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Biography of a district: Infrastructure one of many challenges awaiting next representative

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Biography of a district: Infrastructure one of many challenges awaiting next representative

Nov 28, 2023 | 8:01 am ET
By Ralph Chapoco
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Biography of a district: Infrastructure one of many challenges awaiting next representative
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New construction in Russell County Friday, Nov. 17, 2023 in Fort Mitchell, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Biography of a district

A look at Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District

November 27: The new 2nd Congressional District, running across the southern Black Belt from Mississippi to Georgia, has plenty of infrastructure needs.

November 28: Local education officials say that federal funding, particularly for special education programs, would be welcome.

November 29: The 2nd Congressional District has seen its share of hospital closures, and has more people without health insurance than the state average.

The new 2nd Congressional District, with a Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) of 48.7%, was intended to give Black Alabamians a better chance to choose their leaders.

In the end, the new boundary lines for the district did what they are supposed to do — give African Americans more of a voice within the state’s congressional delegation.

“The court order handled it in the best way possible given the changes in the demographics,” said Akhlaque Haque, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “This will be an interesting mix. Although there is a debate about whether Democrats will win another seat or not, it will play out in different ways.”

Experts expect the district to lean Democratic. According to the Cook Political Report, the new district would have voted for President Joe Biden by about 12%, compared to 29% for President Donald Trump in the old district, centered in the heavily-Republican Wiregrass.

“Given the racially polarized nature of voting in Alabama, a Biden +12 seat is a pretty safe bet for Democrats and will set off a lot of jockeying before the November 10 filing deadline,” the report said.

But whoever wins the election next November, the district’s next representative will have to consider several issues for the area, from issues important to those living in those places, from poverty and affordable housing to infrastructure that has been lacking in the rural parts of Alabama.

According to an analysis by Haque, the median household income in the new district (just under $47,000) is lower than that in the old 2nd Congressional District (just over $53,000).

Median net worth fell even more, from almost $104,000 to under $69,000 on a per capita basis.

The unemployment rate is higher (5.2% vs. 4%). The percentage of white-collar jobs decreased slightly, from almost 57% to 56%, while the number of service sector jobs increased from 16.5% to almost 18%.

Those differences create a new set of issues that candidates must consider when they are campaigning.

“I would think issues like rural broadband, education, hospital closures, those types of issues, would come to my mind,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Infrastructure

A wastewater plant reflected in the water.
The waste water treatment plant Friday, Nov. 17, 2023 in Phenix City, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Local officials in the district said infrastructure was a key need in the district, in all its forms.

“A lot of the rural areas, especially in my area of Russell County, the rural areas of a county, they don’t have a lot of infrastructure, they don’t have sewage, they don’t have things like that,” said Rod Costello, a member of the Russell County Commission.“We are addressing those issues the best we can on our level.”

It’s a particular issue in Fort Mitchell, in the eastern part of the county near the Alabama and Georgia border. Fort Mitchell is one of the fastest growing parts of Russell County, but commissioners say  growth is getting hampered because it doesn’t have adequate access to sewage.

“If we can get that growth there with the sewage in Fort Mitchell, we will have more, but the most that we have in Fort Mitchell is our discount stores and businesses,” said Cattie Epps, the commissioner who represents that area.

Residents and businesses are currently using septic tanks.

That is dampening the efforts to recruit businesses, along with jobs, to the area because there is no sewage system in place to meet their needs. It would start with fast food companies, but commissioners hope to bring in a computer chip manufacturing plant.

“The problem is that we just don’t have the funds, the resources, to run the sewer line at this particular time, but we are trying to get there,” said Ronnie Reed, a Russell County commissioner. Commissioners are currently trying to secure grants that would pay for a sewer line that connects the area to the sewage system operated by Phenix City, but that has been slow going.

Roads are another issue.

“We have quite a few dirt roads,” Reed said. “Businesses look at that too.”

Most of the roads in the city are in good shape, the commissioners say, but many of the roads in the unincorporated areas of the county require paving or need to be updated.

Affordable housing is also an issue in Mobile, said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. With a drop in new construction since 2005, he said it will be difficult to make up ground.

“Whatever our plans are, they’re not adequate to handle the size of the problem,” he said.

Education

Education will be another issue for the next member of Congress to address. Many educators in the district cited a need for special education funding, if nothing else to allow districts to free up state and local funds going to those programs to address those issues.

“I think to fully fund personnel to provide more specialists, particularly in behaviors, which is probably what we are seeing the largest increase and a need, especially with young kids,” said Dodd Hawthorne, superintendent of Crenshaw County Schools. “I think that that would be the number one thing: it would be being able to fund personnel.”

Other officials say that workforce training is a need in the district.

These would not necessarily involve a college degree program, but programs that would provide vocational schooling in HVAC and welding, jobs that, according to Costello, in which people could earn $35 to $40 per hour.

“There is not a lot of industry in Russell County, there is not,” Costello said. “There is the possibility of getting some industry in our area if we had a couple of things, more training and education, to educate people, to train people.”

Commissioners want to retrain the area workforce toward jobs that pay a livable wage.

Broadband and high-speed internet access

A man working wires on a crane.
Mediacom technicians work on servicing existing broadband infrastructure Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Silverhill, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)

Many of the counties located in the more rural parts of the district struggle with getting broadband access.

