The mayor’s race is near. Here’s what College Democrats are asking

A four-term incumbent discussed his biggest regrets. An opponent explained her party lines. And another candidate was questioned on how he’d move Tuscaloosa forward. 

Tuscaloosa mayoral candidates Walt Maddox, Serena Fortenberry and Martin Houston fielded questions about their platforms at a virtual forum hosted by the UA College Democrats on Feb. 11, three weeks ahead of the municipal elections. Now, the group is preparing to announce its endorsement. 

Lucas Brooks, political action director for the UA College Democrats, moderated the forum, asking each candidate four questions and allowing them two minutes to respond. Questions were submitted by members prior to the meeting.

Walt Maddox

Following introductions, Maddox spoke in reaction to a question about his length of time in office. If re-elected, this would be his fifth term as Tuscaloosa mayor.

“As long as the people of Tuscaloosa trust me, I’m prepared to continue the job,” Maddox said. 

When asked about his regrets as mayor, Maddox said his early decision to not implement impact fees for student housing projects, which would have deterred real estate development, was an unfortunate oversight. 

Sean Atchison, membership director of UA College Democrats, asked Maddox about his decision not to respond more aggressively to the crowds on the Strip after the national championship game on Jan. 11. 

Maddox pointed to a limited availability of Tuscaloosa Police Department officers as an explanation for his approach. He said he didn’t order a shutdown of bars on game day because the businesses were already operating under occupancy restrictions while recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19. 

Serena Fortenberry

During her introduction, Fortenberry, a UA English professor and community activist, said her knowledge of municipal governments was self-taught. Before resigning from her position to run for mayor, Fortenberry was a board member for the Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together, a local non-profit advocacy group. 

A member of the UA College Democrats inquired about her party affiliation, citing her campaign donation from the political action committee, Republican Women of Tuscaloosa.

“I don’t vote for a party. I vote for policy,” Fortenberry said. “Local sewer and lighting issues are not partisan issues, and that’s what this race is about.”

Fortenberry is a vocal critic of Maddox’s current economic policy. She explained that, if elected, she would work to rescind the 1% sales tax increase, which is the hallmark of Maddox’s “Elevate Tuscaloosa” initiative that was approved in April 2019. The initiative seeks to use the added tax revenue to enhance local infrastructure, education, job creation and entertainment in the city.

Fortenberry said she would push for a “robust change” in spending and advocate for a commercial air service in Tuscaloosa to create a diverse economy for city residents. 

Stronger urban planning is another focus of Fortenberry’s efforts. She pointed to the “simple beautification measures” that would benefit Tuscaloosa, as well as increased lighting and bicycle access for pedestrians. 

Martin Houston

Throughout the forum, Houston addressed questions about his skills as a political newcomer. He drew on his experiences as lead pastor of Harvest Church and senior director of membership growth at Alabama One Credit Union as evidence of his leadership abilities.  

Houston, a former Crimson Tide football player, said his strong ties to the community will also be beneficial in the role of mayor.

Sam Badger, vice president of UA College Democrats and City Council District 5 candidate, questioned Houston about his plans to respond to gentrification in the city, specifically in the West End community.

Houston said his plan to prevent gentrification of these areas would include promoting workforce development with “good-paying jobs” and ensuring “educational excellence” in the school system.

Earlier this month, the candidates were sent two questionnaires. One was distributed by the West Alabama COVID-19 Information group, which boasts over 20,000 members on Facebook, and the other by Tuscaloosa Action, a grassroots organization that aims to “amplify progressive voices” in the community. 

The questionnaire from the West Alabama COVID-19 Information group asked the candidates to share their strategies for tackling issues like vaccine distribution, economic recovery and resource allocation, and the questionnaire from Tuscaloosa Action covered a wide array of policy issues. 

Both Maddox and Fortenberry returned their answered questionnaires to the groups. 

Houston said he was not aware of the questionnaire sent by the West Alabama COVID-19 group; he did not respond in time to Tuscaloosa’s Action’s request. 

On Feb. 9, Tuscaloosa Action issued “Mayoral Progressive Report Cards” using the questionnaire results. You can read the full document, as of Feb. 14, below: