Exclusive: Alabama Democrat Tabitha Isner on her campaign for Congress: "Women don't shut down"

Meet the pastor's wife who hopes to follow Senator Doug Jones as the next Democrat from Alabama elected to Congress

Published July 22, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Tabitha Isner (A Bob F)
Tabitha Isner (A Bob F)

When Jeff Sessions vacated his Alabama Senate seat to become President Donald Trump's attorney general, it seemed like an odds-on bet that another Republican would succeed him in representing the solidly-red state on Capitol Hill. By year's end, an insurgent candidate Doug Jones emerged victorious over Judge Roy Moore. It was the first the Yellowhammer State elected a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years.

Now, Tabitha Isner, an ordained minister turned Democratic candidate is rapidly gaining momentum in what is becoming a highly-contested battleground in Alabama’s 2nd congressional district, which includes the city of Montgomery. The race is flying under the radar, as the Cook Report doesn’t even have it listed as a competitive contest – fitting to Isner’s style of approaching challenges undaunted.  

During her visit to Salon’s editorial offices, Isner walked in with a quiet confidence and warmth that’s fueled by a strong religious upbringing and is fortified with an impressive career in early-stage education, as well as dual masters degrees from the University of Chicago in public policy and divinity.  With her ascension to the top of the ticket with nearly no campaign budget, Isner hopes to build upon the grassroots momentum and continue to provide more political balance to her state this November.

In the contest, she faces incumbent Republican Rep. Martha Roby, who was forced into a run-off in last week's primary election against Bobby Bright. He was once a Democrat who occupied the same seat as Roby, but this time, Bright attempted to return to Washington by placing a bet on the success of an opposition campaign testing loyalty to Trump. Following the leak of the Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Roby tweeted: "Donald Trump's behavior makes him unacceptable as a candidate for president, and I won't vote for him."

While Roby ultimately triumphed over a litmus test for loyalty in a party besieged by Trump – and earned his endorsement to boot – sexual misconduct was put directly on the ballot in Alabama. Now, two triumphant women candidates will go head-to-head in the hotly-contested race.

"I'm excited to run against a woman in the sense that we're not going to have to talk about whether our kids are impacted by our run. If I'm running against a man, the question will be: 'Is it a problem that I have children at home?'" Isner tells Salon in an exclusive interview. "The question will be: 'Am I going to be sturdy enough and strong enough to withstand the pressures of Washington?' I think it'll be a great thing for the people of Alabama to push those kinds of silly concerns out of the way and hopefully have a real conversation about policy."

Could Isner be the first Democrat to take Alabama’s 2nd congressional seat since Bright in 2011? As a pastor's wife who lists "serious family values" among the key issues on her platform, Isner is not a stereotypical Democratic candidate in 2018. However, the political newcomer has pulled from her experience as an adoptive and foster mom to launch a deeply personal and aspirational campaign about building a brighter future for America's children.

"I never expected to be the mother of a black boy, but I am. And, I see the way that the world responds to him and how different it is than how the world responds to white boys," she tells Salon. "I see how people assume he's older than he is – all the time. I see how people cower in fear. I see how institutions react."

Meet Tabitha Isner, who is one of the Democratic candidates to watch this November:

Salon: Tabitha, tell us about yourself, and why you decided to run for Congress.

Isner: I am a pastor's wife, I am a foster and adoptive mom, and I am an early childhood education policy wonk. I came to Alabama in 2016 and was shocked to find that there wasn't a real candidate running on the Democratic ticket against our current incumbent congresswoman. Eventually, I found that there was a Democrat running. He had a website, but there was no donate button. There was no sign up to volunteer option. There was simply nothing going on. In November 2016, he got 41 percent of the vote, while the incumbent got 49 percent. And, a whole lot of folks chose to write in other candidates. I was stunned to realize that this was a competitive seat, and yet, the Democratic Party was not putting up a real candidate and had not put up a real candidate to run in almost 10 years.

Salon: That is unbelievable. You didn't mention this: Alabama politics have been interesting, over the last 12 months particularly. What are the effects on the political landscape for Democrats in the wake of the Roy Moore-Doug Jones election, as it is one of the reddest of the red states?

Isner: It is. When I saw what was happening in 2016 – or what happened in 2016 – I decided this was going to be my mission: to flip this seat. But, I didn't think I was going to be the one on the ballot. I thought it would probably take some time to do – to build up a Democratic organization enough that we could make something like that happen. I started looking for candidates – other candidates that would run. I couldn't find anybody who was willing to do it. I kept explaining, it's not that hard to raise a million dollars – that's all that's needed in a seat like this – and eventually realized, if you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.

