On May 22, 2017, Walt Maddox was sworn in for his fourth term as the mayor of Tuscaloosa.
That seems like a pretty sweet deal. You live in a great city. You’re popular and respected and successful in your chosen career. So why not just kick back, pop open a few cold ones and enjoy the ride? Why not bask in the security of a fruitful gig?
It’s a good question, but one Maddox doesn’t struggle to answer. As you read this, he is in the midst of a fierce battle to unseat Republican Kay Ivey as Alabama’s governor. To be polite, this isn’t an easy fight. Ivey is a Trump-praising right-wing adherent in a state overflowing with Trump-praising right-wing adherents. Yet Maddox looks around at Alabama’s failing schools, Alabama’s up-and-down economy—and wants to do something. So here he is—running and Quazing. Quazing and running.
Walt Maddox, you are the 361st Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Walt, you’re a Democrat. Runningfor governor. In Alabama. This seems, from afar, as a super longshot in a state America views as redder than red. So … why am I wrong?
WALT MADDOX: I believe there are three reasons. First, on Dec. 12, 2017, we elected a Democrat, Doug Jones, for United States senator. Making this remarkable, it was a special election which should have suppressed Democratic turnout. Second, as mayor, in a purple city, we have demonstrated bi-partisan and effective leadership for over 12 years. Lastly, Tuscaloosa has succeeded through the Great Recession and the April 27, 2011 tornado which destroyed 12.5 percent of the city (5,300 structures impacted). Our response and recovery from both has demonstrated the type of crisis leadership we need in Alabama and that will appeal to independents.
J.P.: You spent four years on the University of Alabama-Birmingham football team. Right now, across America, there’s this ongoing debate over the sport, and—in particular—head injuries. Personally, I wouldn’t let my kids play, what with so many safer sports out there. I’m guessing you disagree. So what do you get out of your college sports career? And what can we do about the sport?
W.M.: I understand the concern, and as a parent, I have entertained the same thoughts. First, reducing the amount of practice contact is paramount. Second, continuing to use technology to enhance safety measures. Third, ensure that coaches know how to teach the fundamentals of the sport (i.e. tacking form). Fourth, contact should not begin to high school. Lastly, at all levels, require concussion protocols.
J.P.: You’re in a state that Donald Trump won by a large margin. And, if I’m being honest, that causes me to question the judgement of your denizens. So … how? How did he win? Why did Alabama support him? And do you see any of that fading away?
W.M.: There is President Donald Trump, and then there is the idea of President Donald Trump. I believe the idea of a person who would fight for the “little man” and shake things up was very appealing across America, including Alabama. The idea of Donald Trump is still popular, but even amongst his most ardent supporters you are seeing weariness because the issues are compounding. I believe the Trump phenomena will continue to slowly fade due to the cumulative effects of his behavior.
J.P.: The governor of Alabama is Kay Ivey. I’m guessing you’re not a fan of her politics or job performance. But will it be possible—truly possible—to run a positive campaign? What I mean is, people always say, “I plan on staying above the mud,” but then they wind up lathering in it. So how do you do this? Can you rip her without, well, ripping her? I mean, Trump’s campaign was super negative—and he won. So isn’t that the way to go?
W.M.: I respect Governor Ivey, but disagree with her policy positions and her desire to maintain the status quo which means remaining last in nearly every quality of life measurement. I believe campaigns boil down to three things: 1) Narrative; 2) Contrast; 3) Momentum. In our case, I believe we have all three areas solidly in our favor. I say all that to say, we can make our case without going negative.
J.P.: You’re the mayor of Tuscaloosa. What don’t people understand about the gig of mayor? I mean, from afar it seems like we get it—work on enforcing local laws, keeping the city safe, etc. But what are we missing?
W.M.: In Tuscaloosa, the mayor is the Chief Executive Officer of the city, and the majority of what I do each day is not sexy. Yet, beyond the day-to-day administrative duties of overseeing the 11 departments of the city, since I have veto power, I have a unique opportunity to engage in policy making with the council. For me, it is a great opportunity because our standard of excellence is to be the most innovative and effectively managed city in the United States. Bottom-line: It should always be about results and not rhetoric!
