Walt Maddox represents the best chance Democrats have to win the Alabama governor’s race in more than a decade and a half. With all due respect to the rest of the field, this one shouldn’t be a close primary race to oppose the GOP nominee–likely current Gov. Kay Ivey.

The Democratic primary is basically a two-candidate race at this point. Maddox and former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Sue Bell Cobb. Name identification matters in politics, and Cobb has it. She’s a perfectly reasonable political option. The choice for Alabama’s Democratic primary voters is whether they want to continue their past or invest in their future.

For what it’s worth, I’m a conservative who doesn’t support the Democrats’ regularly recycled agenda. I can whip through the arguments for Medicaid expansion, government lottery, infrastructure spending, and tax hikes as quickly as any Democratic candidate. I’d hoped Maddox would be materially different from a policy perspective. So far, he isn’t. For that matter, neither is Cobb.

Maddox does bring an energy that’s been lacking from the state’s Democratic Party.

I’ve previously written that weak Democratic candidates make for even weaker Republicans. It’s still true. Alabama’s GOP can fumble as many times as it likes because it isn’t really worried about any Democrat picking up the ball. Senator Doug Jones’s surprise victory raised some eyebrows, but Republicans view that as political indigestion addressed by better candidates in 2020.

When I served as a panelist for Al.com’s Democratic primary debate, I challenged Maddox on regurgitating the same agenda as past Democrats and the current field. He shot back that it isn’t recycling if Alabama hasn’t enacted the agenda yet.

That’s when I saw it.

Maddox was ready to throw down. He has the clean-cut youthful look, but I saw the brawler in his eyes. It wasn’t just talking points to him. He believes what he’s dishing out until someone proves him wrong.

I hit him for repeating the vague Democratic talking point regarding the state’s need to “adequately fund education in Alabama.” I asked him how much revenue we need to do that. He didn’t have an answer, so he punched back at me for only wanting to “adequately” fund education. I chased him a little further down the policy rabbit hole, but he managed to largely deflect my pointed inquiry. He wasn’t mean, but he wouldn’t back down either.

The stinging sensation being rhetorically popped is more familiar to me than I’d like to admit. It’s a reality exchanges with talented folks who disagree with my views. It’s also a critical part of how I learn and grow. I respect such exchanges tremendously.

I’d love the chance to hammer Maddox’s ideas in more detail, weather his response and see if good solutions emerge. In my experience, that’s one of the best ways to make progress on the shared challenges we face.

Too many Alabama politicians are thin suits filled with empty words. They can’t handle tough conversations with someone who disagrees with them. Instead, Republicans try to brand their opposition as best friends with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Democrats imply that Republicans hate public education and poor people. The state almost never witnesses a useful political exchange. Maddox would definitely put real challenges to a state legislature that is almost certain to remain in Republican control.

Maddox seems genuinely interested in addressing Alabama’s problems in spite of the fact that his current policy prescriptions are campaign retreads. Building better policies is a lot easier than attempting to fashion someone into a leader who doesn’t have the goods.

The race to become Alabama’s governor hasn’t really been close since Bob Riley beat Don Sieglman 49.2-49.0 in 2002. That’s been demoralizing for Democrats, but Maddox is far more of a threat than any Republican at the top of the ticket has seen in a while.

If Kay Ivey is successful, the last thing she’s going to do is get on a stage with Maddox. She’ll travel around the state, give stump speeches and act as if he doesn’t exist. If Maddox wants to have a chance, he’ll have to call her out and make the case that Alabama needs a leader who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the opposition. On that point, I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Democrats should take heart that a candidate like Maddox is in the running. As much as I disagree with aspects of his agenda, I deeply respect the leadership qualities and conviction he brings to the table. He might not ultimately prevail, but he’s also the only Democrat in the race that might keep the Republican challenger up at night.



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