The New South and Obama: An Interview with Josh Segall, Alabama Democratic Candidate for Congress

Obama's fifty-state strategy is not about his winning these states in this election. It's about "trickle up" politics and grassroots efforts on a national scale, all of which will help sow the seeds of future Democratic majorities.
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Much has been made of the promise of Barack Obama's coattails: his supposed big-tent ability to swell voter rolls and mobilize an election-day turnout that will not only put a Democrat into the White House, but also sweep down-ticket Democrats around the country into state and national offices in traditionally Republican districts. For Democrats serious about creating a national majority and enacting progressive legislation, this reason is as good as any to support Obama.

It's no secret that congressional Republicans are in dire straits. On May 3, 2008, Democrat Don Cazayoux emerged victorious in the special election to succeed a retiring Republican in Louisiana's 6th District. And on May 13, in a special election to fill the House seat from Mississippi's 1st District, the Democratic candidate, Travis Childers won convincingly in a long-time Republican stronghold. Mind you, Childers and Cazayoux are moderate-conservative southern Democrats, but barring any Lieberman-esque turns, they only bolster the growing Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

It's become so bad for congressional GOP candidates that in Oregon, Republican Senator Gordon Smith has touted his ties to Obama, who has proved popular in the pacific northwest. Childers and Cazayoux, conversely, faced attack ads trying to ally them with Obama, proof that there is clear regional variation in Republicans' use of Obama as a sword or shield. GOP efforts to sully Childers and Cazayoux by linking them with Obama failed, however, and they won their special elections even without the "Obama effect" which strategists and pundits are predicting when independents, erstwhile Republicans, young voters, and African-Americans come to the polls this November. Both Childers and Cazayoux will have to defend their new posts in November, however, and Cazayoux faces an uphill battle as an independent Democrat, State Representative Michael Jackson, has announced that he will join what is now a 3-way race for Louisiana's 6th District, and will likely capture the majority of the African-American vote in the district, effectively splitting the Democratic vote and giving the edge to the Republican challenger, state Senator Bill Cassidy.

In a move that should worry Republicans and delight Democrats (even Clinton hold-outs), Obama has pledged to run a 50-state strategy, mirroring Howard Dean's national goals, and will deploy campaign staff to all states in the union. A narrower vision for the electoral map, one focusing on reaching 270 electoral votes, and no more, would do a disservice to down-ballot Democratic candidates in states which are still likely to go for McCain. But Obama's 50-state strategy is not about his winning these states in the 2008 presidential election. It's about "trickle up" politics and grassroots efforts on a national scale, all of which will help sow the seeds of future Democratic majorities.

Whether Democratic candidates choose to ally themselves with Obama this fall or not, they are likely to benefit from his presence on the top of the ticket, particularly in districts that can expect heavy African-American turnout. Enter Josh Segall, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Alabama's 3rd District. Segall, a 4th generation Alabamian and Montgomery native, is challenging Republican incumbent Mike Rogers, who retained his seat in 2006 after heavily outspending his opponent $1+ million to $7,000.

2008-07-23-segall.jpgApart from a superior campaign organization than Rogers' previous challenger, Segall also stands to benefit from an "Obama effect" in his district. African-American voters make up about a third of AL-03's electorate. While African-Americans normally make up 28 percent of the 3rd District's voting population in any given election, estimates put African-American turnout in this year's presidential primaries in Alabama at 32 percent, a number that Democrats hope to at least match in the November election.

Although Segall's credentials would make him a strong candidate in any year, combined with the potential for record African-American turnout the race for the 3rd District is gaining national attention, and on the strength of Segall's candidacy, AL-03 has been selected as an "Emerging Race" by the DCCC.

After attending college at Brown, Segall returned home to attend Alabama Law School, where he helped found Homegrown Alabama, an organization founded at the University of Alabama dedicated to promoting local produce, as well as to fostering partnerships between local farmers and the University of Alabama. Recently, I had the chance to speak to Segall about his outlook on the race and about the pressing issues facing Alabamians.

. . . . .

What's your take on the recent (and failed) GOP efforts to link southern Democrats to Obama?

Segall: If the worst thing Republicans can say about me is that I'm on the same ticket as Obama, we'll win. I'm an independent thinker focused on growing the economy in East Alabama and creating a national strategy to address the loss of manufacturing jobs. I think Don Cazayoux and Travis Childers have established themselves as independents also.

