in order to be a place where people really want to build their homes, grow their businesses, start a family and live a great life.
That’s harder to do because the competition is a lot more fierce and the economic environment is just a lot different. So it takes, in my opinion, a different approach, a more aggressive approach to addressing these issues before they become insurmountable. So that’s kind of been the frustrating part, whether’ it’s public safety, whether it’s education, whether it’s economic development or neighborhood revitalization. All of those are areas that, when you look at the data and where people are moving and why are they moving, are things that people factor in -I don’t care if they are 25 or 65. So those are things that I’d like to be able to have more of a thumbprint on than what I do right now.
TCS: Well you just hit on the big issues. Any city conversation comes back to education and violence, or public safety. Start with public safety. It’s been a concern for a long time but it seems like that has gotten moreso over the last couple of years. How does a mayor improve public safety in this city?
SR: I think we have to be a more data-driven public safety organization that uses data tools to make sure we’re allocating resources where we need them to be and how we need them to be. And I think if we are willing to invest in that, one, it can change the perception of both folks who want to commit crimes and those who are victims of crime as it relates to what the approach is from the city. I used to play defense all throughout my life and in sports all the way through college. That’s because I wasn’t good enough to play offense. So, you know when you’re playing defense you have to react to what the offense does, most of the time, anyway. But I think as a city, our public safety department has to go on offense. We have to build relationships with the community to give them a sense of who we are and what we’re trying to do. And I believe with overwhelmingly most residents understand and appreciate that.
I think, second of all, we have to be respectful of the views that somebody may have abouy police in general. And we have to be cognizant and aware of the history and the precedent for why that may exist. You had to kind of build a trust factor, and I think the MPD has done a good job of attempting to do that, we just need to continue to build on it.
And then I think we have to make sure that we have the best and the brightest first responders that we can have. I don’t think we should lose people because they come here to get trained, then hit a certain level, then go on to another community because they’re paying more or because they’re offering more benefits. We have to be more respectful of our first responders in terms of their day to day living interaction than we are.
But, as I mentioned before, the use of data is very important. Technology is very important in today’s crime fighting. It doesn’t matter what type of crime it is, we have to use data to understand where is it happening, when is it happening and how to we allocate the resources to address it. How do we allocate the resources? How do we improve response times? How do we improve efficiency to make sure that we’re following up on these crimes that are out there and are we using the best tools possible? There are tools out there, so are we willing to invest in them to make sure this is a community where everyone feels safe and where people who want to do bad things feel uncomfortable. That’s kind of the atmosphere you have to create.
TCS: So it starts with data.
SR: Data and personnel. Part of it is manpower. We’re not up to the amount of officers we need in our current [police] department. And that’s budget restricted, okay? So if that’s a budgetary issue then that’s something we have to be proactive and honest about saying, you know what, we probably need a few more officers on certain shifts. And right now we’re not able to do that because of the budget.
So, again we have to look at what type of community we want to be. Do we want to invest in this community, or do we want to divest? And if we want to invest in the community, if we want to have the best police force, then let’s make sure we have the best police force. And it’s not just numbers; it’s not just throwing more people at it, but it’s getting the best and brightest. Let’s go poach some of the best investigators. Let’s go poach some of the best detectives that we can get. Let’s keep our senior officers who know how some of these things go look at some type of adjustment to how we currently promote and retain our best folks. I think all of those are steps we can take to changing the reality and the perception of crime in today’s age where everything is viral. Everything is posted and it magnifies its impact. And I understand that.
TCS: Mayor Strange had a press conference the other day about guns. Do we have a gun problem in Montgomery and what is your plan to address that issue?
SR: Let’s first look at the impact of what the mayor proposes, and then we’ll assess whether or not it’s working. You know do you see any numbers year over year that shows a a different outcome than what they were doing before. If not, lets find the best practices. What community is doing an effective job of getting guns off the street and not in the hands of people that shouldn’t have them? Again that’s easier said than done. That’s not just a mayor’s process. That’s the community. That’s the schools. That’s the civic organizations. That’s individual accountability. That’s the ability to craft ordinances, and the don’t necessarily have to be just punitive, right? I think that we have to make sure that we’re giving kids other outlets that keep them out of some of the more tempting elements. Part of it are we doing things that are really capturing those young men and women at a vulnerable age and providing them in their parents with some resources that really would give them a sense of hope and provide an escape from where they are. .
