Getting to know Tommy Battle — GOP gubernatorial hopeful talks education, ethics, infrastructure, economic development
HUNTSVILLE — For the last several decades, Alabama’s northernmost major city has been one of the state’s crown jewels for economic development. From rockets in the 1950s to landing a Toyota-Mazda joint venture manufacturing facility earlier this year, little stays the same in Madison County.
For the last 10 years, a number of Huntsville’s achievements have come under the leadership of Mayor Tommy Battle. The Huntsville Republican thinks he can take his recipe for the Rocket City’s success and apply it statewide as governor.
From his campaign headquarters on the fifth floor of the historic Times Building in downtown Huntsville, Battle explained to Yellowhammer News in a one-on-one interview why he should be elected governor and some of what he would do to improve the lives of Alabamians.
YHN: Why are you running for governor?
BATTLE: I guess the whole reason that you run for public office is to make your community a better place – make your state a better place. That’s your basic bottom line. That’s where you start from, and you build from there.
Over the last 10 years, we have had a great success in the Huntsville community. We’ve been able to add 24,000 jobs, $3 billion worth of investment. And the question is can you take that same success – the strategy and plan that got us to the place that got us 24,000 jobs and $3 billion worth of investment. Can we take that same strategy and plan and can we do it on a bigger scale in Montgomery and provide jobs and provide an economy for the whole state, not just one section of the state, and provide for people who maybe you already have a job, maybe can get a better job.
That’s the key. To do that, a) You have to education, b) You have to have infrastructure and c) You’ve got to have quality of life, and that quality of life has to be something that makes people want to be part of your community. So we started 10 years ago – we started with a plan and a strategy for the city of Huntsville. That plan and that strategy has proven, has worked very well here. It is a proven plan and strategy. That’s why we got into the governor’s race. We thought we could do something a little bit better than what was being done.
The second thing I think that people are looking for – this is coming from going to all 67 counties and across the state – is they’re looking for good, ethical, honest government. Ethics are very big in this campaign. If you look at our past history, ethics needs to be very big. Honesty is something that has to come to government. And what it basically means is you have got to get government back to where people trust it. And if we don’t have the people’s trust, we can’t make any achievements that we need to make.
Right now, most of the people look at Montgomery as a place where not necessarily good government happens, but government happens. We’ve got to get it to the stage where people believe Montgomery is working for Alabama and the future of this state.
YHN: One of the problems candidates have from this part of the state is that it is hard for someone from Huntsville or Mobile to win statewide. And you talk about going to all 67 counties. What else are you doing to overcome that geographic obstacle?
BATTLE: The interesting thing is we got county organizations throughout the state. Those county organizations are what you call grassroots. You have got to have grassroots to be able to talk to people. With social media nowadays, you can talk to people in any county and talk to them on a regular basis – let them know your plans, your dreams, your visions – what your vision is for the state, and I think that is important.
If you look at where the numbers are – if you remember the old numbers used to be flip-flopped in the old history books. But the numbers are really advantageous for anybody that can capture Shelby County-north.
And capturing that does not mean that you give up on the other portions. But if you get Shelby County-north, you get Mobile, Baldwin Counties, you get the Wiregrass area, Lee County, and Tuscaloosa County areas and you’ve covered the whole state. Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore is a good area. We’ve got grassroots organizations in every one of those areas.
YHN: On Kay Ivey – what is she doing wrong that would suggest, “I need to be in office to steer the ship of state in the right direction”?
BATTLE: I think you got to look at where the emphasis is. We tell everybody we have a track record. Our track record is the last 10 years. Look at the last 10 years. I’ll compare it to Kay Ivey, to Scott Dawson, to Bill Hightower – to every one of them. You look at the last 10 years. What have we accomplished?
We have accomplished jobs. We’ve grown the economy. We’ve added to the job base. In the last 10 years, those 24,000 jobs equal 62 percent of the growth of the whole state of Alabama. That means we have grown more than any place in the state of Alabama. And that’s not to be bragging about it. But it is to say that’s my track record.
For the last eight years, Kay Ivey has been lieutenant governor. And as lieutenant governor, what’s her track record to make the state better? Bill Hightower has been a state senator. What has he done to make the state better? Scott Dawson has been an evangelist. All those people need to have the same questions asked of them. What have you done over the last 10 years to make this state a better place?
What structurally can we look at that makes us understand that that’s a reality that you can do it as governor?
YHN: You mentioned education, infrastructure, and quality of life. Do you have some specific examples?
BATTLE: Education – we built $250 million worth of schools. We added digital education. Every child, every student in our school third grade and up had a laptop that was digitally connected to the teacher, and the teacher could see where the students were going forward and where they needed help.
People say, “What’s so important about digital education?” If you’re working at Walmart today, you’re going to be working on a computer. If you’re working at Jack’s or McDonald’s, you’re working off of a computer system that tells you what the order was and how quick you got it out.
