Getting to know Scott Dawson — GOP gubernatorial hopeful talks gov’t accountability, social conservatism, improving Alabama’s economy
ATHENS — For the last 30 years, evangelist Scott Dawson has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to crowds far and wide. Now the founder of the Birmingham-based Scott Dawson Evangelistic Association is making a foray into the bloodsport of Alabama politics and seeking the state’s top job.
It’s Thursday afternoon at Athens, Ala.’s Square Clock Coffee, a spot off the main square near the Limestone County Courthouse. A few days earlier, the Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate held a rally in Shelby County signifying the formal “kickoff” of his campaign, which also happened to be the formal kickoff for his start in politics.
Since a fundraiser in Birmingham and the rally in Pelham later that day on Monday, Dawson has been from the bottom of the Yellowhammer state to the top, a pattern Dawson is sure to become accustomed to in the coming weeks.
YHN: Why are you running for governor?
DAWSON: When the former elected governor, not selected governor, but elected governor had allegations come out, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this can’t happen again.” Two of the last three, three of the last six – you can literally go back to the history of Alabama. We’ve only had two governors serve consecutive terms without being impeached, indicted or arrested. Now George Wallace was the one who set the consecutive terms – so you can go back 50 years and only two, Riley and Wallace – Wallace was one of those that got through without being impeached, indicted or arrested.
It’s just one of those deals, where I was like this is going to stop. And so I became part of that grassroots. Rick and Bubba joked about it. But they were like, “You need to pray about this.” So that’s what we did. And it was an agonizing journey.
Now they were all-in, but I was like – I don’t want to risk 100,000 people that I spoke to last year. Why would I put that in danger? I’m not bragging. I’m just going that is what I’ve built over 30 years, and 4.8 million Alabamians I think are looking for a leader.
That’s why I’m running.
YHN: Let’s say you are elected, what are some the punch list items you look to accomplish?
DAWSON: I think the first thing I would do is do a performance audit across all agencies. Let’s see where our money is being used, where our resources are being used.
And everybody goes, “Are you talking about firing people?” No. I’m just talking about making sure we’re organized, that we’re effective. You know there’s a difference in being busy and being effective. I know some people that are busy all day long. If you run on a treadmill, you’re busy. But you don’t ever get anywhere. So you have to learn to be effective. And that’s organizing to most effective means possible.
Then you’re looking at, with education, being there for the meetings, leading not only the initiatives of pre-K – we will make it available, but not mandatory. I just don’t think the government can do a better job than parents. I just don’t. So I’m always going to lean towards the family, the parents.
So, education in elementary – I’m going to try to do an initiative where we get volunteers in that classroom to help teachers – that every kid by the time they reach third grade is reading, writing and they have arithmetic – get back to the basics of education, get them prepared for life, not just to take a test.
In middle school, teaching leadership – that every middle schooler is already a CEO because if you are a leader, you act different. There’s just a countenance about you. Not everyone is going to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but every person can realize their potential in life.
I use a quote – Helen Keller. OK, we could discuss her all day long, but you know she lost her sight and hearing … and later on, when they learned to communicate with her, they asked her, “What would be worse than being blind?” And she responded, “To me what would be worse than being blind would be to have sight and no vision.”
And that’s who I speak to almost on a weekly basis, when I speak to student groups and school assemblies – people who can see the color spectrum but have no vision for their life and I think that is the responsibility for us to at least give them the opportunity to dream big.
Now when you get to high school, you start focusing in on drug testing – not so that we can harm kids, but so we can give them help, and do two forms – do state-based drug rehab, which isn’t very effective if you look at the stats. But, open the door for the option of faith-based drug rehab. And I use the word so that we can restore some of these young men and young ladies back into our communities. That would help us with our prison overcrowding situation.
When you look at this, everybody wants to make government the first option. And government was never designed to meet your needs. It can’t. And when you start allowing it to be like that, then you got socialism or communism or anarchy.
There are four levels before the government should get involved. There’s churches, there’s charities, there’s communities, and there’s corporations. Why is it that we make government the first option? Let’s unleash those four areas for communities to work together. If their churches, or you know religious institutions you can call them – synagogues, you know whoever wants to be a part of making Alabama get ahead in life.
But it seems to me in Alabama we always look to the government, either the state or federal. And I’m like, let’s start turning away from that and make Alabama the best it can be by working together. It’s no longer going to be they’re going to do it. We’re going to do it together.
