The Birmingham Times
The two Democratic candidates in today’s Oct. 24 runoff in House District 55 have had their say. Now voters in the district which encompasses parts of Birmingham, including UAB/Southside, the West End, and Fairfield will have theirs.
The polls open at 7 a.m.
Travis Hendrix, a 40-year-old Birmingham police sergeant, received 670 votes, or 27.91 percent, in the special election last month. Sylvia Swayne, a 26-year-old customer service manager, received 515 votes, or 21.45 percent.
Turnout in the general election was dismal with just about 3,140 of the 25,000 registered voters participating.
“A lot of people just don’t understand how important our local elections are because these are the elections that affect our daily lives,” Hendrix said as he canvassed a neighborhood in Fairfield. “It’s my job to remind people to engage in these local elections.”
Sylvia Swayne, 26, a quality assurance manager, said her interest in social justice took off in high school in the wake of the Ferguson protests in 2014.
Swayne, if elected, would be the first transgender representative elected to the Alabama House.
At the University of Alabama, she co-chaired the Students for Fair Labor’s Collective Liberation Caucus, participated in sit-ins to object to Milo Yiannopoulos, who was invited to speak at the university, and to demand the expulsion of Ryan Parrish, a UA student who was arrested after a racially charged threat on Facebook.
“At the end of the day, I’ve done a lot of work in terms of civic engagement, community service and social justice,” Swayne said. “That’s what ultimately led to me wanting to run for office — just seeing so many bills being introduced that distract us from the issues that face the everyday Alabamian.”
With no Republican opponent in the general election in January, the winner of the runoff will most likely become the representative-elect for the district, which includes parts of Birmingham and Fairfield.
Talk of race and gender identity exploded on Birmingham talk radio in recent days has exploded as callers and hosts debate and make cases for their preferred candidates.
District 55 has a 70 percent Black majority, and a victory for Swayne would change the area’s racial representation for the first time in decades.
Still, both candidates said they preferred to have conversations on issues affecting the district, rather than gender or race.
“I’m for all people. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what status you are, or what gender you are,” Hendrix said.
He renounced personal attacks against Swayne, including a flier that attacked her gender identity.
“I don’t care about anything but making sure that District 55 has the representation that it needs so we can all be successful, and we can all have a better quality of life,” Hendrix said. “Quality of life is on the ballot.”
Swayne in recent days also took to the airwaves to present her platform and answer questions regarding her commitment to serving what is a largely Black constituency.
“I’m one person just like any candidate in the election. I can’t represent every single person in the district, but I can work alongside folks in the district and make sure that the people are prioritized over all else,” Swayne said. “My identity is only a distraction from the issues that face District 55 and I’m ready to talk about the issues and face the issues.”
The two candidates broadly agree on issues, with both seeing a need for infrastructure investments in the district.
Medicaid expansion would be a top issue for both.
Hendrix said that as a police officer, he’s seen many Alabamians without health insurance. Hendrix also said he has seen people with gunshot or knife wounds at emergency departments who rack up thousands of dollars in hospital bills. Those bills are a big setback for those individuals, who may not be able to pay. When those bills go unpaid, hospitals absorb the costs.
“That’s why I say expanding healthcare and making it affordable to people — like different plans — kind of make it affordable to different ages so that they can be able to afford health care,” Hendrix said.
Swayne said that Alabama needed to expand Medicaid “yesterday,” but she said she would take a more behind-the-scenes approach by being a conversation starter. Medicaid expansion is a partisan issue, she said, but it doesn’t have to be when 70 percent of Alabamians support Medicaid expansion, according to an Alabama Arise poll.
“When we talk about Medicaid expansion, we can’t convince a Republican to get on board with that — because we believe that health care is a right. That’s not the language,” she said. “You talk about the economic benefits. You talk about the ways that if 200 to 300,000 more Alabamians have access to health care, think about the amount of people who can go to work.”
On education, Swayne said legislators could have used the record-breaking surplus in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) to reinvest in struggling public schools, but instead, she pointed to SB202, filed by Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, a bill — passed out of committee but did not come to a floor vote — that would have diverted $864 million from the ETF towards private or home schooling.
“I do not believe that public funds — taxpayer dollars — should be going to private institutions,” she said. “I am not opposed to the existence of private schools, but they are private for a reason. They have to be self-funded. You cannot use public money on private schools.”
Charter schools, being public schools, should be more accessible to low-income communities, she said. Those schools may lack buses, for example, and transportation could be a challenge for needy families.
“If we’re going to invest in charter schools, we have to make sure the charter schools are actually accessible for students,” she said.
Hendrix said that if it’s a public school, he supports it.
“I know parents have the right and the choice to decide where they want to send their kid to school. I think as long as they get their education and continue to be productive citizens throughout the state of Alabama. So, that’s it, and that’s what I care about,” Hendrix said.
Hendrix also supports more infrastructure projects. He said it’s hard to attract businesses, and most places just need some lifting up, he said. Other places need more immediate help with things like street signs. He said that could be the difference that allows an emergency service to get to a house on time.
“Some street signs are knocked down, so you have to look on the house or on your phone and see what street that you’re on,” he said.
Swayne said that the state needs to invest in public transportation in the district. She said that she does not have a bus stop in her neighborhood, but that’s not the city of Birmingham’s fault.
“That’s because we don’t invest in public transportation at the state level. We have a 1952 constitutional amendment that prohibits us from using revenue from gas taxes on anything but roads and bridges. We’ve had a public transportation trust fund since 2018, and we don’t put money into it,” she said. “We need to come up with solutions that serve the people of the district and the people of the state.”
Hendrix raised $40,310 and spent $35,153 as of Sept. 30. Hendrix has accepted $25,496 in from seven PACs, with Alabama Works PAC being the largest donor at $9,254.
Swayne has raised $81,175 and spent $49,987 as of Oct. 13. Sylvia accepted money from LPAC only, a political action committee supporting LBGTQ+ candidates.
Tuesday’s special election will fill the seat left vacant when former Rep. Fred Plump resigned in May after pleading guilty to charges in a federal corruption case.
Plump was a freshman representative who served less than a year before a kickback scandal ended his political career.
The Alabama Reflector and AL.com contributed to this post