“Being a predominantly rural area, broadband is something that is really a priority on our list because we are moving to digital,” said Louis Maxwell, a commissioner in Macon County. “If we are not able to compete digitally, we are going to be left behind.”

The COVID pandemic offered a glimpse into the divide between rural and urban areas as schools closed and forced many students to take their classes at home. High speed internet access became a critical need for students to complete assignments, take exams and connect with their instructors.

Much of the lectures were online as well, which also required access to broadband to have the bandwidth to stream videos and lessons.

Rural areas were at a distinct disadvantage because many of those locations did not have the infrastructure in place to access high-speed internet.

“What we did to address that problem is, number one, we created hotspots,” Maxwell said. “We had hotspots on buses and vehicles, made arrangements for kids and parents to come around the municipal complex, the courthouse, to get a signal.”

Health care

The district has a higher-than-average rate of uninsured people, and while it has a large number of hospitals overall, many are concentrated in Mobile and Montgomery.

Closures have affected the district. Clarke County has three rural hospitals as well as a delivery unit, but that is unique. Max Rogers IV, an obstetrician who works in Clarke County gave commissioners a presentation warning them that a hospital in neighboring Monroe County will soon close, leaving the area as the main center for delivering infants.

Currently, only 16 rural counties in the state offer obstetrics services. Almost 30 counties in Alabama have lost obstetrics services since 1980, and there could be more to come.

The Alabama Hospital Association is projecting that 16 more rural hospitals will close without intervention.

Macon County’s Maxwell said the county has “a serious issue in terms of accessibility to healthcare.”

For one, the county doesn’t have a hospital in the area, with the nearest one about 25 miles away in a different county. Macon has a couple of clinics that provide medical care, but the services are limited. After 5pm when the clinics close, medical access becomes almost impossible.

A lack of medical access creates another problem.

“Not having any kind of access after 5 p.m., that becomes a real taxing burden on our ambulance service,” Maxwell said.

If a medical situation arises during the day, the person could simply visit the clinic. But with the clinics closed, any medical situation would require an ambulance visit to tend to the patient, leaving the service unavailable for another person with a genuine medical emergency.

“Oftentimes, the calls are urgent, but they are not emergencies per se,” Maxwell said. “Under Alabama law, the ambulance has to respond, and when they respond to a call that is classified as urgent but not an emergency, that takes the ambulance out of service for true emergencies.”

The infrastructure and workforce concerns are manifesting themselves in several ways.

Part of the issue is the composition of the workforce, many of whom work in occupations that simply do not pay a high enough wage to make ends meet. Many residents are employed in service sector jobs, working for small businesses, or restaurants and fast-food establishments, places that pay mostly minimum wage or close to it.

Local officials want to diversify their economies to offer a diverse offering of career opportunities for their constituents that include high-paying and in-demand jobs, but they are unable to make that happen.

Some commissioners have said that companies are willing to locate in the area, provided specific conditions are met. One of them is a readily available workforce trained in the skills that companies need.

Costello said he spoke to two companies who would be willing to move to the area because it is more cost effective, but the workforce concerns are causing them to hesitate.

“They would move it here just because our workforce is more affordable to them, but the lack of a workforce is a holdup,” Costello said.

Workforce development, however, continues to be an issue because training and educational opportunities continue to be lacking.

Even if that need were met, there is also the problem of a lack of infrastructure to provide utility services and transportation access to the area.

Poverty

Several areas of the district have higher poverty rates than Alabama’s 16.2%, itself higher than the national average of 12.4%.

“We have people who don’t necessarily know where their next meal will come from,” Costello said. “We are higher than the number that is below the poverty level in our area. We are basically twice the national average.”

Conecuh, Macon and Russell counties have poverty rates of about 22%.

In Washington County, nearly 17% of residents live in poverty.

Some of the counties in the district have higher poverty rates than the nation as a whole.

Inflation has had a significant impact on people’s pocketbooks. Prices for staple items such as food and gas for their cars have increased dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, wages have not picked up.

“That just increases the poverty level,” Costello said. “It is just a never-ending cycle.”

What local leaders want

A map of Alabama's 2nd Congressional District, running in the southern part of the state from Mississippi to Georgia.
Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District runs from the Mississippi border through Montgomery and to the Georgia line. (U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals)

The primary obstacle to progress that many local officials point to is funding. The money simply is not available to meet the education needs that could spur growth.

Aside from certificates in different vocational fields, Costello is advocating for training in technology.

“Every manufacturing job out there is going more and more toward robotics,” he said. “You are going to have to have a person to program, so you are going to need someone whose education, taught and certified on how to code these machines, to write those programs.”

The push for some type of technology education appears throughout the district, including Conecuh County.

“This is a county that doesn’t have a lot of jobs, so we are looking for someone who can do something in the school system, put some programs in the school system that our kids can get qualified to do some of these technical skill jobs,” said Leonard Millender, a Conecuh County commissioner.

Commissioners are looking for a cash injection that would help offset the cost for infrastructure projects.

“Building the infrastructure, and building the areas up, so that we have a sales tax, and we have a workforce working in the manufacturing plant or whatever the case may be, that is how the ball gets rolling,” Costello said. “If you don’t get it started, if there is no momentum to get something started, then it is just going to stagnate.”

Alander Rocha and Jemma Stephenson contributed to this report.