New member profile: MP Phillip Ensler

By AINSLEY PLATT, Alabama Daily News

Newly elected Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, became the first Democrat to flip a seat in the State House since 2010 after defeating incumbent Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, earlier this month.

Ensler is now the only Jewish member of the chamber, representing House District 74, which became bluer after the 2021 redistribution. He is the first Democrat to hold the seat since the early 1980s. Prior to his election, Ensler served in the office of Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed and later became executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama.

A self-proclaimed “proud Democrat,” Ensler championed criminal justice reform and used his experience as a public school teacher to advocate for changes in education policies.

District 74 covers the eastern portion of Montgomery. The district, which was redrawn in last year’s round of redistricting to be much more welcoming to Democratic candidates, now reaches farther south than it did before 2021.

Ensler began his political work during his undergraduate studies at George Washington University while also practicing in the Obama administration.

“We’ve been watching Phillip’s work in the community for years,” said Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Tyna Davis. “He’s just a civil servant. He gives up his time, money, resources, knowledge and has shown extreme compassion. He’s the kind of officer everyone should have.”

Eight Questions with Rep. Phillip Ensler

This is your first elected office – what made you decide to run?

“Yeah, that’s it. The first time I got elected; I ran for the Montgomery school board a little over four years ago. So overall I have this passion for public service and especially for trying to be in the public But right now that the district has been redrawn, many of my former students from when I taught high school here live in parts of the district and have just been involved, knowing that there were many challenges , but also a lot of really great things are happening. I wanted to make sure that someone in the seat is focused on solutions and is really in touch with the community and will try to pull all of that together to try and move some of the things forward.”

District 74 was redrawn last year – becoming more democratic and leaning against the wishes of the incumbent. How big was the change in the district when you decided to run?

“It was a big decision. I’m a proud Democrat and there are ideas from both parties, on both sides, that are great. And there are things that I agree with Democrats that Republicans disagree with and they both disagree with, but ultimately I’m a proud Democrat. As I saw district lines change, I knew there was a chance we could win if we did a truly solution-focused grassroots campaign—which we did. And it worked out well.”

What committees do you hope to serve on in the House?

“I am passionate about many things. Education is one, public safety, civil rights. What I have let our leadership know is that wherever they feel I can be most helpful and effective I am happy to be deployed as a freshman where I can be…(a) team player.

What are some issues or bills that you’re dying to support around the house?

“I have been involved and have a passion for education, public health, criminal justice, social justice and economic development. So you know it’s really simple, wherever I land there’s so much that’s going to have an impact. However, I think on the frontline of public safety, something that we’ve seen in other places that doesn’t end gun violence entirely, but has violence disruption or violence prevention efforts where – it needs some funding – but you have trained professionals, community members, who are sort of on the spot eyes and ears that can help de-escalate or prevent situations before they turn violent. And that’s a collaboration between public safety, churches, community members, but there’s certainly a role to play again, maybe even as a pilot program where specific community groups can apply. You know, so this is certainly one on the front lines of public safety. I think we can get more though – there are some incentives for police officers, you know, to live in certain neighborhoods and I know that’s more of a decision by individual departments and if they offer, you know, a vehicle , if you live within the city limits you can keep the police vehicle and drive it home if you live within the city limits of that department. … I mean we can get creative, but ways to help local police departments recruit and retain officers.

On the side of civil legal aid, many people face evictions and domestic violence, cannot afford a lawyer, or owe a payday lender and are facing trial. Even when I consider that Alabama is one of two states that doesn’t fund legal aid for those who can’t afford a lawyer.

And then on the public health side, I would say make sure we prepare for any future pandemic or situation, and if that’s an even more coordinated plan, and make sure the public health officials and the doctors their can use expertise.

… There are some colleagues of mine on the other side who want, they want to be the ones who decide, you know, what happens in a public health emergency, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. … There’s a reason there’s a medical officer. But even on the front lines of public health, other states have done something called community health workers, where there’s boots on the ground, you know, grassroots style of almost, you know, nurses or individuals who go and educate that Community on health issues, health practices…”

What do you think are the biggest issues in your district?

“Having a good citizen service program (is important). So a lot of residents have great ideas…they want to start a community garden or they want to have an after school program at their church and just be able to help them more if there are grants, if there are other people in the district, who do it and they don’t know about it. So just focus on a few of these everyday quality of life issues. And, you know, maybe a local resident doesn’t have a sidewalk in their neighborhood and they care. Well, that’s not a state matter, but they don’t necessarily know that or care that as their representative they want to know that I will try to get it (that information). So I’m going to put this all under the umbrella of constituent services, have transparent government, let them know, you know, ‘Hey, these are different resources that you can tap into.’”

You have spoken out against recent anti-Semitic acts in Alabama. What do you think it means for Jewish communities across the state to see someone of their faith in the State House?

“It is a great honor and privilege to be the only Jewish member and I hope that it will certainly be even more in the years to come. But I think for any minority group, whether it’s racial, ethnic, whether it’s women, I mean being able to see someone who either looks like them or has the same background or identity is always meaningful, not just in a symbolic way and wise, but actually from a representation standpoint, that there is someone who understands and will fight for equal access for all people. … Our Jewish background motivates us to care for and work towards a more inclusive, equal community of justice for people of all backgrounds. So I think that I’m not just a Jewish member and how the Jewish people feel about that they know that I will also be an advocate and a voice for any underrepresented groups or minorities.”

You were the only Democrat to beat an incumbent Republican in the state this year. What do you think needs to be done within the Alabama Democratic Party to help more candidates win?

“I mean, I think a couple of things I think in general for anyone who wants to lead that, you know, get involved in the community in the district, be visible, not just when it’s time to run — and I’m not saying this as criticism or any kind of veiled criticism of certain candidates who ran and didn’t win. But I think in general my advice would be that it’s something really important to be really active and consistently involved. I think to have more people trained in grassroots organizations and how to use voter data and really work with college students all over the state to let them know they’re really great careers and you can, that An essential part of a campaign is having someone responsible for communication and someone responsible for organizing on the ground. And I think the more we build up that kind of professional campaign staff, you know, for races all over the state, that can make a really big difference. And you know, I’m grateful that I had some younger people and individuals in Montgomery who learned that quickly and really played a big part in the campaign.”

Would you like to add anything else?

“I know what people are tired of and frustrated by (by) politicians or people who run on promises, all sorts of things. And I’m, I’m both someone who’s very hopeful and optimistic, and there’s a lot we can do to move forward and move forward. But (I can) also be realistic, I’m not going to promise the moon and stars and say that I can magically fix or end crime or education. … But I will always do my best to keep them updated and empowered. And so they know what is happening and why. And you know, together we can try to make things at least a little bit better.”