His resume has everything a statewide GOP candidate could want. He was raised up in the country near Cullman. He earned a degree in law enforcement from Jacksonville State and sits on the board of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. He was elected to the state House of Representatives and he pastors a church in Irondale. Ask why he’s running for office this year, and he says, “My vision for Alabama’s future engages everyone who strives for success in abundant opportunities to build it.”
Yet he’s not a Republican. James Fields is a Democrat, the way they used to build them, and the 59-year-old African-American may well be your next lieutenant governor.
His race might have gotten him noticed when Fields won election to the state house in 2008 from a county that is 96 percent white, but this year the issue is competence. Running against Kay Ivey — the GOP seat-filler who, as state treasurer, ran Alabama’s Prepaid Affordable College Tuition program into a hillside — his slogan says it all: “We Can Do Better!” Plus, with seven children and 18 grandchildren, he is uniquely equipped to deal with the Alabama legislature.
In person, Fields has an imposing physical presence and, a former Marine, he radiates self-confidence. He balances a comprehensive grasp of Alabama politics with the thoughtful demeanor of a man of faith. We spoke to the candidate during a campaign stopover at the airport last week.
Weld: As you travel throughout the state, what kind of shape do you see Alabama in?
James Fields: Number one, Alabama is in bad shape financially. There’s a $200 million shortfall projected for the budget, and there’s no reason for that. When you have tried to balance the budget for four years and have boasted about it, either you lied about it or you did something with funny math. It’s like talking about creating jobs, the number of jobs you created and how unemployment went down 20 percent, and that’s the furtherest thing away from the truth than the man in the moon. … This is why I’m running: we can make sense out of government. We can talk to people across party lines, we’ve done that in the past. People want truth from government, that’s all they want. Be it a Republican or a Democrat, they just want you to be honest.
This legislature is 100 percent white — the supermajority — 95 percent male. It reminds you of the 1901 constitution, where females had no voice and African-Americans were counted less than citizens. Here we are in 2014, having to deal with that mentality, and Lieutenant Governor Ivey is allowing that to happen. She turns a deaf ear to the people of Alabama every time she cuts off debate, and she’s done it quite often. It has totally ruined the trust of the citizens of Alabama. They don’t even want to vote anymore.
Weld: You’re running to be lieutenant governor. Does that office entail any actual power?
JF: The lieutenant governor is the administrator for the Senate. The lieutenant governor is the one who can make sure that every bill is justifiably debated, worked on [in a spirit of] compromise and coming together. … Kay Ivey’s just been a total failure. She looks good, I guess, for the pictures, to say to folk of Alabama that women can be elected to a high position, but if you’re not standing up for women’s rights, if you’re not standing up for equal pay, if you’re not standing up for the minimum wage or the downtrodden, and then you allow the Alabama Accountability bill to be passed out of the Senate when you could have easily recognized the senators who were trying to get your attention to tell you that you were being lied to — she acted as if they weren’t there. The lieutenant governor has the power to make things happen. They’ll tell you the lieutenant governor doesn’t have power, but the lieutenant governor does have power.
Weld: But how would Lieutenant Governor James Fields be able to work with a Republican supermajority in the legislature?
JF: By simply sitting down and sharing with them. I know Senator Trip Pittman and others who want good government, who have fought against the supermajority, and they know what it feels like to have to fight against a machine. As long as they know they’ve got somebody who’s going to stand with them and not buckle under like Lieutenant Governor Ivey did, they’ll stand up and fight. I guarantee you right now, you’ve got a number of senators coming back, and new House members who’ll be there for the first time, and some rookies just coming off of their first term. They don’t like the leadership, but they’re afraid to say or do anything. …
Fields would first make sure that those relationships are established, a relationship of trust. These guys would be able to trust me, and they know that I could take the lieutenant governor’s chair, turn it around, make it a bully pulpit when need be, to let the people of Alabama know if your senator’s lying to you. You have to have somebody willing to stand there and do that, and we don’t have that now.
I mean, it’s unimaginable that you would allow a gentleman, the Speaker of the House, to vote on an issue seven times so that the company he is employed by will be the only company that can do a particular business in the state of Alabama, and then allow that company to come back and tell you, well, yes, he’s employed by us, but he doesn’t work for us in Alabama. Come on, now. … And I don’t understand the governor. The rumor is that he will sign the Medicaid expansion — after the election. If he’s re-elected and he signs it the very next day, people in Alabama need to have a recall.
Weld: What’s your take on your opponent’s, Kay Ivey’s, stewardship of Alabama’s PACT program?
JF: It’s one of the things I hear as I travel throughout the state. You still have PACT parents who are up in arms. Here is an individual now serving this state as a lieutenant governor, who, while serving as state treasurer, nearly bankrupted the PACT program where parents and families were investing their money for their children’s future. That’s why young people are moving out of the state. That’s why young people don’t have confidence in government. She went to sleep at the wheel, and we all know why. She’s incompetent to do the job. That’s why she won’t debate us, that’s why she won’t come out in public and that’s why she stays away from the issues. …
Coming from Cullman, you had to learn how to trust your neighbor. Yes, in Colony, a majority of our neighbors were African-Americans, but we had a lot of white neighbors where we sharecropped.