Digital education is the key to the future. Advanced manufacturing requires a digital education. The third thing we did was we put in an accountability system where we tested the first of the year, the end of the year, peer reviews, student reviews with teachers and made sure we had a year’s worth of advancement out of a year’s worth of education.
Accountability pays more into school than anything else you can do because you’ve got to make sure your teachers can provide the instruction that you have a year’s worth of advancement from a year’s worth of education. If they don’t, then we need to remediate. We need to team-teach with those teachers. We need to help them to ensure we’re getting a year’s worth of advancement out of a year’s worth of education.
That is the three pillars of what you got to do in education. And we’ve done it. We’ve done it here and we’ve put together an education system that is the kind that when you want to attract companies like Polaris or Blue Origin or GE Aviation or Remington or even Toyota-Mazda or Aerojet Rocketdyne – all of those tie back to your economic development and the idea that you can develop or add jobs to your community.
YHN: Say you’re elected governor, would you just implement all of these things into the state?
BATTLE: I think your key, or your cache of keys, is you’ve got to have an accountability system in our education system. You’ve got to make sure you have a year’s worth of advancement out of a year’s worth of education. That is key to every system. That means testing at the front, testing at the end – just seeing the advancement of the student from where they started to where they’ve ended up. I think that’s the fairest thing to do for the teacher.
Second, I think you’ve got to start entering some of the essentials of the digital education. That has got to be in place. And third, you’ve got to make sure your school system has an accountable discipline process so that you can have discipline in the schools.
YHN: What are some infrastructure goals?
BATTLE: What we did here – infrastructure is a lot more than just gas, water and sewer. Roads is the main thing. We’ve ended up building $450 million worth of roads in our own area. And $450 million worth of roads means our quality of life is the same today after we’ve grown as it was before. We have an average 18-minute commute to work, an 18-minute commute coming home.
With that average commute, that’s part of your quality of life. Instead of being stuck in traffic, you’re able to get home. Many people we compete against have an hour commute to and an hour commute back home. You’re always asking, “What can you do with an extra hour and 24 minutes of your life? What makes your life better?”
Another part of infrastructure is fiber to the home – either that or working within the system to provide connectivity. That provides for a whole shadow economy. It provides for an economy where parents can work to be home taking care of kids. Also, you can work long distance. We had a young lady here that worked for Disney World in Orlando. She does her CAD drawings. And she gets on her fiber Internet, ships it down to them. They mark it up, ship it back to her. She’ll work on it some more. And at the end of the month, she gets a check from Disney World in Orlando, and it comes back into the Huntsville economy. It is spent in the Huntsville economy.
It is a whole shadow economy that comes out like that. And that’s one of the keys that you’ve got to have the vision for, to be able to look at and to be able to have the vision to be able to move forward with.
YHN: What is your opinion on city-run utilities, like Internet?
BATTLE: You need to be careful. You need to do it in such a way that you protect the taxpayers. That’s what we did. Our utility system put in the fiber and putting in fiber is no more than hanging wire. It is the same thing utilities do on a day-to-day basis. So, we put in fiber to the home for every home in the city of Huntsville – a $60 million cost. Google Fiber came in and leased out some of the dark fiber and is using it to light it up and use it for their connectivity.
There’s still more dark fiber in the system that can be leased out from others, so you have that competition edge in there. But Google Fiber is basically their payment for leasing out that section pays for putting in the fiber in the community.
That’s one of the great things we’re able to get through partnership with business. We’re able to get business to provide that part of the infrastructure to us.
YHN: Social issues tend to be a driving force in Alabama politics. Are you just the typical Republican on social issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, those sort of issues?
BATTLE: I believe in sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage.
I’m a Republican. I’ve been a Republican – gosh, since I started the College Republicans, or initiated a chapter of the College Republicans back in 1976. I was College Republican chairman in 1976.
When we came in, there were the social issues out there, but there was also the fiscal issues – the fiscal issues of balancing budgets and trying to get us back to the stage we spent what we brought in.
I remember back in those days we lamented we spent $200 million more than we brought. And today, we wish we could go back to that with trillion-dollar deficits. We were budget hawks, and we believed fervently that you needed balanced budgets to be able to continue to provide the kind of government we’ve always been able to provide.
That’s I think the key to the Republican Party today – that we have got to provide a government that has sustainability for years and years and years to come. That’s one of the most important things we can provide to people. We can provide defense. We can provide government that will be here for years and years because we’ve all seen what happens to other governments when they’ve spent beyond their means, and they’ve put austerity measures and everything else. They go away from the world scene, and they become countries that aren’t necessarily prosperous moving forward the way we have always seen America move forward.
YHN: When you go to a lot of these small towns in Alabama, and you talk to the locals, they always talk about how Huntsville gets an unfair share of the economic development. What do you say to people around the state that think you ought to grow the smaller towns and put more of a focus on those?