I agreed to do it and got started in October, right as the Doug Jones-Roy Moore election was starting to form. We still didn't have a candidate at that point. As all of that came to fruition. I went into Dec. 12 expecting that Roy Moore would win – and braced for it.

Huffington Post interviewed me that night and said, "What's it like to be a female candidate in a state that continues to elect men like Roy Moore?" And, I answered the question without questioning the premise that Roy Moore was going to win. I also assumed that, and everything changed that night. What seemed possible – what at first I had thought of as a 10-year project– all of a sudden became a right-now project, something that was possible.

The people of Alabama had organized themselves and had realized their power and the energy was palpable. We held a volunteer recruitment event one week later, and we were worried people would be exhausted – not discouraged, but exhausted. People had put in so much time and energy to Doug Jones. Surely, they wouldn’t still have more energy for the next round. We had 60 people show up for that event, and they were excited, and ready to go and ready to build on the momentum. It really has been a game changer in Alabama, and I think it happened so quickly. Because it was a special election, it all happened so fast that there's a newfound sense of, "It's time to stop waiting. We've been saying someday. Things are slow in the South." But, if Doug Jones could do in that short time frame, surely others can do it as well.


Salon: That's interesting. As you talk to people in the second district, what are their three biggest concerns? And how are you going to address them as a candidate?

Isner: The biggest concerns is education. There's a real sense that people worry that their children are going to leave Alabama as soon as they graduate from high school. There are not a lot of jobs available, and so anyone who wants to do something with their life will leave. We worry a lot about corruption in Alabama. It doesn’t make the top-three list in a lot of states. But, in Alabama, we've had our governor kicked out and jailed; our Supreme Court justice kicked out; and our Speaker of the House all kicked out in the same. Three of those are our three heads of government – and all convicted of corruption in a small time frame. This last legislative cycle, we had 17 of our state legislators – indicted simultaneously. So, corruption is a huge issue in our state. We just want some leaders we can trust, and I think that's part of what Doug Jones tapped into.

And then, healthcare. We are a state that did not expand Medicaid, and we are losing clinics in rural areas. My district is very rural, and lots of folks are having to drive great distances to get the care that they need. Even in Montgomery, which is the capital city, we don't have a children's hospital. A friend of mine just had a preemie baby, and she had to drive to Birmingham. And, she'll be living in Birmingham for the next six months, because we just don't have health care of any quality available in a 10,000-square-mile district.

Salon: That's really astonishing, actually.

Isner: It is.

Salon: I guess there's two points to it: One is the infrastructure, and then there's the paying for it. So, you have neither.

Isner: Yes, correct.

Salon: I was looking it up in your district. You're talking about jobs, although unemployment is actually pretty good under the current administration. But, there are two specific areas of manufacturing that are in the district. One, there's a Hyundai plant there. And, then there's sheet metal that's manufactured there. Obviously, with everything that's been going on with trade war, tariffs and so forth, what effects have happened thus far and/or what do you expect to see?

Isner: We just got word – yesterday, I think – from the Hyundai union reminding Alabama that their union policy is that overseas plants get closed first when there's a downturn. And, Alabama's location is at the top of the list to be closed. So, if the trade war continues along this path, we should be prepared for job losses. There aren't a lot of major industries in my district. The Hyundai plant is on the edge of my district, and it is a significant source of jobs. Similarly, the sheet metal – manufacturing auto-parts – is the main industry in several counties with my district. And, we're expecting to see significant impact there as well. A big part of my district is agriculture, and so we're expecting to see some impacts on the agricultural community, as well, because of the tariffs.

Salon: Specifically, what's grown in your district?

Isner: We are the peanut capital of the world. I'm very proud of that distinction. But, cotton, peanuts and soybeans are the big three.

Salon: Any impacts thus far, or are you just kind of bracing for it?

Isner: Bracing for it. I think people are beginning to see it – but hoping that it will be short-lived. Short-term pain for longer gain. And, while I hope they're right, I'm nervous that this will not be a short-term problem.

Salon: I was looking at your website, and you talk a lot about family and supporting working families, including parental leave. This is a bipartisan issue that has gotten some attention because of how Ivanka Trump has been behind the issue. Do you think that, because of the bipartisan support, there can be meaningful change in this area?

Isner: I sure hope so. I think, on so many issues, there's this instinct to first run to our corners and ask our teams what we're supposed to be angry about – and only then to be able to participate in conversation. People aren’t being encouraged to use their own brain to think about the issue. It is, "Come, and find out what the party line is on this." I think so many things – family-related policy, in particular – shouldn’t be partisan and should just be about what makes sense. But, we end up framing it in terms of unions – or framing it in terms of gender issues. Those are ways to divide us and encourage us to return to our corners, rather than encouraging us to just focus on what every family is going to need: affordable childcare. I don't care what your family is made up of, you're going to need affordable childcare. If the cost of childcare is more than you make, you're going to end up staying home.

