Jim Williams event

Jim Williams, Democratic candidate for Alabama Senate, is outlining some of his policy proposals in a press conference on Thursday in downtown Anniston. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star) 

State Senate candidate Jim Williams wants an Alabama where cities can set their own minimum wage, Medicaid gets expanded to include the working poor and mental health reaches more mentally ill people before they land in jail.

First, he has to remind his core voters that he’s even on the ballot.

“When I go out canvassing, people are telling me they’ve lived here for 10 years or more and no candidate has knocked on my door at all,” Williams said.

Williams, who’s running as a Democrat for the District 12 Senate seat now held by Republican Del Marsh, held a sparsely-attended press conference in western Anniston on Thursday to lay out his platform. Surrounded by a half-dozen supporters in the August sun, Williams delivered the speech on the corner of 15th Street and Pine Avenue – an area that was once the heart of black-owned business in Anniston.

Neither the heat nor the small audience seemed to bother Williams, who’s running a largely door-to-door campaign to defeat one of the most powerful people in Alabama politics.

Marsh, the incumbent, has for the past seven years served as president pro tempore of the Alabama State Senate – one of the few Republican leaders from the Tea Party revolution of 2010 who remain untouched by a major scandal. He’s won re-election handily every four years since he entered the Senate two decades ago.

Williams, a retired Navy officer, has been knocking on doors in Anniston – a majority-black city and home to the county’s largest Democratic base – to activate voters in a race that he says will hinge largely on turnout. Like other Democrats in the running this year, he cites last year’s U.S. Senate victory by Democrat Doug Jones, a vote in which black turnout played a major role.

“It’s pretty simple math,” Williams said. “If the communities don’t turn out, we’re going to lose.”

So far his campaign has spent about $16,000 – most of it, he says, on yard signs. Supporters say that simply getting Williams’ name out is an important goal.

“Prior to us working together, the black community didn’t even know they had an alternative,” said Adbul Kahlil’llah, an Anniston activist who was among Williams’ supporters Thursday.

Marsh campaigned and debated earlier this year, but hasn’t been seen on the campaign trail much since June 5, when he won a 6-point GOP primary victory over Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis. There’s a reason for that hiatus, the senator says.

“The general public’s usually pretty busy until you get past Labor Day,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday. “You don’t get a lot of attention for the things you do in August.”

Marsh said he expects to hold a series of town hall meetings in September. Williams on Thursday said he had one scheduled for that very night, at Anniston’s Carver Community Center.

In his stump speech, Williams called for the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Failure to expand, he said, has sped along the closure of small-town hospitals such as the one in Jacksonville, which shut its doors this year.

“People are beginning to recognize that this is not something that’s happening just in the Black Belt or the more rural counties,” Williams said. “It’s right here where we live.”

Williams criticized the state’s A-through-F system for grading entire schools, which he said labels schools as “failing.” And he criticized the state’s school-choice law – a Marsh brainchild – for setting up another formula that identifies the lowest-performing 6 percent of schools as “failing schools” where students would be eligible for tax credits for private school tuition.

“It’s set up so that 6 percent of the schools in Alabama must fail,” he said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

Marsh said the window for Medicaid expansion was already closed – and he said the state couldn’t afford expansion anyway.

“The vast majority of our discretionary money, in the General Fund, is already going to Medicaid,” he said.

Medicaid is the biggest single item in the General Fund budget, making $755 million of the $2 billion to be spent in 2019.

On failing schools, Marsh said schools in the bottom percentiles should feel pressure to improve performance.

“I want to know, what are you doing to improve your situation?” he said. “What are you doing that’s innovative to get us out of this problem?”

Williams called for repeal of a state law that prohibits cities from setting their own minimum wage. Alabama doesn’t have a statewide minimum – the $7.25 federal limit applies here – but lawmakers stripped cities of their power to raise the minimum after Birmingham tried a wage hike in 2016.

“This is state overreach,” Williams said.

Asked if he believed Anniston, Oxford or Jacksonville should raise their minimum wage, Williams said the decision would be up to them.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that Mr. Williams is a solid Democrat,” Marsh said when later asked about the minimum wage. “He’s saying what his base would want to hear. And I’m a solid Republican.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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