1819 News, Eagle Forum, LOCAL Alabama, and Thatcher Coalition hosted a gubernatorial forum in Birmingham last week. It’s political primary season and forums are a dime a dozen these days, but this one was completely different and significant.

We invited every single candidate for Governor. 

That’s right - we invited the Democrats.  And they all participated.

Not all of the candidates attended. Kay Ivey was noticeably absent despite being asked several times to appear.  Eventually, her campaign offered to send a staffer, but we declined. The people need to hear directly from the Governor and, unfortunately, that need wasn’t met last week. She should take heed that her lack of willingness to answer questions about her administration and Alabama’s current problems is being acknowledged by the voters and heavily discussed amongst the base she needs to win.

Having 11 candidates on stage at once was sure to be chaotic so, in an attempt to give everyone equal time, we kept a tight schedule. Timekeeping volunteers flashed green, yellow, and red signs and we still had to mute more than a few microphones as candidates clamored to quickly get their thoughts together and out on the public platform.

The division seemed as stark as the stage setup, with the Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right.  There were charts. There were disagreements. Some even loudly (and quite rudely) expressed. There was at least one moment that I think we all wondered if it was about to spin out of control. Okay, maybe two moments. There were times of confusion and a few questions that were garbled and left unfinished or unanswered.

None of those things are particularly surprising since we take politics almost as seriously as we do football in Alabama.

But the funny thing that happened at the forum wasn’t the division, it was the connection - the laughs and hugs between competitors. The frank but civil conversations about education and taxes and race. The common ground found in the trials of motherhood (there were four female candidates and two female moderators). The universal agreement that faith and family are more important than political party. The stark fact that every single candidate was there because they believe that our state is headed in the wrong direction and they want to try to help turn it around.

We concocted what we called a “lightning round” that highlighted both the differences in understanding and the camaraderie of what it means to be an Alabamian. By demanding that the candidates give only yes or no answers on a whiteboard to turn to show the audience, candidates had to commit quickly and had no way to avoid or qualify their answers to the questions. The differences between the candidates were immediately apparent and easy to see.  

Want to know what every single candidate agreed on? Prayer in schools and legislation protecting the doctor/patient relationship. 

There was surprising bipartisan but not wholesale agreement on issues such as rejecting monopoly-driven casino gambling, protecting girls’ sports and supporting a forensic audit of the 2020 election.

The night ended with a fun question that asked the candidates to choose their “theme song.” Those answers were both telling and entertaining. It was a good night for state politics as the candidates and audience came away with an understanding amongst those on both political sides that Alabama has significant public policy problems that are being mishandled or ignored.

More importantly, we left with a reassurance that regardless of race or party or sex or opinion, Alabamians are much better when we are united in our efforts than when we are divided.

Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.