Artur Davis was supposed to be the Deep South’s first elected black governor. He had arrived at Harvard Law School in 1990—months after Barack Obama was elected president of the law review. And many, in Alabama and elsewhere, thought his political gifts rivaled those of the president himself. “A lot of people would have liked to have seen Alabama elect its first black governor, and a lot of people thought Artur could be that person,” says James Rotch, a prominent white attorney whose Birmingham Pledge Foundation seeks to foster interracial harmony. Instead, the 42-year-old congressman lost (by more than 20 points) a Democratic primary that had seemed to be his for the taking. “This is not exactly the speech I’d planned to give,” he somberly admitted last Tuesday as he conceded to state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
Davis’s spectacular collapse makes abundantly clear that, even in the age of Obama, black politicians can easily wander into quicksand as they try to move beyond their traditional black base. Davis’s biggest mistake, say local political observers, was to assume that blacks would rally behind him and that many liberal whites would do the same, making the primary little more than a formality. “He ran his whole race as it if were a general election and he wanted to claim some conservative street cred. Alabama Democrats—blue dots in this big red state—have very little patience for that,” Birmingham News columnist John Archibald told me in an e-mail.
Jesse Lewis, publisher of The Birmingham Times, a black-oriented weekly, says most blacks in the state would have liked nothing more than to see an African-American as chief executive but couldn’t warm up to a candidate who didn’t seem to have their interests at heart. Many critics saw Davis’s opposition to the president’s health-care legislation as a blatant attempt to pander to white voters. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, slammed Davis, saying he had voted against the well-being of his own constituents. “That created real tension,” Jackson told me. State Sen. Hank Sanders insists that Davis dug his political grave by refusing to seek the support of the state’s most powerful black political organizations. The mortified groups backed his white opponent. If Davis “wasn’t going to talk to us before the election, he certainly wasn’t going to talk to us after the election,” says Sanders.
Davis, of course, faced a daunting reality. White voters in Alabama don’t have much of a history of voting for blacks. Even Obama, the master coalition builder, did not do well there. He won less than 40 percent of the vote, and only 10 percent of the white vote. Davis would have had to do substantially better. So it’s understandable that, with polls showing him easily winning the Democratic primary, he focused early on establishing his bona fides with white moderates and conservatives. What no one foresaw is how disgusted many blacks (and liberal whites) would become as he did that.
Davis’s loss shows that black politicians “can no longer take for granted they will receive the African-American vote,” observed Alabama state Rep. Roderick Scott. But Davis also demonstrated how difficult it is to pull off an Obama-like victory in the Deep South. In a sense, Obama had it easier. Voters elsewhere were somewhat less polarized than in the South. And the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy got people fired up. But because of Obama’s success, Davis’s run was a bit less historic and therefore less exciting. “After the novelty effect wears off, it’s difficult to appeal to two constituencies that have diametrically opposed interests,” says Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
The trick, of course, would be to convince those constituencies that their interests are not opposed at all. But that, alas, would require gifts more likely to reside in a prophet or a poet than in a mere politician.