Artur Davis’ calculated decision to alienate Alabama’s African-American establishment added up to a crushing loss June 1, when he was defeated by Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, political analysts and other observers said.
The Congressional Black Caucus member, who has represented the state’s Seventh Congressional District for eight years, eschewed Black support in a play for White, more conservative voters.
“In these southern states – like Harold Ford understood in Tennessee – most people know if you’re going to run for you’re going to have to run as something of a conservative,” said political analyst Ron Walters of Davis’ strategy.
But the move seemed to cost him a sizable bloc of the liberal electorate—including Blacks, who are the most loyal voters—handing Sparks a commanding 62 to 38 percent victory, despite pre-election polls that showed Davis leading by as much as 8 percentage two weeks ago.
“This is not exactly the speech I planned to give,” Davis said in his concession speech just before 10 p.m. Tuesday. “When we started this campaign what feels like a long time ago, we set out a vision for this state. Still believe it was the right one…. I still believe this is a state where what we have in common overcome our differences.”
Davis’ attempt to downplay those differences, especially race, angered many in the Black community, which would have likely voted for the Democrat since his victory would have made him the first African American to secure a statewide nomination.
“Artur Davis becoming Alabama’s first Black governor is of absolutely no importance to me and I do not, nor will I, regret having not voted for him,” Jonathan Barclay, of Forestdale, Ala., told the AFRO via e-mail. “I believe he turned his back on the African-American community and I could not in good conscience vote for a candidate such as him, regardless of his skin tone.”?Black political organizations such as the United Mine Workers and United Auto Workers, and power players like Joe L. Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference and Associate executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association – all of which endorsed Sparks – were also integral to Davis’ defeat.
“For over 40 years, the Alabama Democratic Conference has had a rule that unless you come before the Conference and ask for our support, we are not going to endorse you,” Reed told the AFRO.
That the rule—created in defiance of White candidates who often refused to show proper respect to Black voters—had to be used against Davis, an African American, was surprising, Reed added.
“Davis said he was not going to come before any Black groups, but at the same time, he went before the White groups,” said the Conference chairman. “He took himself out of consideration by the Black organizations.”
Reed added, “He said race wasn’t part of his campaign race is in every campaign. He spent too much time trying to placate the conservative element in Alabama.”
That Davis supported charter schools and received the lowest NAACP grade of all CBC members was also troubling. But, it was his failure to support health care reform—a measure reviled by most Alabama voters but supported by African Americans and other liberals—that proved his Achilles’ heel.
Gloria English, 65, of Marion, Ala., said that’s the reason she did not vote for Davis.
“As a poor person…I almost took it personally. He made me feel like he didn’t know what it felt like to be poor,” said the great-grandmother, who subsists on Social Security disability payments.
“This race is an indication of the limits of running a ‘deracialized campaign,’” said Jason Johnson, professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. “If you try to make yourself to palatable to the middle, you’ll lose your base.”
Even if Davis had won the primary, his lack of support among Blacks would have cost him the general election, Johnson said.
“If he pull the majority of African-American votes as an African-American candidate then he a snowball’s chance in Jamaica of winning the elections statewide,” the political analyst said.
Walters said the congressman now faces an uncertain future in public service.
“If he lost his seat, someone of his stature would usually be able to run a Black organization or become a professor or president of a college,” Walters said of the Harvard trained lawyer. “But, I don’t know where he goes after this.”