YHN: Would it be fair to say you’re the “social conservative candidate” in this race?
DAWSON: I mean, I don’t know – I haven’t really polled the other candidates. I think anyone who knows me knows I will be fiscally conservative and socially conservative. But I don’t want to wear religion on my sleeve. I think people are tired of that.
I want to tell you this – it’s how we built the ministry. You don’t have to earn the right to speak in our society. I got First Amendment rights. I can go right out there and start screaming to the top of my lungs. No one is going to listen to me.
In America, you have to earn the right to be heard. And I think as we go forth in this campaign, I want to be able to be heard – that people will listen to my ideas and listen to my platform. And then when they peel behind the edges, if they don’t already know me, they go, “Oh hey – wow. And he comes from the faith background.”
Again, I’m not touting it. Jesus is not what I do. He’s changed my life. He is who I am.
And so, again perfection – not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m on a journey just like you are, just like she is, just like he is. For 30 years, I’ve tried to live my life before people consistently since the day we started this.
I get that people are going to look at me and go, “Oh, there’s the religious right.”
You know what – that’s the reason we intentionally brought Mike Huckabee in because Mike Huckabee is the type person I think has earned the right to be heard. And that’s the way I want to live my life.
YHN: Let’s say for argument’s sake that is the label you get in this race. What do you say to Alabamians who say Roy Moore played that role in this last election? Why should we go in that same direction this time?
DAWSON: I don’t want to be Roy Moore. I’m not saying that in a bad way. Honestly, what I want to be is Scott Dawson. I didn’t want to be Billy Graham. I just want to be who I am.
You know, I get the illustration if you go outside tonight and see all the millions of stars, and one falls, and you put your attention on the falling star when all those other millions are so brightly lit, that’s kind of unfair.
And so when somebody says, and I’ll even use this term – people go, “Well, Robert Bentley – Gov. Bentley said he was Christian, said he was called to be governor – that God called him to be governor and look at the debacle.”
And I go, you can’t compare me to other people because how far is that comparison going to go?
YHN: Let’s get back to policy – on infrastructure, what are your planks in that platform?
DAWSON: Well, I’ll tell you this – Fob James was the last governor elected without any prior political experience. You can go to a used bookstore and find a book named “Fob!”
You need to read it. In that book, here’s an interesting fact – in that book, the three most pressing issues – I read it and I screamed out to [my wife], “You’re not going to believe what I just read.” Here’s what it says: In 1978, the three most pressing issues in Alabama were prison overcrowding, education, and roads.
That’s 40 years ago. I go – John Maxwell says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. We’ve been electing the same people over and over again expecting different results.
So when you look at this – that’s the reason why I’ve tried to come out with the drug addiction or the prison overcrowding. It’s supposed to be correctional, not generational. And that’s what happening – second and third generation, education. Let’s get some new ideas.
With roads, everybody wants to talk about the gas tax. “You know, we got to have a gas tax.” I go, “Wait a minute – let’s look at this. Let’s budget our money properly. If you look at ALDOT’s budget, $1.2 billion, $63 million is taken off of the top to go towards ALEA and court costs. Now, they need to be taken care of. But it doesn’t need to come out of ALDOT.
Everybody goes, “What can you do for $63 million?” and I go, “Well, that’s true, but if you do it over 12 years, that’s three-quarters of a billion dollars that could have been done in roads across our state.
What I have come to understand by asking a lot of questions is Alabama has two, not that one is good and one is bad, but we just have two different styles of counties. We have 55 rural counties and 12 metropolitan counties. They want different things. If you live in the metro area, you’ve got different needs than they have in rural.
Part of what you got to do as a governor and as a leader is you’ve got to listen to people, and you’ve got to find out not what they’re saying but what do they really need. What do they want, OK?
So you take these 55 counties – you want to talk about bad roads. You think Huntsville has bad roads? Let me take you over to Fayette County. Let me take you down to Wilcox County, home of our governor.
What Haley Barbour did in Mississippi I thought was a brilliant idea, called the Golden Triangle, where in 10 years a billion dollars-worth of industry came into that Golden Triangle. If we could build consensus and allow counties to work together, private-public partnerships – get those started.
Everybody goes, “Well, you know all the obstacles?” I was like, you know what? If we sit around the table and talk about everything we can’t do, we’re going to have a long conversation. But if we can get around the table and talk about what we can do, and let’s get three counties together and go, “You know what? One of you can’t bring that industry in. But if all three of you can, then all of a sudden we can provide infrastructure. We can provide tax revenue. We can provide opportunities for schools.”
