True to expectations, Artur Davis’ quest to become the first Black governor of Alabama made history.
But contrary to expectations, Davis’ stunning defeat provides a sharp – yes, historic – example not only of the cost of political arrogance, but also the underscoring for all candidates, and the national Democratic Party establishment, the sophistication and power of the Black electorate.
That’s a vitally important lesson Blacks beyond Alabama’s borders need to heed, as the 2010 election season heats up, because the way Davis ran his campaign was a direct challenge to the efficacy of the Black vote everywhere.
After being the only Black member of Congress to vote against national health care reform legislation and refusing to seek the endorsement of Alabama’s four key Black political organizations, Davis became the first African-American campaigning statewide in Alabama to fail to win a majority of the Black vote.
African-Americans there joined the parade of White voters who overwhelmingly rejected his primary bid by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, giving their support instead to Ron Sparks, the state commissioner of agriculture.
Davis, who spent $2.5 million on his campaign compared to Sparks’ $1.8 million, was defeated so soundly he announced he is retiring from politics. “I have no interest in running for political office again,” Davis told the Birmingham News. “The voters spoke in a very decisive way across every sector and in every section of the state. A candidate that fails across-the-board like that obviously needs to find something else productive to do with his life.”
Sparks outpolled Davis in 61 of Alabama’s 67 counties, including 10 of the 12 counties that make up his 7th Congressional District. Davis even failed to carry his own polling place, Southtown Housing Community Center in Birmingham. Amazingly, Sparks defeated Davis in predominantly Black counties throughout the state.
In an interview Hank Sanders, a Black state senator and president emeritus of the Alabama New South Coalition, said: “[Davis] made some serious miscalculations. He just felt that Black folks somehow were going to vote for him just because he’s Black and he could vote anyway and do anything he wanted.”
Davis had already irked some of his base by voting with the GOP in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Clearly, many Black voters never got past the idea that a congressman representing one of the poorest districts in the nation would cast a vote against health-care reform, especially since it was such a high priority of the nation’s first Black president.
In a calculated move to bolster his standing with Whites, Davis skipped the endorsement screening process of the four most powerful Black political organizations in the state: the Alabama Democratic Conference, the Alabama New South Coalition, New Jefferson County Citizens Coalition and the Jefferson County Progressive Council.
Not only was he the first Democrat, Black or white, to ignore the groups, he drew added attention to his decision by issuing a press release about it. Referring to the longtime chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, Davis declared, “Joe Reed’s opposition to my candidacy is old news – but the day of Joe Reed and a few other power brokers in Montgomery deciding who speaks for Alabama Democrats is over.”
Reed, in an interview with The Associated Press, said, “We’ve never had someone to tell Black folks I don’t want your vote.”
Davis was buoyed by polling data leading up to the election. One poll showed him with a 2-1 favorable rating among Whites. The Davis camp, however, failed to realize other factors made Davis’ election as the Democratic nominee unlikely.
First, there’s “the Bradley effect,” named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. In his 1982 bid for governor of California, polls leading up to the election showed Bradley winning by double-digits. Experts attributed Bradley's loss to Whites who falsely stated they were voting for Bradley so they would not appear to be bigots. Second, no African-American has ever been elected statewide in Alabama without first being appointed to that position.
Political scientist Ron Walters observed: “Davis should have taken a lesson from the campaigns of David Dinkins or Harold Washington or Doug Wilder’s election as governor of Virginia and other Blacks who ran for citywide or statewide offices where Blacks were in the minority. They also had the necessity to build outward from their base to achieve interracial political coalitions but did not decide to junk the Black vote in the process and go for the White vote hoping that some Blacks would follow and build a coalition.”
In the aftermath of Davis’ fall from front-runner to humiliated loser, political autopsies are being performed by political experts and the media.
In an editorial, the Birmingham News stated, “There is reliable data to make the case that Blacks did indeed abandon Davis for the more progressive Sparks, who campaigned on instituting a state lottery and said he would have voted for health-care reform had he been in Congress. … If nothing else, those results show the Black vote cannot be taken for granted anymore in Alabama. Just ask Rep. Artur Davis.”
George Curry is the president and CEO of George Curry Media, www.georgecurry.com.