One hundred and fifty thousand new voters have been registered in Alabama since last December and almost two-thirds of them are under the age of 30. That must sound beautiful to 29-year-old Joshua Segall, the Democrat looking to unseat Republican incumbent Mike Rogers in Alabama's 3rd Congressional District, the quietest of three competitive House races in the historically red state.
Segall is an unlikely Southern candidate. Though he was raised in Montgomery (next door to George Wallace) he went to college at Brown University and worked on the campaigns of Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold. He's Jewish, pro-choice, and opposed school vouchers if they result in reduced investment in public schools. All of that considered, Segall came from 40 points down to pulling within 9 points of Rogers (with 18 percent undecided) in the latest Capital Survey Research poll.
The growth of Segall's campaign caught the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which added him to its "Red to Blue" program, winning him more attention and more donors. Rogers, whose poll numbers dropped from 54 percent in August to 44 percent by Oct. 1, is feeling the heat, as made clear by a recent fusillade of negative and inaccurate ads -- including one stating that Segall is funded by Nancy Pelosi when in fact he's received no contributions from her. This past Sunday (Oct. 26), the newspaper of Rogers' hometown, The Anniston Star, endorsed Segall stating that, "Congress needs the energy and imagination Segall has shown on the campaign trail."
The paper also noted that Segall puts "ideology aside for good government," likely alluding to his break from Democratic orthodoxy on some key issues. Segall supports the Bush tax cuts and offshore drilling. He talked to The American Prospect about his come-from-behind campaign, what he learned from Wellstone and Feingold, and connecting with the youth vote.
Brentin Mock:You overcame a poll gap many figured insurmountable. What kept you in the race?
Josh Segall: The last public poll had us down 9 points, but you have a lot of people in my district who don't want to be polled and a lot who only have cellphones so they can't be polled. In our own polling, we get that we're winning about 70 percent of black votes while Rogers is getting about 3 percent. My district includes Macon County, which includes Tuskegee. Also, District 3 is a 33 percent black district -- it's the third largest black population within a district for any Republican held seat in the country.
But I first started thinking about running against Rogers when he voted against the farm bill. I had been interested in the farm bill because I run a program called Homegrown Alabama where we get schools to buy food from local farmers. We saw that local farmers weren't producing as much as they wanted because of the drought, which is not a problem of nature, it’s a problem of infrastructure. In Alabama, we have no irrigation infrastructure and we don't save our water. We have seven million acres of land we could farm.
BM:What did you learn about politics working with Wellstone and Feingold that couldn't be learned in the university?
JS:Wellstone came and spoke [at Brown University] and when I met him he was really interested in Alabama history. I was supposed to take him to a dinner but I got lost. I wasn't well enough acquainted with Providence at the time. He was just angry to put it mildly. I think he thought I handled it well though. I spent the whole next day with him and by the next day he was offering me a job.
I did domestic violence policy work for his office. We wrote a policy that centered on healthy relationships and just what it means to be a good person. I also worked on campaign finance reform policy and the Teachercorps program. I worked on a program that would allow very low income people to get grants to start childcare and transportation businesses. It was a great experience. He cared that the people who worked for him learned a lot in his office. After working for him for a summer we stayed in touch.
Feingold was more of a personal relationship. Feingold wanted to do a college tour so I ran his field programs, helping him build his profile around the country. I did that over a long period of time for him and it did help raise his profile as a maverick and someone who could buck the establishment.
BM:Have you had a tough time reconciling with some of your own Democratic colleagues on issues such as gay marriage?
JS:Well, I'm not sure what to say about that. It's not a thing that's at the center of my campaign. My campaign is about jobs in rural areas. By the same token, there's a lot of pressure on me because I'm pro-choice. I don’t think government should make that choice for you, and I take a lot of hits in that district for being pro-choice. It's an important issue in Alabama because we have one of highest infant mortality rates in the nation. We can deal with the problem of abortion, but we also should make it so that people born in Alabama have a greater chance of survival. When people hear that -- people who never supported a Democrat before -- they tend to move over to our side.
BM:How do you feel about the prospect of Alabama becoming a blue state?
JS:The other districts have very good candidates. I think the Democratic party is going to have a real chance to fix some problems in this country and I will fight to get this done, if we deal with problems of people in rural areas. And that's a jobs problem, and an infrastructure problem. [Rep. Artur] Davis has been extremely committed to rural counties in his district. We need a nationwide plan to make rural areas thrive again. Right now, children can't move home from college because there are no jobs to move home to. I think that Davis and [Montgomery mayor and 2nd Congressional District candidate Bobby] Bright are committed to same things I'm committed to. The DCCC has been good to us. They recognize that our message is strong. They've helped us raise a lot of money, and we think we have a lot of momentum right now and are poised to win this thing.
BM:How much do you think it will help that the state has registered so many new, mostly young voters?
JS:I wouldn't presume because people are young that they are voting for me. When you're going against an incumbent it's tough, but when young people meet me they're excited because they see that I'm young also and they're looking for change. So, we tend to get a lot of young voters on our side.