To me, you have just got to get our entire state working together. So, with that, I think we can get some roads done pretty quickly.
YHN: What about other economic development initiatives? Is there anything not currently being done?
DAWSON: Absolutely. Want to know the big one? Everybody is talking about recruiting industry. That’s static noise to me. That’s my job. OK? Hopefully, you’ve seen I have the gift of communication, and you get me in a room with a CEO, and I’ll connect with them, and we’ll get them here.
But what I want is I want to set Alabama businesses free. It’s not a tax issue in our state. It’s regulations and occupational fees, licensing fees – all the different fees that start piling up. Our son tried to start a business while he was at Samford. Basically a landscaper – put some flowers out, cut grass. He to start with going through ADEM. He just finally went, “It’s just not worth it.” He decided not to do it.
Well, here’s what I realize: No one starts a business to hire an accountant and a lawyer. Everybody starts a business because they have a dream, a vision, an opportunity, OK? So, let’s make starting a business as easy as possible – one-stop shop. It should just be a place they get everything they need. Then they move on.
Now you balance that with the current existing business, which I think you and I would both agree 70 percent of our economy is based on our businesses. I was with a CEO in his boardroom, and I’ll never forget this. He’s an Alabama-based business. He said every month we joke around this table we should move our business over to Georgia so Alabama will come and recruit us and give us the incentives that they’re giving everyone else.
And what I realized – again, he wasn’t talking about taxes, he was talking about all the incentives of, “I’m going to make sure this happens for you.”
It’s almost like if you’re a DirecTV customer and you’ve been with them for three years, and they start a new promotion, and you go to them and go, “I want that promotion.” They go, “No, you’re already a customer.”
Alabama has got to realize our businesses are our backbone. So, I created – I say I created – I did and I realized someone else is already doing it. But there is something called “Cut the Tape” that I would love to have an independent council set up. Independent, that if an agency has given a fee or a license or a regulation and they cannot defend it to the independent council once someone complains – if they can’t defend it, then it’s removed from the books. It’s just set free so that if we can incentivize and expand our businesses to export our goods and services and grow, Alabama businesses do something for us.
You know what they do? They pay Alabama taxes. That would set our economy on fire.
YHN: Let’s talk about the campaign. Just in general, how is the campaign going?
DAWSON: There’s been three that I know of, three straw polls or online polls. Though none scientific – let’s go ahead and understand that we are not living in the la-la land as a documentary. We know that it is not scientific. But I keep telling them you can’t win it all if you don’t win at all. So, we’re trying to be out there and do everything we can to the best of our ability. Get the word out, keep the message going.
The rally, you know it was 450 strong in an inclement weather situation. It was on Facebook Live. We probably had another 700 to 800 look at it. Now it’s been viewed over 5,000 times across the state.
You know, it’s one of those where when I announced that day, we had 7,000 Alabamians – the day I announced, 7,000 said we’re going to be a part of this campaign. We now got 23,000 followers on Facebook.
At the very beginning, I knew this was going to have to be a very different campaign. So, you know, I made a budget out. And I shared it that night. It’s a million dollars. I don’t think anyone ever thought because a lot of times, the evangelical candidate can’t raise any money. But, we’re getting very close to seeing our budget fulfilled.
We’re not going to raise as much money as a sitting politician. I am very proud of the fact that most of our donations have come from just ordinary small businesses or families.
I mean, our largest contribution is from Hobby Lobby. It was $100,000. And the reason why – we’ve known Barbara and David [Green] for 20 years. And when we were walking through this, they’re the ones who said, “Hey, we’re all-in because we almost lost our business because Christians were leaving government.”
They were like, “We would be a part of this.” But I knew we didn’t want them to, quote, “buy,” unquote, the election. We just wanted them to be a participant. So a large majority of this is just grassroots-oriented. We’re out knocking on doors. We got lots of college students that are nailing signs up and down the Interstate, side roads and yard signs. It’s just going all over the place.
YHN: Talk about some of the individual counties. Obviously, the rally was held in Shelby County but what are some of the other things you’ve been doing around the state?
DAWSON: We left the rally the next night. We were in Pike County. I’ve been in Covington County today. Tonight we’re in Limestone County.
YHN: You came all the way up here from Covington County?
DAWSON: No, I was in Covington – I want to say Wednesday night. To show you how good Alabama is, Wednesday nights are still the off-night. That goes back to the old church days. You know, you used to have church on Wednesday night. So, very few political events take place on Wednesday nights or Sunday nights.
