HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Alabama's elections of 2010 and 2012 don't have local Democrats discouraged. Despite major losses in state and local races, the party chair says there is renewed energy and a new focus.
Clete Wetli, Chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party, was our guest on Leadership Perspectives the week of May 30.
He admits the last few years have been challenging.
"It's been pretty tough. I think it was really a referendum in 2010, a backlash against having the first African-American president elected," said Wetli. "I think the Democrats are on a rise right now -- I think we have really strong contenders this election cycle who we really believe are going to be able to break the Republican supermajority in Montgomery."
Do Republican office-holders believe Democrats are a real threat, we asked? Or do they think they have a lock on Alabama politics for the foreseeable future?
"They may think that, but polling data that shows otherwise," said Wetli. "Also, we've got kind of a huge elephant in the room if you will, the indictments coming out of the Lee County grand jury are really going to affect this election cycle. I think that when the Republicans so-called stormed the state house in 2010, they ran on a platform and said 'hey, we're the ethical guys - we're going to come here and clean up Montgomery' and all we've seen is a long history of corruption. We've seen sneaky votes, like with the Accountability Act, where the bill went in seven pages and came out 21 pages and now there are lots of questions about Speaker Mike Hubbard and his ethics, so I think people are really looking at this election. They want real change and real action. We're tired of Alabama being at the bottom of the list, and I think Democratic candidates have a vision for Alabama that I really think people are starting to listen to."
Looking at the sample ballots for June 3, the Republican ballot is long. The Democratic ballot, not so much.
"We don't have candidates in every race and that's true," acknowledged Wetli. "A lot of people, beforehand, look at 'what are my chances to win,' and it costs a lot of money to run for office, and if you've got a strong incumbent in there, alot of people will say it's just not worth it this time around. The candidates we do have, though, are very strong, and they have a vision for Madison County and for Huntsville, so we are excited about the candidates we do have."
Wetli said he is especially excited about the race for Madison County Tax Collector. Lynda Hall is running again as a Democrat.
"She's got years of service in this community. People know her and trust her... I believe she's got a very, very good chance," he said.
Hall doesn't have any opposition in the June 3 primary. Her opponent in November will be either Drew R. McKay or Glenn Stanlieos Watson, who are facing off on the June 3 Republican ballot.
Democrat Parker Griffith has opposition on the June 3 ballot, Kevin Bass. If Griffith advances, how can the party push him to compete against Governor Robert Bentley, who has a much larger campaign fund?
"By voting. By getting out the vote. Parker Griffith has a strong platform," Wetli said. "He wants to expand Medicaid in this state. That would give over 300,000 people insurance, not to mention the amount of jobs it would create, and revenue it would create. He wants to really bring and put it to the people, to vote for a lottery to fund our education. These are thing that are important to Alabamians, and I think Parker Griffith has a strong message that's a popular message."
Wetli said Bentley doesn't have a real plan for Alabama.
"All he did in his State of the State speech was talk about states' rights -- how 'we're not going to do what the federal government says' and 'Obama's bad.' He said he was going to create jobs, yet we lag behind the entire rest of the country in job creation right now," said Wetli.
You see political signs throughout Madison County, but not as many as past years, and certainly, most are for Republican candidates. How are Democrats getting their message across here?
"You change it by one-on-one interaction," said Wetli. "Signs don't get people elected. Advertisements don't get people elected. Handshakes and conversations get people elected."
Wetli said teams have been knocking on doors and working with other Democratic-affiliated groups to register voters.
"It's like a termite campaign. They are out there quietly working and quietly changing minds and talking about issues - and that's what's going to win the election," he said. "It's not always going to be about money. It's going to be about what issues affect people in Madison County and what issues affect people in Madison County."
Wetli became chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party right after the losses of 2010. It wasn't the easiest time to take the helm, he said.
"That made it kind of worse, because I walked into a very depressed situation -- Democrats got swept out just because they were Democrats," Wetli said.
"One of the things I tried to do was really energize our base in this community. We've maintained a headquarters, I've been vocal in the media, I write a column for Al.com, an opinion piece. We have been in the media constantly, and I think people realize we're not 'crazy wingnut liberals' - we really care about Alabama, and we have a progressive agenda that can move Alabama forward."
'Progressive' is often a word associated with President Obama, who isn't popular in Alabama.
"I really think history is going to show that Barack Obama has been one of our best Presidents, and the Republicans have done nothing but obstruct his agenda," Wetli said. "Right now, if they had passed his American Jobs Act, you'd see... employment at record highs."
