One day after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, Tommy Tuberville said he would probably agree to a debate with Sen. Doug Jones but did not say it was a sure thing.
“Maybe,” Tuberville told AL.com. “We’re looking at is as a team. Probably need to do it. But I’m not going to commit a hundred percent until we see how things go the next month, month and a half.”
Tuberville said he needed to concentrate on raising money for the campaign. Jones, who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination, showed more than $8 million in campaign funds on his last report. Tuberville’s last report showed about $450,000.
Asked why he would not commit to a debate, Tuberville said, “Well, I’m not going say 100%, but I said we’ll probably do it, Nothing is ever certain. You’ve got to wait and see what happens and what direction the campaign goes. But there’s a lot of water to go underneath the bridge from now through the next month and a half, two months, before we’d even think about doing anything.”
Lizzie Grams, press secretary for the Jones campaign, said in an email that Jones is “very open to debating.”
In an interview today on WVTM, Jones said he would not issue a challenge.
“We’re ready to debate anybody at anytime,” Jones said. “I’m not going to challenge anybody. We’re going to be talking about the issues.”
Tuberville handily defeated Jeff Sessions in Tuesday’s runoff, receiving about 334,000 votes, or 61%, to 216,000, or 39%, for Sessions. Tuberville and Jones square off in the general election on Nov. 3.
Tuberville declined to debate Sessions and avoided interviews with the media in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff. His campaign spokesman offered to make the candidate available for a 10-minute phone interview today. AL.com asked him about several topics, including whether he supported the statewide mask order Gov. Kay Ivey issued today.
“I’m not for the government telling us what to do,” Tuberville said. “I think that we need to be wearing masks. I think that we need to be socially responsible. I think we need to understand this is a very serious situation that we’re in. Here in Lee County we’re having a tough time right now.
“But I don’t like the government telling us what we have to do. Surely to goodness, we can protect our own selves without the government dictating every move that we make.
“So, no, I’m not for mandatory. But I am for wearing masks. I believe that right now, in the time that we’re in, if you’re around other people, probably it’s good that you wear them. But I’m not for government — I think our government’s gone overboard on this entire pandemic because we don’t know the facts. Every time you turn around you hear different doctors say different things. I just want them to let us determine our own fate.
“But again, that’s when you’re by yourself. And if you’re around other people, I think it would be the right thing to do to wear a mask.”
Tuberville’s campaign hosted a watch party Tuesday night at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery. There were temperature checks and mask requirements, and hand sanitizer was available. Tuberville wore a mask when he came by to speak to supporters early in the evening.
A couple of hours later, with Tuberville’s landslide win assured, he returned without a mask for his victory speech. Supporters gathered near the stage, few wearing masks. Tuberville waded into the jubilant crowd to pose for photos and for hugs, handshakes, and high-fives.
Asked why he disregarded the guidelines for social distancing and wearing a mask in a crowd, Tuberville said, “I wore one beforehand. I just didn’t wear one afterwards. That’s the way it was. Again, I don’t want somebody telling me what to do. You had people all up there wanting to get autographs and take pictures. There’s probably times we need to do it. At that time, I just wasn’t wearing a mask.”
In announcing the statewide mask order today, Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris cited an alarming spike in cases and hospitalizations in the last two weeks. Harris said COVID-19 hospitalizations are the highest since the pandemic started and said 30 of the state’s hospitals are at or near capacity.
The governor said voluntary compliance with mask guidelines is not working.
“Folks, the numbers just do not lie,” Ivey said.
Tuberville was asked if the state could reverse the rise in cases if others followed his example of wearing masks sometimes but disregarding the guidelines in crowds at others.
“We make good examples but people take personal choices in their lives,” Tuberville said. “Just like getting behind the wheel of a car. You take those chances every time you get out on the highway. But to me, that’s everybody’s choice. I don’t think it’s the government’s choice. But being personal, right now, I think that in groups you probably should wear one. I wore one most of the night last night before we went out, I just didn’t wear one after.”