Salon: It is a dilemma.

Isner: It is a huge problem. It's a problem in metro areas, and it's a problem in rural areas. The children suffer, as well. My background is really childhood education. I didn't choose that policy area particularly, but what I found when I started working in it was that the return on investment for early childhood education is astounding. Every dollar that we invest in getting a low-income kid into a high-quality childcare program, we get a $7-$17 return on investment. That's better than the stock market.

That's an incredible return on investment, and that's a return that comes to the taxpayer. We're not talking about what the kid gets. Of course, the kid gets great care and an opportunity to succeed in life. But, the taxpayer is getting this major benefit, because they're not going to have to spend as much on that kid later in life – less likely to need special education, more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to end up in the justice system – and the moms are more likely to keep their jobs because they have consistent, affordable childcare. Everybody wins, and that should be a nonpartisan issue. We should all agree that, anytime we can get a $7 return on investment on a one dollar investment, we should jump on that opportunity.

Salon: It seems like it's been put on the back burner, generally, given everything else that's going on.

Isner: Yes, well, kids don't vote.

Salon: Kids don't vote leads to the next question, which is immigration and separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. How do you think Congress should really tackle this issue?

Isner: I would like to see a real conversation about what it is we're actually trying to accomplish. Are we worried about the number of immigrants coming into this country? Are we worried about the economic impact of immigrants coming into this country? Or, are we really motivated by a desire to punish? My fear is that we are doing this – not because there's really so many negative consequences to allowing families to stay in the country while they await their court date. And, that's all we're talking about: Can they live here while they wait for that court date? We aren't letting them do that purely as a punishment.

I'm a foster parent – or, I was a foster parent. I've taken a break from fostering while we run for Congress. But, I know that in the foster care system, we are very clear about the fact that our job is temporary – that we are parenting in a temporary way – because the very best thing for a child is to be with their family, if at all possible. We know that it is traumatic for a child to be separated from their parents, and so the only reason we ever take a child away in foster care from their parents is because they're enduring a significant trauma by staying. We're always weighing that. And, if it's simply a hard life, we know that it's still better for kids to remain with their parents – even in a tough situation – than it is to be taken from their parents. And, yet, even in foster care, kids get to visit their parents– usually twice a week. They've got phone access to be in regular contact with their parents. We have a structure in place – and a set of guidelines in place – for when children should be removed from a parent's custody, and this doesn't meet the criteria.

The fact that we're treating immigrant children differently than we're treating non-immigrant children, to me, says that this is about punishing immigrants for being immigrants as opposed to – and to be clear – punishing asylum-seekers for the very legal process of seeking asylum. And, that concerns me about the soul of our nation.


Salon: I think I read that you adopted?


Isner: Yes.

Salon: Congratulations.

Isner: Thank you.

Salon: I was looking at everything that's been going on – including over the last month – with regards to race relations in this country. You adopted a young African American boy, and as a mother now having to confront this issue, tell me about that.

Isner: I never expected to be the mother of a black boy, but I am. And, I see the way that the world responds to him and how different it is than how the world responds to white boys. I see how people assume he's older than he is – all the time. I see how people cower in fear. I see how institutions react. He goes to a school that's 98 percent African-American, so I'm one of the very few white parents. We have seen how the school's approach to him changes when they see that he has white parents. And, so I know that discrimination and institutional racism is real, because I get to see it in that way. I know the fear that a mother feels worrying about what will happen to her child when his playfulness is misinterpreted by someone as aggression. I worry a lot about that, and I'm grateful for that worry because it makes me have more compassion.

Being a foster parent, in general – realizing that every child out in the world could become a foster kid, we're one disaster away from becoming a foster child – makes me want every child to have the best opportunities and the best care possible. They could end up in my home, and I want to know that they have been given all of the opportunities to be ready for the life that is ahead of them. It's never too late for a kid – that's the other thing I've learned from foster care. Despite not having maybe the best options when you're very young, we shouldn't give up on these kids. My son, when he was in Kindergarten – Kindergarten – his guidance counselor told us: "Not every kid is going to be a straight-A student. You might want to lower your expectations a little."

Salon: It's not their job.

Isner: It's not their job, and he was Kindergarten. I thought, "You have given up on him in November of Kindergarten, because he wasn't as ready for this as some other kids were." And, it motivated me that much more. He's an A/B honor-roll student. He's doing just fine, but lots of kids don't have a powerful, determined mama to fight for them and insist that they will not be dismissed so easily.