"I think he's had a real plan to move the entire country forward, but at every opportunity they try to thwart it," Wetli added. "I mean, we're talking about a Republican Congress who's voted to repeal Obamacare over 50 times. You know, if we would embrace Obamacare like other states have, we'd see all kinds of economic opportunity. The same is true with the minimum wage and other national issues. This election, by the way, is not about Barack Obama. This election is about Alabama, and that's what people need to remember. All these Republicans out there seem to be running against Barack Obama, but you know what? He's not running for Lt. Governor of Alabama."
So what about those ads? The ones where Republican candidates promise to fight the liberal agenda and President Obama?
"I think they're ludicrous," Wetli replied. "Show me a bunch of liberals in Montgomery. Are you kidding? Now there's a supermajority of Republicans who have done nothing but institute regressive policies in Alabama. We've got to repeal and replace our 1901 Constitution - it's got regressive tax codes in it. We have corporations that come here, suck up all kinds of incentives, never pay a dollar in taxes, and when the incentives run out, they up and leave. There are some real things we need to do to repair our infrastructure, we need to fund our education better - these are Alabama issues - so trying to run against Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or Barack Obama is ludicrous. They're not on the ballot, by the way, so what we need to do is focus on Alabama, and what I want to hear from some of these Republicans is 'what are you for,' not 'what you're against' -- we've all heard what you're against -- but what are you for? What are you going to do to improve Alabama?"
Q: In 2010, it appeared the Democratic Party was dead. You lost so badly... but you believe you can get people elected.
"Absolutely. We're strong. No one thought we could win the special referendum on the revenue commissioner and we did," Wetli said. "No one thought our probate judge [Tommy Ragland] would get elected last cycle - he did. I think we've got an incredibly strong chance here in Madison County."
He admits winning races in Montgomery is another matter.
"We definitely have issues at the state level, and we're working through those," said Wetli. "I think that people have to understand, when you have a two-party system like we do, it's very important to have debate. One of the reasons we have the problems we have in Montgomery is that supermajority literally just rubber-stamps everything, and they find out later that there's just even problems with the bills themselves that could have been fixed through debate. So I think that wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you have to look at each candidate and pick the best person for Alabama."
We asked Wetli how he handles questions from people who say they plan to vote for the Republican candidate because that person may have a better chance of winning, or making a difference in the office.
"We have to be issue-centric," he said. "I'm not going to tell anybody how to vote. Voting is a personal thing. You do it behind the curtain. What I'm going to do is lay out what our Democratic platform is, what our Democratic candidates stand for, and let you make up your own mind."
"That's the way I've always been. I believe it's important for each voter to look at what issues matter to them and vote according to their heart," Wetli added. "Obviously I'm a Democrat. I believe we've got the best answers, but I'm not going to sway somebody from, if they really believe in their heart that a certain candidate from another party is better, that's their choice. It means I didn't make my case well enough, probably."
Does Wetli consider the Democratic party in Madison County liberal, conservative, middle of the road and why?
"I wouldn't say we're liberal -- I think we're pragmatic," he said. "I think we really believe in the Constitution. We believe in equality for people, we believe in a strong public education. We want a growing economy. So, I wouldn't say those are liberal values, I'd say they are American values. I'd say when you talk to most Democrats in Madison County, they believe in pragmatic solutions for Madison County."
"You look at what's going on with the school system here," he added. "It's not necessarily a partisan issue. It's a logistical issue that we have to figure out."
How long till Democrats win offices at the state level again?
"I think one or two more election cycles," Wetli predicted. "I think the one thing Republicans have now, that they didn't have before, and it's to their detriment, is a record. I think it was real easy for them to say 'oh, these Democrats are doing such a terrible job, they've had 136 years of rule - we're going to come in here and clean things up.' Well, in just a short amount of time, they've shown us they're corrupt, they're showing us they're regressive, and they're showing us their policies simply don't work. And so, in just 3 years time, we see 'this ain't working' - so I think it's just going to be an election cycle or two as Alabamians wake up and say 'you know, Governor Bentley promised he's going to create jobs. How come we're lagging the rest of the nation? We promised to repair infrastructure - what happened with that? What about funding education - why are we borrowing from the Education Fund and putting it in the General Fund with no real plan to pay it back? These are questions on the minds of most people in Alabama, and they're realizing they were sold a bill of goods and that they haven't delivered."
Note: WHNT News 19 interviewed Brent Beal, Chairman of the Madison County Young Republicans, earlier this month.