On Saturday, I will start my day in Covington at the Rattlesnake Rodeo, go to Chambers County, then back to Shelby County.
I want to tell you, on the road, I’ve made some friends. Tommy Battle, you know, he and I are usually at the event. There’s two of us. I’ve seen him more than anybody else. We have fun.
And so, when he promotes his “visited all 67 counties,” and I never say his name. I say, “Some candidates celebrate when they visit all 67 counties.” I’ve been preaching for 30 years to youth camps and youth conferences. I’ve preached in every county.
I’ve either done their youth camp. They come to my conference. I’ve spoken to their high school. The only guy who knows more backroads than me in Alabama is probably James Spann. And I’m going to let him keep that award.
YHN: So, you know the state pretty well. Having that experience in every county, how would that translate in a role as governor?
DAWSON: Because I am an Alabamian. I’ve been here all my life. I’ve never lived outside of Alabama. I’ve traveled this state. I’ve met its people. I’ve stayed in their homes when I was younger and doing all of these revivals.
I know Alabama is full of good people. They want to raise their family. They want to provide for them. They want a roof over their head, and they want to be able to trust.
We all just want to be able to be proud, and not just, “Oh, my gosh.” And every time someone brings up politics, we have to bring up college football. I want us to be able to be like, “You know what, we’re leading.”
All my life, Alabama has been a good place, but we’ve always kind of followed everyone else. Alabama is poised to be leaders. That’s the reason when you say, “Governor, Alabama needs a leader.”
You’re going to hear some people say you need a businessperson. You’re going to hear some people say you need a seasoned politician who can hit the ground running. Alabama needs a leader. Alabama needs someone who can walk in, survey the situation and go, “This is what has got to happen,” and bring people together.
Dale Carnegie would tell you if you’re leading and no one is liking you, they’ll never get anything accomplished. So you have to have that likability. But you also have to have the strategic vision. And I think you have to be able to build that consensus and be like, “This is what’s best,” and convince people this is the direction that we need to go.
If you look at the candidates – you know, I always say, and I didn’t meet everyone, but I was not in this to run for governor. I just wanted to find somebody.
YHN: What would you do differently from Kay Ivey as governor?
DAWSON: Let’s just start at the beginning. She says she has three hours to prepare, but she has been in Montgomery for 40 years. And I think you give respect where respect is due. She says she has stabilized the ship or steadied the ship. My statement is we’re going in the wrong direction. So we have got to turn this thing around.
I think there were a lot of things that were already in place when she became governor. I think in order to get us down the field, it’s going to take a lot of energy, a lot of drive. It’s probably going to be the hardest task I’ve ever taken on in my life. And you got to build relationships. It’s not just what you say. It’s what you do.
I’ve said from the very beginning. I’m not running against Kay. I’m not running against Tommy. I’m not running against Bill. I’m running for Alabama.
And I think the problem has been in Alabama in the past that we run against each other and then Alabama loses in the end. I have been with her several times. Haven’t really had a lot of in-depth conversations with her.
I guess that’s just my personal conviction of going, “Let me talk to her privately because I talk publicly.”
YHN: Finally, give a closing sales pitch about your candidacy. Why should people consider you for governor?
DAWSON: I think Alabama is right now at the crossroad and we deserve better than what we’ve been getting in politics. We deserve better. I mean, the corruption, the absence of someone taking action.
I mean, the one thing I’ve realized in politics, politicians seem to come in and have all the answers. Leaders come in and ask all the questions. I’ve been asking that question over and over again – why? Why is it that in my lifetime, we’ve always seemed to be 48th, 49th, 50th, OK?
Why? Why is that? We deserve better. We can do better. We can do better when we start making decisions based on 10 years down the road instead of 10 years behind us.
We need to do better instead of listening to special interest groups – doing what’s best for the average Alabamian. We can do better if we all just kind of work together.
On June 5, we’ll go to the polls and answer the question, “Do we want to do better?”
And the greatest distinguishing factor that I can give you to myself is to line them up, and Alabama has got a choice between seasoned politicians and me. And everybody goes, “Well, wait a minute – why would you want to give somebody who has no experience as being a head coach?”
Dabo Swinney did a pretty good job when he stepped in his first head coaching position because he had been preparing all of his life. Some candidates will say they only had three hours to prepare. I’ve been preparing for this all of my life.