The Alabama House District 83 seat was left vacant in January, after the death of Rep. George Bandy, and four Democrats are vying for a chance to serve in his place.
District 83 includes parts of Lee and Russell counties. The candidates who will face off in the June 5 primaries are Lee County residents Jeremy Gray, John Andrew Harris and Patsy Jones as well as Russell County resident Ronnie Reed.
All candidates spoke about similar issues, like improving the education system, expanding Medicaid and creating jobs in the area, but each offered different reasons as to why they feel they are the best person for the job.
Gray, 32, is the youngest candidate seeking the District 83 seat, but he says this gives him an advantage.
"I feel we need somebody to step that is in the middle-age range that can bridge the gap," he said, speaking of the separation he feels exists between older and younger generations. "We need someone that can understand and have respect enough for the older generation so they could receive that welcome, but that could interact with the younger generation. I feel I'm that person."
He said he feels there has been "no connectivity between the candidates and the people" in the past.
While Gray, a graduate of Opelika High School and former professional athlete, has not previously held public office, he has been active in the community, hosting free sport camps and programs to motivate youth. He is also working on a community center that would provide resources to lower-income families in his area.
"I'm doing things that people are not doing even in the political realm," he said. "I feel like if I can have the power to help people at a greater capacity, I can do more."
Gray said he would not be for "politics as usual," but would push for more progressive ideas, like a state lottery.
"It's more about being progressive than it is about staying (the same)," he said. "I can connect and understand that this is not a Democratic state. This is a Republican state where the super-majority is on the Republican side, but you have to be able to build those relationships ... Ultimately, we're on different teams, but we're trying to progress Alabama as one."
For more information on Gray, visit www.jeremygrayforalhouse83.com.
Harris, a Lee County Commissioner since 1994 and former Opelika City Council member, said he could bring experience to the House — experience gained from decades of community service and leadership.
"With me being on the City Council and County Commission, I had to go to Montgomery and lobby with some of those legislators," he said. "I already understand the process."
But even more than his experience, he touts the level of care and attention he has given to community members throughout the years.
"If anybody in the community calls me, knocks on my door for anything, I'll take care of them," he said, telling stories of times he helped one man get his water turned back on and another of when he made sure trash was picked up on a main road before one woman's horse show. "A lot of people don't do that. They run away from problems. I don't run away."
Aside from improvements to education, affordable health care options and the creation of local jobs — which all four candidates said they would make their priorities — Harris said the state needs to pay more attention to mental health issues.
"The way they treat people with mental health is by taking them to jail," he said. "We need to address that."
He said that if elected, he would set up an office in both Lee and Russell counties to help anyone who stops by.
"I'm a politician that cares about the citizen," he said. "If you don't help the people who need to be helped, you haven't achieved anything in life. That's my motto."
Find out more about Harris on his Facebook page, John Andrew Harris.
Jones, Opelika councilwoman since 1995 and retired educator, gets excited talking about her work in the community and what the future could hold if elected to represent District 83.
"I'm very passionate about making sure we do things the right way," she said. "For many years I’ve been on the City Council. I’ve gained experience there and worked with the community. I thought this was an opportunity to further those things I’ve been doing and to help people in the community, throughout the state and especially in District 83."
She has been instrumental to making improvements in her city over the years, and prior to her time on the council, she worked as an Alabama Education Association UniServ director, which allowed her the opportunity to work with legislators, lobbying for benefits for teachers and support staff.
"I'm quite familiar with the process as far as working with legislators," she said. "As a result, I've built relationships with persons that work there ... I can go to Montgomery and just take off running. I will not have to learn as much as someone who has never been there."
Being a former educator, making improvements to the local education systems is a priority for her, as well as providing affordable health care.
"We need Pre-K schools that are going to start our children learning and being prepared and making sure every child has an opportunity to fulfill his or her dreams," she said, adding that continuing dual enrollment courses for high school students is also a priority. "Health care is also an issue as I travel around and talk to people. We need affordable health care because some people have to choose whether to buy groceries and eat or get medicine."
Jones said she would not only bring experience, but a renewed energy to the job.
"I'm a pro-active person," she said. "I believe the people of Lee and Russell counties want an experienced person who is loyal, honest, committed and accountable to the people."
Find out more about Jones by visiting www.electpatsyjones.com.
Reed, a Russell County Commissioner, is the only Democratic candidate living in Russell County. He sought the District 83 seat in 2014 and 2010, but was defeated by Bandy. He said he hopes to have a better chance this time as he aims to continue serving his community as well as the district.
"I want to help move the party along in District 83," he said. "I feel like I can make a difference."
Reed said he wants to help create more affordable programs for youths and seniors in the area.
"We need to keep the kids involved so they won't have time to get in trouble," he said. "As long as they have something to do, you don't have to worry about them getting involved with no organized gang or something like that.
"I'd like to see more programs for the senior citizens rather than them just sitting around home — maybe some buses so they can take trips."
He said being a commissioner has helped him stay informed and has taught him a lot about government.
"I feel like I've got experience and expertise," he said, adding that he also makes himself available to the community. "Out of the seven commissioners, more people come see me than any other commissioner."
He said he likes to assume a servant's attitude.
"I'm just trying to make a difference, trying to improve the quality of life for everybody."
For those who want to learn more about Reed, find him on the Russell County website, www.rcala.com.
The winner of the primary election will run against Republican Michael J. Holden in the general election on Nov. 6. If one of the candidates does not receive a majority vote of 50 percent, a primary runoff election will be held July 17.