That’s something that I think we can do a better job with with opening our community centers. I think we have to look at getting back into some and repurposing our communities centers. It’s not just about reopening them to be like it was when I was in junior high school. It’s a matter of repurposing those community centers as well. So I think all of those things play a part.
Back to your original question. I think that if someone has a n illegal handgun, then they have to be penalized. We have to get more involved in tracking that handgun. If we have a gang problem in this community, regardless of how it is described versus this city or that city, then a task force needs to be created to break that up. If there’s an illegal gun trade happening in this city, then let’s zero in on that gun trade, no different than you would a drug trade. If that’s where it’s coming from, then it has to be a priority because that impacts the livelihoods, that impacts people’s ability to work and it impacts our ability to develop the type of city we want to develop economically. Because quite frankly, no one wants to be in a place they don’t feel safe in, and that’s daytime or nighttime, at work or at home.
TCS: Let’s talk about education because it really that goes hand-in-hand with public safety in terms of people wanting to be in the community. It’s been a struggle for for many years. What’s the biggest problem facing education in Montgomery and how do you how do you attack it?
SR: The biggest problem is we’ve never funded it properly. You know the old cliche about having champagne taste on a beer budget. What do we expect out of education in particular in today’s world with the resources we allocate?
I think you have to start with universal, high-quality pre-K at the age of four. Some might even say three. But I think we have to get into it, and I would support funding that fully throughout the county working with the Board of Education. I don’t think that we can get to be where we want in this city without doing that. So I think one thing you have to have that all day high quality pre-K.
I think to we have to make sure that we’re investing in educational methodologies that are working across the board for the type of students that we have in our schools. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a one size fits all. And that then takes different forms. That may take STEM academies. That may take at-school tutoring. That may take looking at how we paying teachers what we’re paying teachers. That means more community involvement. That may also take really assessing different models of schooling. Let’s take a look at bringing in apprenticeships into middle schools. I think that that would be ideal and something that would benefit not only the students, but the community as well as our business environment. They’re going to be some students that don’t want to go to Morehouse College, and I understand that. They’re going to want to go pro right out of high school and go make some money. So we want to get to those students early enough that they see a path to success before, again, they kind of take a different path the puts them in the criminal justice system. We want to put them at least on the overall path of being a productive and successful citizen. And I also think that in educayion we have to be open to different approaches that many communities are using to bring in and motivate the best talent that we have as teachers and as leaders and as professionals. We have to commit to more professional development. We have to commit to looking at where the now facilities are where they need to be and whether or not we providing the type of wraparound services that really help students that may be coming from more challenging backgrounds than maybe my kids may be coming from. So, I want every kid to have the same opportunity that my kids have, and I believe that we’re capable of doing it as a community for the shor term and long term. Every option that we have to improve education should be on the table.
I just don’t think that it’s realistic to expect Mountain Brook education on a Marengo County budget. That’s no offense to the folks in Marengo county, but I just don’t think that that’s realistic. We have show that our priorities are in step with what we say we believe.
TCS: What about the Lanier feeder system charter?
SR: I’m open to whatever works with the kids. And at the end of the day, whether it’s that idea or whether something else, I’m open. Just tell me how I could partner with you and tell me I can work with you to really make public education better for every kid that’s currently in our system. And tell me how much skin I need to put in the game to get it done and I’ll get it done. I’m concerned about the outcome.
The reason I ask is Mayor Strange has been pushing charters as a way to turn the system around, and has gone around the Board when they tried to block him. Of course, the Board just bascially flipped after the last election. Are you saying you’d want them to be more in the driver’s seat on education.
I think we ought to be active partners. You know, we’re going to focus on running the city and those things that are necessary to make the city safe and necessary to make the city economically viable. Certainly education is a part of that. But I believe that the school board has to show leadership and they have to be kind of the conductors of what that looks like. Do I want to play a role in that? Absolutely. Do I want to work with the superintendent? Sure. And would be very active to help out in any way that I can if asked, and maybe even in some ways that I’m not asked. But it certainly has to be done with the new school board getting the opportunity to get their feet on the ground, understand and assess where the system is right now and then looking at what potential solutions may be. And then we can ask how can we help from the city? How can we help legislatively? How can we help across the board and really pushing that forward?
TCS: What are the next big opportunities for economic development for Montgomery?
SR: I think one is to support our small businesses and to strengthen our incubation of entrepreneurial ideas in this community.
We have a great foundation. We have the anchor of State Government. We also have the anchor of having a leading military base here with Maxwell Gunter. We have great universities, both in our city and closeby. And I believe that if we can invest in our small businesses and entrepreneurial talent, then we would begin to change the narrative as it relates to Montgomery. I think that means getting into more knowledge economy recruiting and actively pursuing more knowledge-based economy jobs. I think there’s enough to go around, and cities such as Richmond, Virginia that have shown that. I believe that if we combine that with certainly the service sector that we currently have then we have the ability to change that dynamic and bringing more white collar jobs, more higher paying jobs. It’s something I believe will give us a wider and more forceful economic footprint in this region relative to where we are right now. Because right now we’re not competing with the Huntsville area the Birmingham area and the Mobile area. We’re kind of in a part of Alabama that’s really having to reinvent itself, if you will. We have to go from the agrarian economy that sustained this part of the state for so long to something different. I think having Auburn University. Right up the road is a great asset. I think having Tuskegee University not too far from here is also a great asset to build on the STEM cluster that exists there with the engineering and the technologically-driven students that you have there to attract companies and to attract businesses that are looking for young talent. And I think when you combine that with the colleges we have here locally and that creates the ability to partner with the state of Alabama to partner with the federal government and Maxwell-Gunter and what they’re already doing. I think the city has done a lot of good things in the last few years released to be in a smart city and laying some of the groundwork for MGM Works and I think given a lot of people who’ve been a part of that.
I think you can build on that if you are aggressive and intentional about this type economy these are the type of jobs we want. Those jobs aren’t just going to come here. We’re not in Silicon Valley. We’re not on the East Coast. They are just going to come here because we are in Reston Virginia. We’re not.
But if we are deliberate in being everywhere those people are and making this city a place was easy to do business, where it is a low cost we need you get started, and where the city state and federal funds that are open for you to be invested in ideas, then I think we start to change that dynamic.
And when we start to do then is I believe we’re able to really shift the perception of what Montgomery is. I like the fact that people come here to reflect on the history of this city, but at the same time we want them to invest in its future. Right now we have a lot of eyes and ears on Montgomery in large part due to the Equal Justice Initiative, the memorial and legacy museum. I’ve heard the numbers that the mayor and the Chamber gave out showing over 400,000 more people came this year than last year. So those are tremendous numbers. But how do you build on those numbers? Certainly you do that through tourism, but you also do that by being a place where creatives and millennials and those and Generations Z and other generations really look at a little differently for the assets and the positives that you have. And that means you have to sell. I think we have to go where the talent is. I think we have to be to recalibrating and be nimble as city. We have a major institution 40 miles up the road and another one 20 miles up the road that are producing scientists and engineers. Let’s bring their attention our way so that that talent does not feel that they have to go out of state to really get in their field and where they want to be. And I think that’s how we you know that’s how we go about doing that. I don’t think we can be shy and bashful about it. I think we have to be all in on getting that done.
TCS: Let’s talk politics for a minute.
TCS: How do you think the race stands right now?
SR: Well I like my position, I’ll tell you that. I wouldn’t want to switch positions with anybody.
TCS: So you’ve done some polling?
SR: Yeah, we’ve done polling and we’ve got a cross-section of support. We lead in fundraising. We lead in everyone’s poll now. Of course, the only one that matters is the one on August 27. So you don’t get comfortable. But I like the support that we have.
I’m looking forward to really letting people know more about our vision. We have to restore hope in this community that things can be better for everyone and not just for a select few.
So I like the position that we are in politically. I like the business support that we have. I like the community support that we have. I like the cross-section of support that we have, whether generational, racial, or political ideologies – I like all of that. I think we win by building a broad based coalition that really pushes this movement past the finish line August 27 because what they want to see the future Montgomery become.
I’ve been apart of this community and working in unseen and unheard roles for a long time before I ran for probate judge. So I didn’t just come here and parachute in. I think people like my background that I bring as small businessmen and someone who has worked in a Fortune 100 company. And people like the political background of understanding how state and local and federal government works – it takes all of that. It’s gonna take knowing people in various parts of the community from Wynn Lakes to the West Side. You’ve got to be able to communicate with everybody and be able to kind of rally all of us behind a shared vision of how we get there.
TCS: Montgomery has some deep-seeded political divisions. Most recently we saw it in the State Senate race. It goes back a long way, and involves your family. Do you inherit that? Talk about what it’s like to be involved in that from a family standpoint and is that a challenge?
SR: No, I don’t think it’s a challenge. I think that people know me well enough to judge me based on who I am and what I’ve done, both politically and professionally. Those that know me personally know the type of person that I am.