Salon: What do current lawmakers – and the roster of candidates running this November – have to do to help change the perception and the attitude towards Congress? It is an essential part of our democracy, but one out of five people approve of its performance, according to the latest Gallup poll. What has to be done that's not happening right now?

Salon: I think that Congress – people should be ashamed. I think that all of us need to be ashamed of the kind of political conversation that we have allowed – and we've all allowed it. My husband and I laugh about shame – because, it can be very detrimental to a person to feel shame – but it can also help you grow and help you change. It can be a positive force in your life to say, "This is not someone I'm proud to be right now."

For me, it's very important that I can stand behind the things that I've said and be proud of the example that I'm setting for my children and for my community. If I am spewing vitriol, if I am encouraging division, if I am encouraging families to be torn apart because of partisan talking points, I feel shame. And, I think Congress should be ashamed of itself for breeding the kind of negative public discourse that has become so commonplace.

I don't think that means that there's no place for anger. Righteous indignation is an important part of my Christian tradition, but it should be done from a place where we can still have a sense of dignity, self-respect and a respect for others. Giving other people the benefit of the doubt when we can – even when we don't trust one another to recognize that the goal is still trust, even when we don't like each other to recognize that the goal is still relationship and coming closer together. To profit – whether in terms of money or votes – to profit by breaking people apart is sinful. And, I hope people feel shame for doing that.

Salon: Certainly, one of the stories of this coming midterm – whether it's at the national level or the state or local level – is the number of women who have been running for office, including political newcomers like yourself. Do you think that, whether it's on the Democratic or Republican side, having more women in Congress will help foster more of a conversation?

Isner: Yes. There are lots of things about sexism that are not benefiting society, but one maybe unsung hero of gendered expectations is that women have been taught how to keep the peace. We've been taught how to bring about consensus. We've been taught how to help someone to see that this is actually exactly what they've been wanting, even if at first it seems antithetical to what they were proposing. The stereotypical example is wives who are convincing their husbands that it was their idea to begin with, but I think there's some truth in that – that women have learned those softer skills of how you create community and maintain community despite differences.

I think women are more problem solvers and more solution-oriented than men are. I think we're used to swallowing our pride in order to get things done for the greater good in a way that men often aren't. I spoke at the Women's March in Mobile, Alabama, and my biggest applause line – I think, it was just after the government shutdown or during the government shutdown – and I said, "Women don't shut down. It's not a luxury we have. We've got kids crying and screaming, and jobs to be at, and husbands to take care of, and houses to keep clean and we juggle. We don't shut down." It's not always fair, but I think we have a lot more experience doing it.

Salon: What's interesting is that there was a runoff for the Republican nomination in your district, and the winner was an incumbent who has been outspoken in regards to sexual misconduct in the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes. Yet, it seems like she's being punished a bit for that. What do you feel about that – and running against a woman in your district?

Isner: It was an interesting story. She said that one time, she stood up one time and complained about what Donald Trump . . .

Salon: Martha Roby is her name.

Isner: Martha Roby, yes. What Donald Trump said in the interview or on that tape. But, since then, she has neither retracted her critique, nor expounded on it or stood behind it. And, I feel compassion for her. I was proud of her, as her constituent, when she stood up and said those things and said that she couldn't vote for him because she didn't want to have to explain that to her children. I think that was a noble thing for her to do.

She paid the price for it, yes. Very unpopular in Alabama. And, I think it speaks to . . . I have compassion for the fact that once again, tribe loyalty – being loyal to the Republican tribe – was considered more important than standing up for what's morally right, for standing against what's shameful, for shameful, inappropriate behavior. I wish she had taken it as an opportunity to say that she is a committed conservative. She is a committed Republican, but that doesn't mean that she has to put up with leaders who don't embody the values that are nearest and dearest to her heart. And so, in that sense, I have compassion for her, and I want to make change so that, in the future, someone like her can say that and not be punished for doing so. I also want to beat her, so I don't have that much compassion.

Salon: She says she's voted for 97 percent of the time for the Trump administration's agenda.

Isner: Yes, there are plenty of other things on which I disagree vehemently with her, but I'm proud of her for standing up in the moment. I'm excited to run against a woman in the sense that we're not going to have to talk about whether our kids are impacted by our run. If I'm running against a man, the question will be: "Is it a problem that I have children at home?" The question will be: "Am I going to be sturdy enough and strong enough to withstand the pressures of Washington?" I think it'll be a great thing for the people of Alabama to push those kinds of silly concerns out of the way and hopefully have a real conversation about policy between Martha and I – and not have to be talking about gender all the time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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