BATTLE: That’s why I’m running for governor. As governor, I can give you the same opportunity as we’ve been able to in Huntsville.
For the past 10 years, we’ve added jobs. We’ve added industry. We added companies to our area. And I want to offer the same thing to the entire state of Alabama. By doing the same practice, the same plan, the same strategy that we’ve been doing, we can do the same thing for the whole state of Alabama.
Is it easy? No, it’s always a hard push to make it happen. But, if we take the proven method and apply it, we can change the state of Alabama.
YHN: A lot of these local county and municipal governments don’t have the luxury that Huntsville has with the tax base and the ability to offer those economic incentives. How do you get that plan in motion in a place like Wilcox County or other places in the Black Belt?
BATTLE: I got a call from one of the county commissioners in Clay County yesterday, and we were talking about how to bring up an area. You’ve got to work off of the strengths in that area. You’ve got to work off whatever is there, and you’ve got to work off the strengths.
One of the things we’ve got to recognize is Boston Consulting Group just put out a study talking about how manufacturing was going to come back to America. And I think there’s some open places that we can go back to and look at the manufacturing we used to do in places – some of the mill manufacturing, some of the textile manufacturing – things that we used to do old days here.
I think we have an opportunity to bring that back. To bring that back it’s going to take work. It’s going to take shoe leather. It’s going to take visiting a lot of executives in a lot of different places. But that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. If we continue to do it, I think we can see a growth pattern for the whole state.
You will grow from your strengths. The areas that are growing will be part of your strengths, and they will grow. But as they grow, there will be future growths.
Take the Toyota plant that came in – we’re going to have spinoffs from that that go all the way to the Gulf. We bring in containerized parts. We use transportation companies that take those parts from Mobile all the way up to Huntsville.
The second thing that spins off – there are going to be second- and third-tier automotives that are going to be coming in and looking to provide for the plants that are here in Alabama. They’ll provide for Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes, Toyota, Mazda. They will be providing for everybody, and they will locate throughout the state. They want to be 50 miles from a manufacturer.
So they will find places throughout this state – whether it is Jasper, whether it is Hamilton, whether it is the Quad Cities, maybe Russellville or Sand Mountain, or maybe Birmingham. They’ll want to be part of the success we’ve had. There are spinoffs all throughout the state.
There’s multiplier effects for what we do, and if we can bring industry here, there will be multiplier effects that make the whole state – as we call “state of the ship” float. A rising tide floats all ships, and that is surely the case.
YHN: Back to infrastructure – are there any highway projects we as a state need to be focused on?
BATTLE: You know, we’ve got an interstate system that is crumbling right now – I-65, I-10, I-565, I-85 going to Auburn. Each one of those are systems we need to look at and look at seriously. You compare the differences of I-75 in Georgia to I-65. I-75 is six, eight, ten lanes all the way up and down. Every intersection, there’s probably a billion dollar’s worth of business there because they have distribution centers. They have strip centers. They have hotels, motels and restaurants all located there.
Our interchanges may have gas stations, hotel, motel and restaurants. But they don’t have everything else because we don’t have the capacity to make our systems grow. That’s going to be something that we’re going to have to start working on from day one.
And the thing that people need to realize is that when you start working on roads, it’s not a quick two-year fix. If you start working on a road today, it takes 10 years to build a road and to ride on the results of that road. So, if we started today in 2018 to expand I-65 to get rid of the slowdown in Calera, we’re talking about 2028 that we’ll actually be riding on that road.
If we want to work on I-10 and fix I-10 where you can get traffic from east to west, and get workforce into Baldwin County – if we start today, it’s probably a 13-year fix. So we’re looking at 2031 before we’re actually riding on that road.
Everybody has got to realize we’ve got to have some vision in this. We’ve got to understand the timeframe in this. The best time to be building these roads is 10 years ago.
YHN: We’ll wrap it up on this – for those people in the other parts of the state, give a closing sales pitch.
BATTLE: I think what people are looking for, and this is just from talking to people throughout the state, they’re looking for honest government that they can believe in. That’s something that we have provided here for 10 years in the city of Huntsville. They’re looking for a government telling them here’s a plan, here’s a strategy and here’s where we’re going to end up.
We’ve been doing that for 10 years because of that. We have trust in our government. People trust us to do things that are necessary to make sure our community is a prosperous community and one that will continue.
We’re offering to do the same thing for the state of Alabama. Come to Montgomery, come to Capitol Hill, work with people throughout this state. Make sure that this whole state is a prosperous state, make sure that this state is going to believe in government again and believe that we’re going to do the right things, honest things that are necessary to be done in government.
And that is one of your first missions when you get down there. You’ve got to re-instill trust, and re-instilling trust is not easy. We have got take it step by step and show people that I’ll work harder than anybody else. Show the people that we have a plan and a strategy and that strategy works. We’re going to have to show people that we have an end-game and that result is we have a better Alabama at the end of this than what we started with.
(Image: Tommy Battle for Governor)