Tim James thought he was finished with politics 12 years ago after barely missing a runoff in the Alabama governor’s race.
But James said Alabama’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rock bottom rankings of the state’s public schools in math and reading helped convince him to challenge Gov. Kay Ivey.
In James’ view, vaccine mandates and restrictions on businesses during the pandemic are signs of a slide toward more government control and less freedom, a trend he equates to Marxism.
“The nation, I believe, is hanging in the balance,” James said. “We’re at a tipping point. And either we are going to turn this thing back or we’re going to continue down this slide. And at some point, the slope gets so steep that it can take generations to turn it around.”
For public education, James said he will propose a no-strings-attached voucher system to give parents choices about schools, an idea he says the education establishment will hate but voters will embrace.
“It will rattle the system,” James said. “The system needs rattling.”
James said he would push for a repeal of the 10-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase Ivey signed into law in 2019. He said he would oppose expanding gambling in Alabama with a lottery or casinos, saying the social costs would outweigh any benefits.
And as part of his declaration of a cultural war, James has repeatedly condemned a public charter school in Birmingham that welcomes gay and transgender students.
James, 60, son of two-time governor Fob James, talked about his decision to return to politics and what he hopes to accomplish in an interview in his hometown of Greenville.
James is one of eight Republican challengers to Ivey, who is seeking her second full term as governor. The primary is May 24.
It will be James’ third try for governor. He finished third in the Republican primary in 2002, when Bob Riley was elected. In the 2010 GOP primary, James was third again but trailed second-place Robert Bentley by a scant 270 votes after a recount.
After that narrow loss, James said he turned his focus to business. About a year ago, he said he began to hear a call back to politics.
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I just think the time is now,” James said he told his wife, Angela.
“As a family we began to pray about it. To make a long story short, Thanksgiving, we were together and just made the final decision as a family,” he said.
He announced his candidacy in December.
‘It’s like a cancer’
James said he is returning to politics to confront what he calls a growing threat to freedom.
“There’s nothing new about what it is in front of us,” James said. “This is Marxism. It’s been coming. It’s like a cancer. And it really started in the 60s. And Marxists, they’re smart and they’re patient. They take over or try to in the areas of influence in the world. And that’s where they fight the battles without a shot being fired.”
A recent battle, James said, was the response of federal and state government to COVID-19.
“I’m watching this whole scene once this pandemic hit,” James said. “And this is Marxism — controlling a nation under a spirit, a yoke of fear. The idea that a president or even a governor, for that matter, would tell Alabama or American citizens if you don’t take this vaccine that’s only been around a year you can’t work, you can’t feed your family. We’ve never been here before. This is darkness.”
Last November, President Biden ordered companies with 100 or more employees to require their workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly. Ivey, like Republican governors across the nation, called the mandate an overreach. The governor and Attorney General Steve Marshall supported lawsuits against it.
The governor signed a bill passed by the Legislature saying employers could not fire employees who refused the vaccine for medical reasons or if they claimed a religious exemption. Anti-mandate advocates who held rallies at the Alabama State House said the law was weak, and James agrees.
“A silly piece of legislation,” James said.
“I’m very disappointed in this governor, who was a friend of my family for 40 years,” James said. “But this is over the top. I would have asked the Legislature to pass a clean law that says no employer, public or private, can make anybody take a vaccine period. If they didn’t do it, I would have done it by executive order.”
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden mandate on private employers.
State leaders ‘panicked’
Starting with the declaration of a state of emergency for COVID-19 in March 2020, Ivey issued a series of “stay at home” and “safer at home” orders. At one point the orders closed some retailers and service businesses while allowing others deemed “essential” to stay open. The governor later said it was a mistake to treat businesses differently. Her orders at one point prohibited church gatherings larger than 10 people unless they were outdoor, drive-in worship services.
James says that was an example of how the pandemic was mishandled.
“You shut that guy down and shut the Presbyterian church down and you let the boys out at Walmart stay open,” James said. “Never seen that before. It’s insane.”
James acknowledged that the governor and other officials faced difficult choices during the early weeks of the pandemic because of uncertainty about how deadly the virus would be. But he said shutdowns turned out to be an overreaction for an illness with an overall survival rate of almost 99%.
“I think that leaders, people in positions of leadership, I just think that they were just overwhelmed with fear and couldn’t handle it and they panicked,” James said.
James said he believes Ivey should have opposed mask requirements for children in elementary school. He said the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 is too low for children to justify the disruption to learning he said masks caused.
For a time during the pandemic, Alabama had a statewide mask requirement for students in second grade and older. That was eventually lifted, leaving mask requirement decisions to local school systems.
“I’m watching this for months and I didn’t open my mouth,” James said. “I didn’t attack Kay on this. I’m just thinking, all right, at some point somebody is going to get a grip and say we’re going to stop it. And they don’t. So finally I said the heck with it. That’s enough.”
The Ivey campaign, asked for a response from the governor to James’ criticisms of her decisions on the COVID-19 pandemic, issued a statement: “His nonsense attacks and lies have driven him down to 10% or less in the polls. Alabamians have responded to his desperation with even further support for Governor Ivey.”
James has been accused of causing fear and anxiety for gay and transgender children with a campaign ad that targets a public charter school in Birmingham with a mission that includes welcoming LGBTQ students — the Magic City Acceptance Academy.
“There’s a war going on between common sense and crazy,” he says in the ad, which shows photos of a drag queen show by the school’s faculty. “That’s not education. It’s exploitation. It’s got to stop.”
Magic City Acceptance Academy Founding Principal Michael Wilson said the school, which opened last fall, added security because of the James ad, saying it was “scaring the hell out of our kids.”
“The Tim James ad is nothing short of an adult bullying children,” Wilson said.
