By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Few are giving Yolanda Flowers a chance to upset incumbent Kay Ivey in next month’s race for Alabama governor, but that doesn’t matter to Flowers. She’s made history once and is prepared to do it again.
Flowers has already made history as the first Black female nominee for governor from a major political party in Alabama. If elected on November 8, Flowers would be the first Black person to serve as the state’s governor and one of only three women to ever hold the position.
While Flowers recognized that those facts may inspire young people and women in the state, that isn’t why she’s in the race.
“I just know there are things that need to be done,” she said, adding that she is the one to do it.
“I feel confident in knowing me and knowing also that anything can happen,” Flowers said. “I believe in the impossible. … I know people have had little snide remarks like, ‘I guess she believes God is gonna win this race for her.’ I guess I could say, ‘Well, if He wants me to have it, I will win it.’”
Throughout her life, Flowers has worked with all sorts of people and has experienced times of plenty and times of poverty. Those experiences, combined with her “healer” nature, make her a good choice for governor of Alabama, she said.
“I’m a nurturer, and I believe Alabama needs someone who cares, … someone who genuinely cares, not just with words but with work,” she said. “I am a community-minded person. It’s nothing for me to walk these streets. I’ll pull over and pick up some trash. I have done it, and I know how to do it.”
Even though Flowers may be the longest of longshots, she did win the Democratic primary against five others. After receiving 33.1 percent of the 152,692 votes in the May primary, Flowers then defeated Alabama State Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier in the runoff on June 21, with 32,416 votes, or 55.1 percent, to Sanders-Fortier’s 26,263 votes, 44.9 percent. And the gubernatorial hopeful has a perspective that voters are unlikely to find in most candidates running for elected office on a statewide level.
“You still see the railroad tracks separating communities, the urban versus the suburban, and how more services [are provided] on the suburban side more so than on the urban side. … I see a lot of favoritism, and I don’t like favoritism,” Flowers said, adding that favoritism affects everything from school systems to infrastructure to criminal justice practices across the state.
That favoritism motivated Flowers, 61, to make her first run for public office—Governor of Alabama. Since her success in the June runoff and announcing her candidacy, Flowers has unveiled policy proposals she believes can address some of those inequities, including a state lottery that would enable the state to increase revenues without having to hike taxes on things like food.
A recent local TV news report showing long lines for the Georgia state lottery really drove home her point, she said.
“[The report showed] a whole lot of people in line to play the lottery—in Georgia. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. You know what? A lot of them were Alabamians.’ Then I said, ‘That should not be. We can keep that money,’” said Flowers.
A lottery has long been a controversial topic in Alabama. Though multiple lottery and gambling bills were proposed during the Alabama Legislature’s last session, none were taken up for a vote before the session ended on April 7. The last time the issue was on the ballot, in 1999, residents rejected it.
The Alabama Legislature’s inability to establish a state lottery is the result of “child’s play” politics between Republicans and Democrats, said the candidate.
“Let’s stop playing and see the seriousness of how it’s just unfair because it’s not the rich that are suffering—it’s the poor, average people that are suffering. … We need to stop and do better. We need to grow up,” Flowers said.
Speaking of growing up, Flowers was raised in eastern Birmingham, in an area she refers to as “Tuskegee Crest.” She was born to McConnell Robinson, a steel plant worker, and Myrtis Hall Robinson, who worked for Birmingham City Schools. She and her family attended Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Birmingham’s Kingston neighborhood, where Flowers has now returned after living in Tennessee.
Despite being raised during the Jim Crow era, Flowers felt secure going to church and being in her community.
“Everybody knew us. It was just a family here in this community unit,” she recalled. “I didn’t go many places by myself. I really didn’t. I’d go two streets over, and that was about it. We were well protected and guarded.”
Flowers learned to play the piano at age 8.
“The girls had to learn how to play the piano, and the boys had to learn how to play baseball. Dad was a stickler with that,” she said, adding that when she’s not on the campaign trail she tends to her garden, sips gourmet teas, and plays piano.
Flowers adores classical music, including works from composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin, but she mostly plays gospel and listed Andraé Crouch, Walter Hawkins, James Cleveland, and Shirley Caesar as some of her favorite gospel artists.
Flowers graduated from Woodlawn High School in 1978 and went on to attend Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. She then went to Pellissippi State Technical Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she earned an associate degree in speech therapy. She also attended the University of Tennessee, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in audiology and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.
While in Maryville, she met Curtis Flowers, who was driving around the school’s campus “girl hunting,” said Flowers.
“He said he fell for me because I had long hair and bowlegs. I don’t know why, [but] there was something about bowlegs that guys liked. … He liked me and pursued me.”
The couple married 1980 and had three children: Curtis Jr., who has three children; Jada, who has two children and four grandchildren; and Cameron, who has four children. Yolanda and Curtis spent most of their marriage living in Tennessee, and they moved to Birmingham in 2015. Curtis died in September 2021, just after helping his wife fundraise to qualify for the gubernatorial election
The gubernatorial challenger does not shy away from her beliefs on tough stances. Soon after securing the Democratic nomination earlier this year, Flowers said she is “pro-life” and believes in the sanctity of the life of unborn children, but she also believes women should have the right to choose. Also, having been sexually assaulted at age 5, she firmly believes children need to be protected.
Flowers refers to her beliefs as the “whole life” view.