J.P.: What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make in politics? And how did you go about making it?
W.M.: The strategic pathway to recovery after the April 27, 2011 tornado was by far the most difficult-but-necessary decision thus far in my tenure. The 12.5 percent of the city destroyed had nearly $1 billion in unmet needs, including $700 million in water, sewer, road and storm water replacements or improvements. As a community, we decided to take the long view and after numerous town hall meetings involving thousands, we developed the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan.
After the first year, especially from conservative think tanks, we took a great deal of criticism; however, seven years later the results speak for themselves. It wasn’t easy, and each day we learned something new or had to confront unseen challenges. The good news is that I have been re-elected two times since April 27, 2011, which indicates to me that the people I work for appreciated our honest and transparent efforts.
J.P.: Alabama has had substandard education numbers for many moons. You’ve made this one of your big issues—but, truly, how much can things improve? Teachers are underpaid, your largely Republican state hates spending money, on and on. Are there actually steps to be taken?
W.M.: Below is a link which will take you to all four components of my education platform. We can invest $300 million without raising taxes. Check it out and I will be happy to answer specifics …
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
W.M.: Greatest: Our response and recovery to the April 27, 2011 tornado.
Lowest: The night of the Coppertop shootings in downtown Tuscaloosa in 2012.
J.P.: What do we do about climate change? I mean, people seem so insanely focused on what’s five feet in front of them. So how do we get people to set aside the immediate issues and deal with a horrible trauma looming over us? In short, how do we get action?
W.M.: I believe moving from the equation of who is to blame and transition to talking about achievable solutions is how we guarantee action. Climate change is real, but those who want to prohibit real solutions divert the attention with the blame game.
J.P.: Weird one—but I’m terrified of death. Not dying, per se. But being dead. Not existing. Nothingness. I just hate the very idea of it, but I also don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. I dunno, this thing just hangs there, waiting. How much thought do you give to this? How much does it/does it not bother you?
W.M.: My faith removes my worry and teaches me there is an afterlife so I do my best to follow the guidance of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Please note that I fall short each and every day of my life which is why I am glad that God’s grace is abundant. I also believe, and this is my own theology, that God gives you two great gifts. The first is the gift of free will and the second is the gift of learning. For me, I want to maximize this gifts while I am here on earth and what is on the other side will take care of itself.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WALT MADDOX:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Walt Williams, Walt Michaels, Tommy Maddox, Walt Whitman, Maddox Chivan Jolie-Pitt, Menudo, Walt Disney, USS Maddox, Walter Mondale: 1. Walt Disney (He is really first and last. He is first because of the memories and experiences with all things Disney. He is last because he has cost me thousands upon thousands creating those memories with my children); 2. Walter Mondale; 3. Tommy Maddox; 4. USS Maddox (it may have helped to start the Vietnam War, but …); 5. Walt Williams; 6. Walt Michaels (J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets!); 7. Walt Whitman; 8. Maddox Chivan Jolie-Pitt.
• One question you would ask Malik Rose were he here right now?: Why are my Atlanta Hawks so bad, always?
• Five all-time favorite movies?: A Few Good Men, Bourne Supremacy, Rogue One, Empire Strikes Back, Red Dawn (original)
• Who wins in a dance off between you and Mike Pence?: I would destroy Mike Pence!
• How do you decide what tie to wear in photos?: There is no strategy. If there needs to be, then Steph lets me know.
• You have a daughter, Taylor, who appears to be just about the age where everything in the world involving people our age might embarrass her. So how is she handling life as a politician’s child?: Taylor is amazing. She doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t mayor so she has grown accustomed to the “political life.” Also, she has developed a true social conscience which I think is wonderful. She understands our moral obligation to serve others.
• Three memories from your first-ever date?: 1. I had a mullet. 2. I drove an El Camino. 3. Knowing the first two, I don’t know how I managed to have a beautiful girl go out with me.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. (thanks for jinxing me with this question)
• What are the keys to making great soup?: Buying it from a restaurant you trust!
• How did you meet your wife?: She was communications director with Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, and so I fortunately got to interact with her on a routine basis.