In a statement to AL.com, James said the Magic City Acceptance Academy’s mission of affirming LGBTQ students “violates the cornerstone of all civilization, ignores 4,000 years of history, and is in direct conflict with the nature of God.”
“The magic city school’s stated mission is to offer their students an education free from bullying,” James said. “But it is more than that. They fly the LGBTQ flag as a political statement; the school is promoting an agenda signified by that flag. I would argue that the real mission of this school is to recruit vulnerable and confused young people and manipulate them to accept a lifestyle pursued by adults who are in positions of authority over those children.”
Wilson sent AL.com a statement in response, saying he did not see how James could make those claims considering James has never been inside the school.
“Unfortunately I cannot alter the beliefs that Tim James holds and promotes but the things that he is saying are grounded in hate and bigotry which is quite the opposite of any Christian beliefs that he may say he has,” Wilson said. “First of all, there is no gay agenda and people who identify as LGBTQ are not ‘recruiting’ or trying to ‘convert’ anyone. MCAA is a brave and affirming space for students who have been marginalized in many ways, be it identity, sexual identity, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and other reasons.”
“I am fortunate to believe in a God that is loving and inclusive, that we are created in his image and should live together appreciating the wonderful differences we have and our diversity is a strength,” Wilson said..
Support on the far right
Steve Flowers, a political columnist, author, and former state legislator, said the attacks on the Magic City Acceptance Academy appeal to James’ core of support on the right wing of the Republican Party.
“I think there’s a cadre of really right-wing social people in the state that urged him to run and therefore he’s running on those right-wing fringe social issues rather than substantive economic issues that more mainstream people may be more interested in,” Flowers said. “I think his center of support is in the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and that’s the kind of issue they’d be interested in.”
Flowers said he does not see any indication that James or Lindy Blanchard, can defeat Ivey or even force a runoff despite well-funded campaigns. Flowers said that’s probably more because of what he said is Ivey’s resilience and broad base of support more than failures by the James and Blanchard campaigns.
“He just got into a race that’s not winnable,” Flowers said.
David Hughes, assistant professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery, noted that an Emerson College poll in late March showed Ivey leading James 48% to 11% among Republican voters, with Blanchard at 8%.
“It doesn’t help his campaign that he and Lynda Blanchard are going after the same set of persuadable people,” Hughes said. “Right now, their objective is to force Ivey into a runoff, nab second place and hope to pull an upset in June. That means settling in on issues with resonance among a fairly conservative electorate.”
Hughes said the Emerson poll indicated that James fares better against Ivey among men and among those with a more conservative stance on cultural issues.
“This could indicate a liability for the Ivey campaign among the most conservative Republican voters stemming from her handling of issues like COVID-19, her initial reluctance to call the 2020 presidential election ‘stolen,’ or even her support for the gas tax increase, which happened to coincide with rampant energy inflation,” Hughes said. “Whether James’ message specifically is resonating, I couldn’t say. And I still suspect Ivey is the odds-on favorite to win. But she could be forced into a runoff. And she’s already started tacking to the right as a seemingly tacit acknowledgement that the James and Blanchard campaigns have found a tenuous foothold in their efforts to unseat her.”
‘You cannot just get along’
James said he was shocked by the low rankings of Alabama public schools.
Alabama’s fourth and eighth graders ranked 52nd in math on the National Assessment of Education Progress in 2019, behind every other state, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense. Alabama’s fourth graders and eighth graders ranked 49th in reading on the NAEP, considered the nation’s report card.
“How does that happen unless you have massive failure inside the system?” James said.
As governor, James said he would promote parental choice for education. James said he wants a voucher program to allow parents use tax dollars to send their children to any private school or to home school with a minimum of strings attached.
“You ought to be able to take the voucher or take the tax credit, take it, go to any other public school where you have slots,” James said. “You ought to be able to go to private schools. No question. None of this testing and all this junk. Leave ‘em alone. You ought to be able to go charter school. Or homeschool.
“And it doesn’t matter. Black, white, rich, poor, anybody. It is the families who are stuck in underperforming schools that are the ones that need.”
James acknowledged that choices would be limited for parents in rural, generally poor areas like much of Alabama’s Black Belt. He said he believes churches in those communities would respond to the availability of vouchers and help fill the gaps with private schools.
James said he expects his plan would require a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by voters because it would change how tax dollars are designated for education purposes.
To fix Alabama’s schools, James said the governor must confront what he called the “power brokers,” including the Alabama Education Association and certain members of the Legislature.
“If the governor is just getting along with those structures, I guarantee either the taxpayer or the children and public are getting the bad end of the stick,” James said. “You cannot just get along.”
Toll road developer
James was a business partner in the development of the Foley Beach Express, a highway and toll bridge that opened in 2000 as a new route to Alabama’s Gulf beaches. The road has become a popular alternative to the heavily traveled Alabama 59.
James’ company, Tim James Inc., proposed development of a toll bridge over the Coosa River to link the southern portions of Shelby and Talladega counties. The Shelby County Commission rejected the proposal in 2020.
Tim and Angela James have three adult children. On his statement of economic interests filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission, James reported his total household income for 2021 in the range of $10,000 to $50,000.
Since announcing his candidacy in December, James has raised about $3.8 million in campaign contributions, according to reports filed with the secretary of state. The biggest contributor has been Clearbrook LLC, a Mobile company that makes water filters and other products and has given $2 million.
Business executive Guice Slawson of Montgomery gave the campaign a $500,000 loan plus a $100,000 contribution. Business executive John M. McInnis III of Orange Beach gave a $200,000 loan plus $200,000 in contributions.
The James campaign has spent a total of about $4 million during the campaign. The Lindy Blanchard campaign, which is mostly self-funded, has spent about $8.8 million. The Ivey campaign has spent about $7.3 million.