(The Root) — Next to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most widely touted African-American speaker at this week's Republican National Convention is a man best known on the national stage for his passionate support of President Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
What a different four years can make.
In 2008, then-congressman and former Obama law-school classmate Artur Davis was one of a handful of black Democratic rising stars, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, California elected official Kamala Harris and others, credited with ushering in an Obama-era of post civil rights generation political leaders. Since then Davis had his rise up the political ladder abruptly halted by a bruising primary loss in the Alabama governor's race.
His announcement earlier this year that he had officially left the party he had once represented in Congress and become a registered Republican was met with cheers in conservative circles and skepticism among Democrats who have branded him a "sore loser." The DNC has even used him as fodder for a campaign ad. Tuesday evening, Davis is slated to address the Republican National Convention. "The Romney campaign engaged me in conversations midsummer about doing activities for them as a surrogate in Virginia and other states, and at some of those conversations they brought up the idea of me speaking at the convention, and I decided to do it," Davis told The Root.
In a candid conversation with The Root, Davis addressed his critics and his political conversion.
[Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for length.]
The Root: Why did you decide to speak at the Republican National Convention?
Artur Davis: I agreed to speak at the convention because I do think that the story of the 7 million Democrats or the 7 million Obama supporters [from 2008] who say they don't plan to support the president in 2012 is an important one. I think it's one of the stories that's been missed in this campaign, and it's very important strategically for the Romney campaign and it's important for the American people to see that … There's not going to be another speaker at the [GOP] convention who can speak to that point of view, and I felt I could credibly do that, and I do support Gov. Romney and his campaign.
TR: What was the primary issue that convinced you that Gov. Romney would make a better president than President Obama?
AD: There are a range of issues that convinced me to change my party affiliation, and once you do that, obviously that brings you to supporting your new party's nominee for president. I point out to people that I didn't change political parties because of Barack Obama. There are Americans who remain in one party who don't vote for that party's nominee for president. I got to a point where, frankly, my positions weren't lining up with Democratic positions.
Now, with respect to this election, I do think that Gov. Romney has a proven record as a executive who has been able to transform and overcome very difficult systems, from creating a private equity company in the 1980s, to turning around the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, which were in some jeopardy because of a bribery scandal, and his leadership in Massachusetts. And I think the Obama administration's policies and the party's policies simply haven't worked.
TR: But can you name a specific issue on which you disagree with the Democratic Party?
AD: I think on every single issue that we are debating today I found myself lining up with Republicans more than Democrats. I am someone who was center right when I was in the Democratic Party. And when I was in the Democratic Party I was a pro-growth Democrat. When I was in the Democratic Party I was a socially conservative Democrat. When I was in the Democratic Party I was someone who felt that dramatic education reform and stronger accountability for schools and teachers was important.
As I saw the party continuing to move further to the left in 2010 and 2011, it was just no longer a political fit for me. I would often hear people say to me, "What you said doesn't help the president or Democrats," and eventually I thought, "Those people are right," so why was I still a Democrat?
TR: Plenty of black Americans skew conservative on social issues. Do you think issues like abortion or gay marriage present a growth opportunity for the Republican Party in terms of making inroads with black voters? And where do you stand on those issues?
AD: I don't support changing the definition of marriage. I think the definition we have between males and females is one that has worked in our culture and throughout the world for centuries, and I certainly don't see such basis in the Constitution in the equal protection clause for changing the definition of marriage.
TR: Did you vote for the constitutional amendment against gay marriage?
AD: I voted for the constitutional amendment in 2004 [to define marriage as between a man and a woman]. Whether a Romney administration would make that a priority on the calendar considering the economy is a different question.
TR: Do you think issues such as these present an opportunity for Republicans in terms of black voters?
AD: I doubt social issues present much of a growth opportunity with the GOP for black Americans because black Americans have been one of the most pro-life constituencies for 40 years, and yet I doubt a single Republican candidate has gotten a vote based on that. I have heard conservatives speak on this issue before black audiences, and you hear the "amens" until someone says, "So this is why you should vote Republican," and the audience goes silent.
Black Americans tend to vote on economic issues, so if Republicans are serious about seriously competing for black votes — and obviously this election there will be no real competition because of the president's support — if the GOP wants to compete in the future it has to be on economic issues and or education reform.
TR: You know there are those, including in the Alabama Democratic Party, who say that your political evolution is nothing but sour grapes because you lost a primary. How do you respond to that?
AD: Well, there are 6,999,999 people who switched their support from the president in the last few years who did not lose a Democratic primary. [Ed. Note. Davis is referring to the percentage of respondents from a Gallup poll regarding the number of 2008 Obama supporters who have switched their support.] What's their excuse? There are donors who gave thousands of dollars to him last time who have not this time.
But I recognize that I am a former elected official who is African American, so I am getting more attention than the other 6,999,999.
TR: How do you respond to those who refer to you and other high-profile black conservatives as Uncle Toms?
AD: I always remember what my grandmother used to say: "If you have to curse it means you are not that articulate." So if someone has to call me a racial epithet … If you can't think of a better way to say it … a better way than to call someone a name, then that speaks to your limited vocabulary.
TR: You and the president attended Harvard Law School together. Have you heard from him since announcing your political conversion?
AD: The president and I have never had a close personal relationship. I know there are some who have a tough time believing that. They idealize that two black men at Harvard at the same time must have had a deep close personal friendship, but this interview is longer than any conversation I have had with the president. Yes, I was a strong supporter of his in 2008, but people mention that I was a [campaign] co-chair — when there were like 13 or 14 of us back in 2008 — and I wasn't even a surrogate during the general election. So when I hear in the African-American community that this [switch in support] is a personal betrayal to him, we simply did not have that kind of relationship.
TR: Do you have future plans to run for office?
AD: I don't have any expectations beyond tomorrow. I don't look beyond that.
TR: Do you think vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan's position on birth control combined with Senate candidate Todd Akin's recent comments on rape are making it tough for the Romney ticket to reach out to women voters?
AD: I think there should be a rape and incest exception regarding abortion in the Republican platform and in state laws. If a woman is brutalized, raped in any way, it is rape, and if a pregnancy results from that rape there is no state capital wise enough or smart enough in my judgment to give that woman guidance. She should be guided by her faith, church, parents and own moral judgment, and I don't trust state capitals to make that judgment. It's her moral choice and not one the state should impose on her. I strongly believe in a rape, incest exception, so I disagree with Congressman Akin's comments and Congressman Ryan's position.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.