“When I say, ‘whole life,’ I’m saying it’s not just about the baby. It’s about the mom, as well. We cannot neglect her, whatever she’s going through carrying that child, especially if she has been [a victim of] rape, incest, molestation. You don’t understand that until you’ve been there. I’ve been there, so I understand,” Flowers said.
Termination of a pregnancy is completely the decision of parents, she added.
“[Let’s say] a husband and wife decided they didn’t want children, then she forgot to take a contraceptive, or he forgot to put on a Trojan, [a popular brand of condom], or [the condom] broke. [If] they just didn’t want to have a child, that’s their right.”
Gun violence is another issue that has Flowers’ attention. Across the nation, numerous cities have seen increasing rates of homicides, and Birmingham—where homicides are up 33 percent, according to police figures, year to date this year versus last—is no different.
Limiting gun accessibility is crucial to stemming the tide of violence, she said. To that end, Flowers added, 18 may be too young of an age to buy guns. She suggested that 21 may be a more appropriate age, citing research that suggests young people aren’t fully mentally developed until they are significantly older.
In addition, the candidate decried what she perceives as a culture that glorifies firearms.
“Now, it’s become more of a trend. ‘Everybody, get a gun. Children, get a gun. Take a picture with the gun in your prom dress.’ … Seeing all of that that is so uncool to me and so detrimental, as well,” Flowers said.
Outside of changing the age requirement for gun purchases, Flowers said gun safety should be pushed more heavily and mental evaluations could be required. The candidate also acknowledged that many guns are acquired illegally and said it’s up to the FBI to be diligent in cracking down on illegal weapon purchases.
With the election less than three two weeks away, Flowers said she’s tuned out the naysayers.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Well, I don’t think you have a chance,’ and it’s not really the European Americans. It is the Black Americans here, the African Americans here in our state,” she said. “It hasn’t been that many, but, still, they’ve said it as if they’re giving up, as if they don’t have hope. … I have hope because I know that all things are possible. If you believe in God, God can do it.”
Flowers’ Take on Key Topics
Yolanda Flowers, democratic candidate for Alabama Governor, spent 20 years with the Blount County Schools system in Tennessee as a reading instructor for at-risk students. She also has worked one-on-one with individuals as an assistant in a speech, language, and hearing pathologist’s office. In addition, she has been a substitute teacher for Birmingham City Schools from 2016 to 2019.
Through her work in education, Flowers has spent a significant amount of time working with students in special education classes, and she said a one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t work. She believes all students can benefit from an individualized education plan (IEP).
“So far, [IEPs have] just been structured for those students in special education programs, but every child should have one. We need to know what their strengths and their weaknesses are,” Flowers said.
In addition to citing the benefits of individualized instruction, Flowers feels schools need greater capability to test students for disabilities that can hinder their ability to learn. Knowing students’ challenges can help teachers appropriately “structure” how they teach, she said.
Flowers has highlighted continued efforts toward desegregation within school systems across Alabama as a key issue for her gubernatorial run. She believes segregation continues in the state’s schools because some people have an “evil nature” that causes them to ostracize others with different ethnic origins and abilities, as well as sexual preferences and gender expression, she said.
That segregation proliferates because of institutions like charter schools, and it is also visible in places like Birmingham when parents intentionally move to have their children attend school systems outside of the city, she added.
Better training and evaluation of educators is one way Flowers proposes to eliminate the effects of the current segregation in Alabama’s schools.
“Our instructors have to be better trained. They have to even have a psychological evaluation, as well,” Flowers said. “Are you capable of teaching a child in an urban area or from [the suburbs]? Are you capable of doing that without showing favoritism? Are you capable of doing that without allowing your personal issues to come to the forefront?”
Education is a “mission,” she said, and teachers should be as dedicated to it as others who take oaths for their occupations.
“Doctors have an oath that they have to adhere to. Judges have a code of ethics. Our police force, they have a code of ethics. Teachers, everybody [has a code of ethics], and we need to adhere to that,” said Flowers, pointing to the Alabama Educator Code of Ethics.
Medicaid is a federally administered program that provides health insurance for low-income, elderly, and disabled people in the United States. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, coverage was expanded to many low-income adults who were not ill or under 65.
Since 2014, through provisions in the ACA, individual states across the country have had the option to expand Medicaid coverage in their state to low-income people without disabilities under the age of 65. Alabama, however, is one of 12 states that have yet to expand that coverage.
Flowers, a proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama, said even people with moderate incomes suffer when health care costs are high.
“You may be bringing home a pretty decent check, but when you have all these bills here, how can you pay for your health care? You want good health care, but so many people are struggling,” said Flowers, who is also an advocate for building more hospitals in rural areas and equitably maintaining hospitals across both rich and poor areas.
Flowers acknowledged disparities within Alabama’s criminal justice system as a key area of focus for her campaign. It’s important to “clean up the system,” she said.
While Black residents make up only 26.8 percent of Alabama’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they make up 50.8 percent of the state’s prison and jail populations, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. In addition to this disparity, Flowers cites racial profiling by police officers and continued denials of parole as other areas of concern in regard to criminal justice throughout the state.
A large part of Flowers’ proposal for fixing problems in Alabama’s criminal justice system is her idea for establishing a team comprised of an attorney, an administrator, a social worker, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, a psychologist, and a trusted police officer that will oversee prison operations and hiring, as well as the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. This team, which Flowers calls a “Justice League,” will ensure equitable treatment and aid in rehabilitative efforts for the incarcerated population. Flowers also said she would like to hire more on-staff doctors in prisons.