With three decades of political experience, including almost seven terms in Congress, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers faces a challenge from Larry DiChiara, Alabama's Superintendent of the Year in 2012, in the 3rd Congressional District race.
Rogers, of Saks, and DiChiara, of Auburn, will square off in the March 1 primary in the East Alabama District, which covers 13 counties including Lee, Russell and Randolph stretching north to Calhoun county. The winner will face Army veteran Jesse Smith, a Democrat, in the general election in November.
Rogers, 57, touts his experience while DiChiara, 56, points to 34 years as an educator, fixing troubled school districts.
Rogers said he still has something to offer in his bid for an eighth term in Congress. "In fact I think I have more to offer now than before because I'm one of the more senior members of Congress," he said. "I'm one of the most senior members on each of the committees I serve on, including the Armed Services, obviously which is most important."
DiChiara said he had just finished an assignment from the State Department of Education at Selma City School District when he was approached by a group to run for Congress.
"They think that my leadership that I have is different than the kind of leadership they are currently displaying in Washington," he said. "They know I've shown courage, I have integrity and those are things we think are in short supply right now. You know, one of my children challenged me and said, 'Dad, you need to go and fix some of that stuff.'"
Despite a lack of money and political experience, DiChiara said he's known in the region and has the ability to communicate a message. "The people that talked to me about it felt I had a good shot," he said.
In the district, Rogers said the No. 1 issue is national security, the same big issues across the country. He noted the Islamic State of Iraq or ISIL chopping the heads off victims and burning people in cages. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and Eastern Europe could potentially pull the nation into World War III.
"The world got crazy and on top of that you got ISIL making a successful attack more recently in the United States," Rogers said. "Most Americans want us to turn our attention to security and that's what will be the No. 1 issue this year and going into the future."
In visits to the 13 counties, DiChiara said he has seen poverty and blight in some communities.
"It's just a lot of poverty I've been surprised by," he said. "I think getting the economy going is a big priority," he said. "I'm trying to put some common sense back into some of the decisions we are making up there."
Funding the military and securing the nation's borders are among the top issues for DiChiara. He recalled a failed trip to Washington to get money for soldiers while the nation has given billions of dollars in aid to thousands of Syrian refugees. "They don't have money for our soldiers but have money for all these refugees," he said.
He also said security of the people is at risk. "If we don't keep our people safe, what good is it if we have all these liberties and freedoms," he said. "If we are dead, we can't enjoy them. We have to keep our people safe. When your borders are not secure, you aren't going to keep them safe. That would be a priority as well."
With cuts in the Defense Department for seven consecutive years, Rogers said he wants Congress to place a higher priority on funding national security, armed forces and the homeland.
"The Defense Department has been cut seven consecutive years under the administration," he said. "This year we need to turn that around and increase funding for the Defense Department. You will see us do that. I think the president is ready to do it."
To diversify the economy in east Alabama, Rogers said he's been urging folks to look more toward the aerospace industry. "I'd like to see us embrace that direction," he said. "Look at the new Airbus plant in Mobile. That to me is going to be like Mercedes when it first came to Alabama."
DiChiara didn't mention his opponent by name but said he would like to see people in the district with more hope and confidence in their representative. "Right now they are telling me the person representing them is not up there fighting for them," he said.
Although he is a Republican, Rogers has sided with the Democrats on many of his last votes and helped the president pass legislation, DiChiara said.
Rogers said voters can expect more of what they have been getting for more than 13 years if he is returned to Congress. "I intend to be a consistent conservative voice trying to shrink the size of the federal government, strengthen our military," he said.
DiChiara said voters in the Chattahoochee Valley know they will get integrity and character from a person who describes himself as a fighter.
"When I see corruption, things are not going the way they should because they are hurting people," DiChiara said.
"It doesn't matter to me whether it causes some damage to myself or the future; I have the courage to fight for what is right. Very few people have integrity and they are out just to do well for themselves, whatever to keep themselves in office. I don't care if I don't get re-elected. I want to do the right thing for the right reasons but I think it is best for all Americans."
Rogers hopes voters are satisfied with his service as one of 435 votes in the House and his senior leadership status. "I hope they have been satisfied I have voted in a way that reflects their values and priorities," he said.
"I hope they feel like I have taken care of my constituents' services in a way that meets their high standards."
Regardless of how the vote turns out, Rogers said it's been an honor to be the voice of east Alabama.
"I count myself as very blessed and privileged," Rogers said. "I want everybody to know I appreciate the fact they have trusted me for this period of time. If it ends this November, that's fine. If it doesn't, I will be proud to continue working for them."
If voters are happy with their current representative, DiChiara said voters should re-elect him. "If you are happy with the job that the incumbent is doing, you should remain loyal and re-elect him," he said. "I would hope you would do the same thing with me if I were on the job," he said.
DiChiara said unemployment is up, welfare is terrible, poverty also is up, terrorism is worse and fewer people own their own homes. "All you have to do is look at all the indicators and nothing has gotten better in 14 years he's been up there," he said.
In addition to those concerns, he said the nation faces a $19 trillion debt.
"At some point, you've got to hold people accountable," DiChiara said. "If I get in there and I'm not able to help move the needle in the right direction, they don't need to re-elect me either."
Name: Michael Dennis Rogers (Incumbent)
Education: Bachelor’s degree in 1981, master’s degree in public administration in 1984 from Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Ala., and J.D. degree in 1991 from the Birmingham School of Law.
Experience: First elected to the Calhoun County Commission in 1986 at age 28, moved to the state Legislature in 1994 while practicing law in Anniston. He has served in Congress since 2003.
Name: Larry DiChiara
Education: After graduating from high school in Foley, Ala., he received a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Auburn University.
Experience: Served as an educator for 34 years and named Alabama’s Superintendent of the Year in 2012. He was superintendent for 11 years including 9.5 years as Phenix City Schools superintendent and 1.5 years at Selma City Schools. As a coach, he led the Loachapoka High School Indians to win the state championship for varsity boys’ basketball in 1988 and 1989.