Weld: The story of the South.
JF: Yes. They plowed in our fields and we plowed in their fields; they picked cotton in our fields and we picked cotton in their fields. Lieutenant Governor Ivey, when I look at her age and where she’s from [age 70; Camden, Alabama], I would think that she came up that same way. But, apparently, she had some kind of privilege, so that she has forgotten about hard times, and about what people are going through in Alabama. You have millions of dollars in your campaign war chest and yet you’ll walk by a child who’s hungry, and I don’t understand that. We’ve got to stop that type of mentality.
Weld: You spoke earlier of women’s rights. Kay Ivey, although a woman, doesn’t seem particularly interested in that subject. What is your position on access to abortion for Alabama women? It’s been under attack in the legislature, and it’s always a hot-button topic for Republicans.
JF: That is an issue that has already been settled by the federal government. It’s federal law. We can’t change it.
Weld: Yet the Alabama legislature has devoted considerable energy to doing that very thing, and has successfully restricted access all over the state.
JF: And they will keep applying that pressure, but it is the law of the land. They’re not ever going to change it. They’re just going to spend tax dollar after tax dollar because they’ve made it an issue in Alabama. Until Alabamians learn the real truth behind the whole thing, they won’t listen to it anymore. It’s sad that Lieutenant Governor Ivey has not stepped up to the plate and shared with the people of Alabama what’s driving this.
They create issues — abortion, same-sex marriage; we don’t want unions; we want to protect the Second Amendment…nobody’s going to take your guns away. The Second Amendment gives you the right to bear arms. It gives you the right to be responsible, also. Just be responsible.
Weld: But the proliferation of open-carry laws seems to encourage exactly the opposite.
JF: I worked in a bank for a short period of time before I decided to seek the office of lieutenant governor, and I remember after they passed that piece legislation, I didn’t pay it any attention until one day I looked toward where the cashiers were standing, and there’s a guy with a big ol’ Magnum on his side. I said, okay, is he gonna rob the bank? I got the eye of the president as he was coming out of his office, and he said, don’t worry, he always wears his gun in here. But if you’re an ordinary citizen, and you walk into the bank and you see a guy standing there with a big ol’ sidearm on, you’re going to think something else is going on here.
So then the legislature, after they saw what was happening, they came up with this policy: if you don’t want a person to carry a gun into your place of business, you’ve got to put a sticker on the door. So you had everybody printing out “No Weapons Allowed” stickers. But the right to carry doesn’t have to abide by that, because that’s just policy. The law supersedes stickers. You can be sitting at a bar and people with guns come in. And then they’ll carry them to church. Where does it stop? And that’s where people like Kay Ivey, Robert Bentley, this legislature, have the mentality of ‘we’re in charge and you’re gonna do what we tell you; no ifs, ands or buts about it.’ These guys have to be removed from office.
Weld: Let me return to the issue of same-sex marriage. Your United Methodist Conference has been struggling with the issue for some time now. As lieutenant governor, how do you address it if it comes to your desk?
JF: Every person is of worth. We can’t judge. Those issues have been settled already, thousands of years ago. If people love one another and people believe in family, and raising their families properly — and by properly, we mean that a child has a wholesome learning environment, loving parents — we don’t care who they are. In the end, God makes the decision. I can’t tell you who to love or who not to love. …
As a clergy person, my job is to pray, to care, to share, to give and, hopefully, change. That’s where I will stand. If the issue comes before us in the Senate, we will listen to all sides and let the people decide.
Weld: As that clergy person in a political environment, how do you walk the thin line between church and state?
JF: Rather easily, for me. I think the line is as thin or as wide as you want it. I think you just walk it. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. As a person of faith and as clergy dealing with politics, I think politics have always been a part of the process in any situation. I see it all the time in the church…I think each one complements the other.
Weld: In the Republican Party, though, they have often moved in the direction of theocracy and imposing their sense of religiosity upon the body politic.
JF: And maybe that’s why Christians are losing their effectiveness…this idea that we are a nation founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs, a nation that follows Jesus Christ — if you believe that, then sell me another acre of land in the swamp, because Jesus Christ never, ever, denied anyone access. Never. He continues to love us and love us and love us, and for the Republicans to use that whenever they think it’s beneficial to them winning an office is not Christian-like, for sure. I call it blaspheming against the Holy Ghost, when you deny the power of God.
Weld: Why do you think so many Alabamians continue to vote against their self-interests by voting Republican?
JF: Fear. Fear. Fear. I have a young lady who works in the service station on the exit, 291, where I live, in Colony. They had her believing that the president was going to put a microchip in every human being, right behind their ears or above their wrists, to keep track of them. She believed that. She literally believed that that is what the Democrats, under the leadership of President Obama, were going to do.
This young lady barely makes minimum wage, she’s on food stamps. She and her husband work, they’ve got three children and they’re barely surviving. But she has voted against every Democrat because of fear. The Republicans have been very astute in instilling fear into Alabamians. I see it every day.
It wasn’t until she was friends with my niece — and she didn’t know it was my niece — that she changed her heart,
Weld: Are you able to overcome that fear when you meet people on the campaign trail?
JF: Yes. It’s easy when you meet people in person and you sit down and you talk with them. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.