I see it more as an asset, again understanding how things work and understanding how to get things done and that doesn’t happen by wishing them into fruition. That that takes a lot of hard work and it takes effort to really get those things done. I’m a believer that you have to be willing to confront whatever obstacles are in front of you if you are trying to get to a certain destination. And for me that is a brighter future for Montgomery. And I believe that there are times when there are people that you know and people you may like even who just may not see things the way you do. And you may try to, you know, persuade them and certainly talk to them diplomatically about it, but that’s what elections are for. Elections are the opportunity for people to express who they think they want to invest in to carry out a certain vision and implement a certain plan. And I respect the will of the people in this community no different I was by the will of people in the state of Alabama and in this country as it relates to how we elect our leaders. I’m a firm believer in that. And from my end, there’s a lot of long-standing support that spans generations, that spans zip codes in this community that I believe are fueling where we stand right now politically in the race and the type of support we’ve been getting.
TCS: I’m not sure if you remember, but we were standing at the Second Inaugural together.
SR: Yeah, of course. You guys gave us the pass so we could be a little closer.
TCS: Yeah, that’s the job. Well, when Barack Obama was elected president, it was a game changer. A lot of people for the first time had a president who looked like them.
TCS: Obviously the President of the United States is not Mayor of Montgomery, but it’s still gotta be pretty symbolic and pretty meaningful. Do you think that is an opportunity as far as some of the challenges this city faces?
SR: You know, the history of what may or may not happen in August is certainly atractive to a number of people. But ultimately you’ll be measured by what you do. I’m more concerned about the future of the community itself. I do believe that there is more upside and downside to having a person of my generation in the mayor’s position. I think that Montgomery suffers from perception, right or wrong, or that being still stuck in the past. And unfortunately until certain signals are sent people will have that perception of you. And, you know, this could have been done years ago. The city of Charlotte did int the 80s when Harvey Gantt was elected. Charlotte was not a majority African-American community at that time. The city of Charlotte and its business leaders pretty much made a intentional decision. They wanted to be viewed not as a Southern city but as a national and international city. Part of that was will show us that you’re open and inclusive. Those are things that businesses wanted to seen and businesses want to see now, I think the country wants to see.
Where Montgomery sits now having a majority African-American population, there’s probably more familiarity with me with the majority of the population that allows there to be great opportunity. They understand not only my background but what my intentions are, and they trust them. And if there’s anything I’m more proud about in any of the data that we have it’s the level of trust that we have amongst the public. That’s important because I think we’re in a time when people don’t trust political or elected leaders as much as they once did.
With our history, having an African-American mayor presents the opportunity to have some different discussions with different people that about how far we’ve changed. Unfortunately, when you have the long history that the state of Alabama has and that Montgomery when it comes to race, it’s a lot harder to cross that threshold if you will. And I will say this, New York City has only had one African-American mayor. The City of Chicago has only had one. Los Angeles, California has only had one. So it’s not like these other cities that tend to peer down on Southern cities are so much different. Boston has never had any.
So I think Montgomery sits in a unique position now: against the backdrop of what Bryan Stevenson has done in the international attention has been brought to this city; against the backdrop of the development that’s happened in this community in the last 15 plus years. I do think we’re in a culture right now which is multiracial and multigenerational and that is not handcuffed by old beliefs and habits that is more willing to look at things differently. And I think having a mayor of a certain generation probably would more so that race allows the conversation to be different when you’re talking to CEOs who in their 30s and you’re talking to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
And I think as it relates to having some ‘family conversations’ if you will in this city. My ties with the community are deep. My connection to this community is sincere and I believe that gives me the opportunity to have some conversations across this city that maybe other mayors have not. If I’m elected I will be the first man who was from Montgomery – born and raised.
TCS: Who gets get the runoff?
SR: I don’t know if there is a runoff.
TCS: All right. Nice. I mean, I just think with this many candidates, it’s likely. But props on calling your shot.
SR: Yeah, well, listen, we want a single elimination. We want to try to get it done on the 27th.
TCS: Do you see things getting chippy at all? The last one ended kind of chippy.
SR: You have some similar variables from that election in this election, so there’s always that possibility. You know, I’m a realist that I know politics is a contact sport. So, we’ll run with the vision and ideas and that’s what we’re going to focus on and take to the people. To the degree that other candidates will want to make it personality, we’ll leave to them. And if it goes that way, then we’ll we’ll deal with accordingly. I don’t throw the first punch, but I’ll throw the last one.