Gubernatorial candidates from both major parties gathered at the Hoover Library Thursday night for a candidate forum sponsored by LOCAL Alabama, Eagle Forum, Thatcher Coalition and 1819 News.

Six Democrats and five Republicans answered questions and discussed a variety of issues important to voters during the two-and-a-half-hour event.

All six of the Democratic candidates who qualified for the election were in attendance, including Yolanda Rochelle Flowers, Patricia Salter Jamieson, Arthur Kennedy, Chad “Chig” Martin, Malika Sanders Fortier and Doug "New Blue" Smith. All but Kennedy and Martin appeared on stage wearing masks.

Republican candidates in attendance included Lindy Blanchard, Lew Burdette, Dean Odle, Tim James and Dave Thomas. Dean Young, Stacy George and Governor Kay Ivey were not in attendance. Ivey’s absence was noted by the moderators at the opening of the program.

The event was moderated by Allison Sinclair of LOCAL Alabama and Stephanie Smith of the Thatcher Coalition. Each candidate was given time for a brief introduction before proceeding to timed questions on each issue.

The first question asked candidates their plans for fixing the state’s broken education system. Each candidate was given two minutes to discuss their plans.

GOP candidates agreed on the issue of school choice and competition in education to empower parents.

Former state representative and Springville Mayor Thomas spoke first, advocating school choice and tenure reform. “We’ve got to reform education and that means more than just throwing dollars at it,” he said.

“School choice is exactly right. I love the idea of competition,” added Tim James. He added comments supporting vouchers that can be applied to any public, private or home school program willing to accept them.

Dean Odle advocated following the model implemented by Governor DeSantis in Florida, eliminating Common Core and expanding school choice. “They went from 29th in 2017 in K-12, they went to third,” he said.

Lew Burdette, who has made education reform a primary talking point on the campaign trail, noted Alabama’s low rankings in education and blamed earmarking in state education budgets for contributing to the problems.

Blanchard also advocated for school choice and agreed with Odle on the issue of eliminating the Common Core curriculum like Florida. She said schools should offer equal opportunity in education, and access to quality programs should not be limited to people who can afford private schools.

Speaking first for the Democrats, Doug Smith blamed the decline in education on Governor Bob Riley and his “neoliberal” programs which, he said, reduced federal funds in the state. “By 2013, Robert Bentley had decreased federal funds to 36% of the state budget. That meant that education funds had been cut $1.1 billion dollars,” he said. Smith previously served as Chief of Staff for Governor Lurleen Wallace.

Yolanda Flowers, an educator, said she had heard candidates discuss SEL (Social Emotional Learning) and Common Core during their campaigns but said: “all children do not learn the same” and she hopes schools can focus on the needs of each child appropriately.

Malika Sanders Fortier, currently an Alabama Senator from the 23rd District, said some schools in Alabama rank in the top 1% in the country, so she believes there is a successful model in existence. She says schools need stronger leaders and more parent involvement.

Patricia Salter Jameson said access to the internet in rural communities would help education improve in the state. She also advocated for higher teacher pay.

Chad “Chig” Martin said teachers should keep politics out of the classroom and focus on teaching children to learn. He also advocated for an education lottery.

“We’ve got to have an education lottery here in Alabama,” Martin said. “It’s not a moral thing anymore, it’s business. Forty-six out of 50 states in this country now have a lottery. We’ve got money trickling out of the state in every direction all day long. I want to keep that money in state.”

Arthur Kennedy, also an educator, said he tries to reach kids who don’t want to learn and teach them they can learn. “I see a lot of kids fail because their instructor did not have an ability to teach them,” he said.

The next question asked candidates if they support the way Alabama’s state health officer is chosen. Currently, Dr. Scott Harris serves in the position and was appointed by the State Committee of Public Health.

Kennedy said he agreed with the current method but candidates from both sides of the aisle mostly agreed that the method for appointing the position should be changed. Martin advocated making the State Health Officer an elected position. Republican Tim James went further and suggested making it a cabinet position that holds the Governor accountable.

Candidates were asked whether they support either of the current gambling and lottery bills being considered by the state during this legislative session.

Republicans agreed across the board, speaking against the issue of expanding casino gambling in Alabama, but three candidates appeared to be open to some form of an education lottery.

Thomas spoke on the issue of liberty and called it “tyranny from the right” to try to control what people do with their own money. Burdette has spoken of his willingness to listen to people advocating for a lottery as long as special interests are eliminated. Blanchard said she is opposed to gambling but believes the citizens of Alabama should be allowed to vote on the issue.

For the Democrats, Yolanda Flowers said she opposed gambling but noted she was able to attend college in Tennessee due to the Hope Scholarship there. Martin had already expressed support for a lottery and said “we already have gambling in Alabama,” and said we should open up gambling to the free market and advocated for a public vote on the issue.

Candidates moved into a “lightning round” where they wrote yes or no answers on tablets. Questions ranged from support for medical marijuana, prayer in school, vaccine mandates and repealing the 2019 gas tax. All candidates agreed on the issue of athletes competing in sports by their gender at birth.

After the forum, Susan DuBose, who serves as president of the North Shelby County Republican Women and is running for Alabama House District 45, told 1819 News she was glad to see candidates from both parties in the forum and was pleasantly surprised at the amount of agreement from candidates of both parties.

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