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Thoughts on the July 1 EWC “Meet the Candidates” for the Aug 27 elections

July 2, 2024 | By Cathy Reisenwitz

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On Monday, July 1, Empowering Women’s Causes hosted their second “Meet the Candidates” event at their monthly membership meeting at the North Huntsville Public Library.

On August 27th, District 1 and District 5 will elect their next Huntsville City School Board member and District 1 and District 5 will elect their next City Councilmember. (Find your polling place and districts here.) (Reminder, August 12 is the last day to register for this election.)

Most of the candidates for all four races attended. Each spoke for three (five?) minutes. At the end, after every candidate had spoken, EWC’s Sue Seward invited attendees to ask the candidates questions.

“EWC feels each council or school board member is equally important, so we should be informed and involved even if we don’t live in a candidate’s district,” Seward posted to Facebook in advance of the event. “School board or council members have an equal vote and deserve the support of all citizens!”

As a general information event aimed at the broader community, and with limited time to speak, the candidates were slight on specifics.

But, each speaker did have at least one statement that got me thinking, either during their talk or while answering questions.

Below I share a few thoughts on each candidate who spoke.

City Council District 1

Devyn Keith

At 28, Keith became the youngest person ever elected to serve on the Huntsville City Council and one of only four Black people to have been elected or appointed to that body since Reconstruction. Keith told us he went to Boston to pursue his Doctorate. According to a 2017 interview, Keith said he announced his campaign for Huntsville City Council the day he graduated with an MA from the University of Massachusetts. He said his MA thesis was about land banking to stave off gentrification. I was unable to find a copy of his thesis online. Keith said D1 contains 80% of Huntsville’s affordable housing and has not received the same kinds of investments in infrastructure as Huntsville’s other districts. If re-elected, Keith said he aims to make that investment more equitable. 

Michelle Watkins

Watkins currently represents D1 on the Huntsville City School Board. She emphasized having been born and raised in D1 and never having left. “I bloomed where I was planted,” Watkins said. Those of us who moved away for a time and came back she said, “You should have stayed. Your community needed you.” She told us she is a three-time graduate of A&M University and works as a US Army Garrison at Redstone Arsenal. She recounted having pushed Huntsville City Schools to build Jemison’s athletic facility after Grissom’s to ensure parity. While that failed, after seeing Grissom’s finished product, she successfully advocated for a $600m capital improvement plan. A former career tech teacher, she said a “state of the art” tech facility is in the works which will drive businesses to locate in D1. If elected to the Council, Watkins intends to advocate for a development in D1 similar to MidCity, Hays Farm, or Bridge Street. She emphasized that she is responsive to calls and emails. For affordable housing, Watkins supports encouraging the HHA to apply for HUD grants to subsidize home purchase for low-income families. Unfortunately, subsidizing demand does absolutely nothing to alleviate a supply crisis (or a climate crisis).

City Council District 5

John Meredith

As the incumbent, Meredith focused his talk on his track record before and during his tenure on the City Council. He told us about spending 20 years lobbying Congress and federal agencies in DC, which taught him how to work across the aisle. He said his priorities are infrastructure improvements and what he calls “smart growth.” This is important, he said, because D5 has the most undeveloped land in Huntsville. He touted his successes encouraging developers to build amenities into their projects, including a 45-acre park and land preserve and a new playground. He also oversaw the first recreation center in D5, along with four greenways. He emphasized that he’s responsive to constituents, pointing to his role in the recent EV readiness ordinance. And he encouraged us to read the column he wrote for AL.com for many years to familiarize ourselves with his views (example). In a response to a question about affordable housing, Meredith said he’s exploring a fund to help defray the cost of land and/or construction for housing. He also said he’s working on revising plans for annexation of parts of Limestone County into West Huntsville over the next 35 years. 

Kim Caudle Lewis

Lewis told us she is a local business owner and runs a small business incubator. If elected, she intends to continue her work supporting the business community and facilitating economic growth in D5. She emphasized that she intends to represent “all of D5,” rather than just parts of it. Quality and life and access to services were a focus for Lewis. She talked about the roads that needed paving and repair. She said she intends to support our schools. She said 900 kids attend school at Providence, and that’s bad. She said D5 needs more schools. Lewis also said that she’s one of many D5 residents who have to pay a higher premium for fire insurance because they’re located too far from a fire station. She intends to build more fire stations in the district. During the Q&A, Lewis answered a question about affordable housing saying she’s interested in requiring housing developers to subsidize a certain number of units. This idea, which housing nerds and policy wonks call inclusionary zoning, only actually increases overall affordability when it’s coupled with upzoning. And it’s the upzoning that does all the work. 

See: 

Board of Education D1

Claudia Harris

Harris continues to impress me. She spoke at our June Happy Hour. She also gave a longer talk and answered questions at a previous EWC meeting. Harris is an educator who is qualified to teach English language learner students and communicate effectively with their parents. She also clearly has a heart for disadvantaged students, along with a head for effective policy. I believe she has the fortitude to continue working toward incremental change. 

Chaundra Jones

Jones clearly has a heart for service, based on her background working for Butler Terrace, Girl Scouts, Girls, Inc., PTA, the desegregation committee for HCS, and serving as the Chaplain and Mentoring Committee Chair for the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Oh, and she’s a foster mom. In terms of plans, she mentioned building bridges, making sure we’re all paddling in the same direction, making sure every child is set up to succeed, helping to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, and creating and maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning. 

Pat King

King is an Army Engineer and currently works in counterintelligence. She has two degrees from A&M and has a long resume of work experience across industry and military, with a focus on defense contractors. She is very supportive of education, saying she needs someone to replace her when she retires. King said her platform is PEEK: Promoting Equity, Empowerment, and the King plan. She wants to implement policies that make our schools excellent, the best school system in the state, and schools that compete with the best schools in the country. King focused on supporting the Superintendent, as well as career and workforce preparedness, whether that means being ready for college or a trade. She has taught robotics, coding, and drone programs and has worked with Boys, Inc. and the Boys and Girls Club.

Other thoughts

Multiple participants brought up the cost of living, especially housing. 

One woman said that she can’t sell her house because all the other housing in Huntsville is too expensive. The rent or mortgage would quickly eat up all her gains. 

Ding ding ding! 

If I had one wish, it would be for everyone to understand three things about housing:

  1. Housing cannot be wildly profitable and broadly affordable at the same time.
  2. Creating a lot of new jobs, attracting new workers, and not building enough homes for them is how you get a housing and homelessness crisis.
  3. You (and your kids) will still need a place to live after you cash in on your “property value.”

Thank you to EWC’s Jana Whittle for the photos!

EWC is in the process of obtaining their 501c4 status. They formed two years ago to encourage people to run for office and to advocate for policies that support causes including women’s healthcare, quality education, and affordable housing.

Overall, it was a wonderful, well-run, helpful event. I’m so grateful to EWC for putting it together.