Tuberville also responded to a question about controversies over Confederate monuments.
The Montgomery County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to rename three high schools named after people associated with the Confederacy. The board must get waivers from a state committee or pay a $25,000 fine to rename each school under the Memorial Preservation Act, passed by the Legislature in 2017 to protect Confederate monuments.
The cities of Birmingham and Mobile face $25,000 fines for removing Confederate monuments in June because the Memorial Preservation Act prohibits removing monuments in place 40 years or more.
AL.com asked Tuberville if local school boards, city councils and county commissions should have the authority to remove monuments and change school names.
“I think it should be a community vote,” Tuberville said. “I don’t think you leave it up to three or four people. I think that people should be able to vote, their community, whether they change the name of anything or take down a statue. That’s theirs. It belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to a couple, it belongs to everybody.
“And I think you should give everybody the opportunity to make that decision. We’re a democracy. And everybody should have a vote, not just a few.”
AL.com also asked Tuberville about the protests for racial justice and calls for police reforms that have swept the nation since the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May. Tuberville was asked if he believes there is systemic mistreatment of Blacks by police or if the problem is confined to isolated incidents.
Tuberville said the facts, not his opinion, are what’s important.
“You look at the facts,” he said. “If we have more, then I think we’ve really got to look at it. If whites are being offended, blacks are being offended, it doesn’t make any difference. Everybody is an American.”
The former coach said he disregards race in how he deals with people.
“I’ve been color blind all my life,” he said. “I’ve coached mostly minorities in my entire career. And I look at everybody as Americans. I don’t look at it like that. And we better get away from that or we’re not going to survive as a country.
Tuberville said the former police officer charged with second-degree murder in George Floyd’s death was “dead wrong.”
“And unfortunately that happened. We should have had some peaceful protests, but I am not for protests where people tear up other people’s property, beat up policemen, get out of control.
“This country was built on peaceful protests. We made a lot of progress in this country by protesting for women’s rights to vote, those kind of things. Nothing gets settled by people going out and taking the law into their own hands.”
Traveling the state during the campaign, Tuberville said police chiefs and sheriffs told him that fewer people want to become law enforcement officers because of the low pay and lack of respect.
“Number one, they don’t make enough money,” Tuberville said. “They make barely more than welfare wages. Number two, the respect of our police and our officers is not even close. They don’t get the respect from the judges. They’re used as pawns.
“And we have got to support our police. If we lose — which in some cases we have in the last two months — if we lose the safety of our streets, our neighborhoods and our cities, this country won’t survive.”
Tuberville said police officers, nurses, and teachers are essential professionals who are underpaid.
“We’ve got millions of dollars, billions of dollars going to people that are here illegally that we’re having to pay for,” Tuberville said. “But really the people that do the toughest things and mean the most to this country in those areas, we can’t pay them, because we don’t have any money. This country is broke.
“We’ve got to find a way to get more money to those areas, increase their pay, pay them better…. Because if we continue to fail in those areas, we’re going to have a hard time making it to the point where we used to be in a democratic republic.”
AL.com asked the former Auburn coach about the likelihood of a college football season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some major conferences have already announced they will play only conference games this year, if they play at all. The Southeastern Conference has not announced a decision.
“We’ve got to be careful,” he said. “Everybody in this state wants to play, and I want to play. I’d hate to see a year go by where we didn’t have high school and college football. That’s what I’ve lived and died for for years and years. And I’d hate to see that. Now that I’m to the point where I can really enjoy watching other teams play, go to high school games, it’s awesome.”
But he said the most important consideration is developing a plan to allow students and teachers to return to school safely.
“That’s the first priority to me, is getting our kids back in a normal routine of going back to school,” Tuberville said. “The second one would be, obviously, athletics. Athletics is what distinguishes us from other countries around the world, having team sports at all ages that compete, that really learn a lot. And, so that’s a huge part of our society.”
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