How will the mere fact of Senator Obama's name on the ballot affect your chances in November?

With Senator Obama at the top of the ticket, our chances increase significantly. Our district has the third highest percentage of African-Americans for any congressional seat held by a Republican. African-American turnout was 8 percent higher in the presidential primary in Alabama, and they historically have made up 20 percent-30 percent of AL-03's electorate. If that number spikes to 36 percent (at least) we have a huge voting block of Democratic-leaning voters to count on in November

Did you endorse a Democratic candidate in the primary? Now that the nominee is settled, have you endorsed Senator Obama?

I didn't choose sides in the primary, and our campaign message is clear: congressmembers ought to be independent of their party. That is to say, regardless of who is elected in November (Obama or McCain), I will work with the President to do what's best for the 3rd District, not the Democratic Party.

Have you been contacted by the Obama campaign since Senator Obama effectively wrapped up the nomination?

We have not been contacted by the Obama campaign, though many of our volunteers, and a few staffers were part of his Alabama operation.

This being a "change" election, how important is the anti-Washington message?

I think residents of the 3rd District have always been skeptical of government because there's so much corruption here in Alabama. But on the other hand, they believe that the government can do some things to help them. People here believe in investment; they believe government has a role to play in the economy. But they're very anti-Washington, and for good reason. Alabamians, and most Americans, never see their congressperson, and most don't know who he/she is. 30 percent of people in AL-03 don't know who Mike Rogers is.

How would you propose to execute that difficult balancing act of having one foot in Washington and the other in Alabama?

One of our major themes is about representation; it's about listening, it's about engagement, and it's about having a congressman who talks to you and figures out what you want and does it. And Mike Rogers has been particularly bad at putting his party above the residents of this district. Residents of our district are traditionally not so wedded to any particular party, and as a representative down here you need to show your independence and your engagement, to have a campaign that goes directly to the people. And that's really what I believe in terms of what I'd like to do as a congressman.

I've learned a hell of a lot more about economic development just from talking to members of the district than from reading anything. That's what I think people in the district are really looking for. They're looking for someone who is going to run a personal campaign, and as a congressman is going to draw his agenda from going out and talking to people. There's a lot of skepticism of politicians in general because there's not much contact. You don't know your congressman, nobody you know knows them. I want to change that for residents of the 3rd District.

Tell me a bit about what you've seen and learned from touring your district since the campaign began. What's surprised you?

Well, really our problems in this district are basic infrastructure problems. We don't have a hospital in Macon County. You're not going to have people move to that county because after 5 p.m. on a Saturday there is nowhere, not privately or publicly, you can go to get some medical treatment. Randolph County has no local television channels--no ABC, CBS, NBC. Not from Atlanta, Birmingham, Columbus or Montgomery. If a tornado comes through, they hear about it 30 minutes after it's gone.

Another thing that we talk about a lot that I've learned from going around and meeting people is about Alabama's drought problems. In fact, this past summer was the worst drought in 100 years. And it's a strange problem for Alabama to have when more water flows through Alabama than almost any other state. Seventeen percent of the county's surface water flows through Alabama. And one of the things I'm surprised about, the federal government funds irrigation programs and in states all over the country, most notably California. For a while, most of the winter vegetables in this country were grown in the desert in California by using water coming from three states away. Alabama has enough water that we could protect ourselves against the drought, and can protect our drinking supply. And we could actually do more farming. We have over 3,000,000 acres of row crop farming statewide, and agriculture is our state's leading industry, although less so in the 3rd District. But I found that Rogers did less for agriculture and less to protect farmers that I thought he would.

Can you give me an example of a decision Rogers has made that's been detrimental to the District, or one where he's put party above his constituents?

He voted against the farm bill last year. It's a huge deal for people here. You start to get to know farmers, and they know the farm bill inside and out. You know the farm bill had essentially determined what farmers should be growing at any one point. And this year there's an irrigation permit reform bill. When you're in the middle of this drought it becomes clear that you need people to build reservoirs. So it's really not appropriate to vote against the farm bill. And as far as I can tell, Republicans don't have a particularly coherent explanation as to why they're all voting against this. And Rogers is certainly doing it because that's what his party wants him to do.

This is the dynamic that goes on in the South that I knew little about until I started getting into this race. If you're a Republican, there's an incentive to lay low and not do much that's particularly controversial. And when issues come up that nobody is paying attention to, you'd really like to out-Republican everybody else. You want to be the guy who's most aligned with Tom Delay. And if you do that, it seems to a guy like Rogers that it gives you the best chance of being Senator one day. Because when it comes to the Republican primary, what people are looking for is somebody who is a staunch Republican and so everything he has done, I think, can be viewed as an attempt to bolster his GOP credentials. By voting with the party regardless of what it had to do with the district.

How has the worsening economy affected Alabamians in your district?

Job loss is the biggest thing for us. Rogers voted for a bunch of free trade agreements, and since industry is huge in Alabama, in the past five years we've lost at least 15,000 jobs. And I've been surprised by the extent to which those people who've lost jobs are those in rural Alabama, who, in one way or another were connected to the textile industry. They really view the movement of jobs overseas as a national security problem. Alabamians are aware of increasing dependence on China for manufacturing and an increasing dependence on the Middle East for oil. We've a lot of people now in places like Alabama who are thinking that increasingly we don't make anything in this country. That there's a certain self-sufficiency that we've lost. Don't feed ourselves, don't put our own gas in our tanks, don't control our manufacturing base. I think there's a feeling that just as a matter of principle the country should have a certain amount of self-sufficiency.

Everyone is attuned to the fact that economic decisions were made in this country and it's been clear that this district is one that just totally lost out. We lose over 15,000 jobs in exchange for being able to buy shirts for a couple bucks cheaper. That's just not a fair trade, right? And so for those principles, you'd like to see some sort of a plan that's going to provide for the possibility of economic growth in this district, which we haven't had. Growth in terms of roads, water, and basic infrastructure, and education, too.

The particular vote that matters a lot is CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement). We can point to particular businesses that moved to Central or South America. They did it in the last three years and Rogers first said that he was opposed to CAFTA and then said he was going to be for it if a particular mill in Alabama told him it wouldn't hurt their business. And that mill is now closed and CAFTA passed by just two votes. So essentially Mike Rogers was the deciding vote for CAFTA.

Do you feel like there's an opportunity right now for a candidate to draw a contrast with Rogers in a way that will resonate with voters?

To me, in this environment, with the economy the way it is, you have the ability for the Democratic Party and the ability for a Democratic candidate to say to people in the South, "My main focus is just going to be to trying to help you in your daily life." That is the thing that the Democratic Party has strived to do over a period of time but doesn't have that association.

What has the Democratic Party been doing to remedy that perception?

The Democrats expanded Tri-Care, which was a healthcare program for soldiers, and the party expanded it so that reservists and guardsmen, even when they're not on active duty, have at least some health care benefits for themselves and their families. It's one of the best things the Democratic Party, to its infinite credit, has done in the last two years. And again, Rogers voted against it. And he voted against a $1500 bonus for servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a bonus for people who were in combat zones and Rogers voted against it. The Republican Party cut funding to VA hospitals by about three billion dollars.

. . . . .

While Segall and his fellow southern Democratic candidates stand as good a chance as ever of being victorious this November, this year's "Obama effect" (potentially to be repeated in 2012), does pose a long-term question for Democrats. Will the Democratic party be able to translate this year's Democratic-friendly political climate and "Obama effect" into a long-term net gain of voters, or will the size of the electoral pie shrink again once Obama is no longer on the ticket (for example, in 2016). Will Democrats in normally red districts, who are helped into office by an "Obama effect" maintain an advantage because of their incumbent status? Will mobilization and engagement of African-American voters continue after an Obama administration leaves Washington? Or would Obama's absence on the national ticket put a shelf-life on these red-to-blue district Democrats? Indeed, could we even experience a bizarre ping-ponging of our elected congressmembers, alternating between Democrat and Republican in red-to-blue districts with GOP pickups in the next non-presidential year (2010), only to be turned blue again when Obama would run for reelection in 2012?

Obama's current 50-state strategy suggests that he understands the importance of local elections and maintaining high turnout in the 2010 and 2014 congressional elections will no doubt become and remain a political priority. For now, though, Democrats nationwide have an interest in seeing that we seize the opportunities of 2008, and that means supporting and electing candidates like Segall this November.


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