Last Saturday in Linn Park in downtown Birmingham, a 41-year-old Congressman who went to Harvard and then graduated from Harvard Law School, announced that he was running for governor of Alabama in 2010.
There were red, white and blue signs with his name on them and a diverse crowd of about 500 cheered on the candidate. There was a little white girl, her face painted like an orange cat. There were black and white retirees in lawn chairs, sipping on soft drinks and bottled water. Then there were the business owners, lawyers and politicians—black, white and brown.
The candidate, Rep. Artur Davis, is black.
The multicultural campaign launch is noteworthy, of course, because it’s happening in Alabama.
This, after all, is where George Wallace stood in the door of the state’s flagship university in an attempt to keep blacks from registering for college; the state where civil rights marchers were beaten on a bridge in Selma when they tried to march to the state capital to highlight inequality in voting rights; the state where four little girls were killed in a church on a Sunday morning by a bomb planted by Klansmen. This, after all, is Alabama.
Davis seems undaunted by history. In his 15-minute speech on Saturday, he talked about the racial divide only briefly and focused instead on trying to move beyond it.
“… No matter what you think of what Alabama used to be, no matter what you think of what some people outside of Alabama say about our state, the Alabama we have now is a new one, the best one we’ve ever had and the one that will take us places we’ve never been.”
Black candidates often run for statewide offices, usually as Democrats. If they make it past the party primary, they generally lose in the general election in a state that is resoundingly Republican.
In 2008, when Democratic candidates across the country were getting a boost from the candidacy of Barack Obama, the Obama magic didn’t make it to Alabama. John McCain won Alabama by 21 percentage points.
Judge Clyde Jones, a black candidate for the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008, also lost out that year. Before becoming a circuit court judge in 2002, Jones had been a deputy district attorney and a defense lawyer. Though he had an impressive résumé and the backing of influential legal groups, Jones lost to Beth Kellum, a white Republican woman who was a senior staff attorney in a law firm. Jones got 857,043 votes to Kellum's 1,095,348, a difference of more than 21 percent.
There are those who say that race is not the culprit; that being black does not hurt you as much as being a Democrat.
Alabama last elected a Democrat as governor in 1998 when Don Siegelman won the office, and it is even more reliably Republican in presidential elections. The last time Alabama went Democratic in a presidential race was in 1976, when it went for fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford.
The first big contest for Davis comes about a year from now in the Democratic primary. So far Ron Sparks, the state’s agricultural commissioner—who is white—is the only other Democrat in the race, and no one else of consequence is expected to get in. On the Republican side, Roy Moore, a conservative judge famous for his refusal to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state’s courthouse, has said he will run. Other Republicans expected to seek the nomination include Tim James, a businessman and son of former Gov. Fob James, State Rep. Robert Bentley and former two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne.
Reared mostly by his single mother and grandmother, Davis may be one of the best symbols of progress that Alabama has to offer. His journey from Montgomery, Ala. to Harvard was not an easy one. He recalled on Saturday that he spent a week at a hotel in Montgomery as a child because his family’s house had been foreclosed on.
In 2002, Davis defeated a powerful member of the Congressional Black Caucus, then-U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard, in a tough and nasty contest that turned on whether Hilliard was too old-school and whether Alabama needs a new, more sophisticated face in Congress.
Davis is well-connected. He counts President Obama as a personal friend. Soon after inauguration, he joined Obama at the White House to watch the Super Bowl.
But big friends aside—Davis is still a black Democrat in Alabama. Some of those familiar with the state’s bare-knuckle political landscape worry that it will be an uphill climb for the ambitious Congressman. “He’s represented us well in Congress and established himself as a major political player, but statewide, race still is a factor,” says Richard Arrington, who served as mayor of Birmingham, the state’s largest city, for 20 years.
“With the dominance of blacks in the Democratic Party, I believe he can be the party nominee. But this state represents strongly the right wing of the Republican Party,” Arrington said. “We don’t talk about race as we did 10 years ago, but I still believe it’s on the minds of voters.”
That’s the same thing Virginians were saying back in 1989, when they elected Douglas Wilder governor. And it’s what countless Americans were saying all of last year, right up until the night of Nov. 4. At some point, Alabama’s tortured past deserves to be consigned to the past. Maybe Artur Davis is The One for Alabama. Maybe 2010 is the year.
Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.
The article contains corrected information: The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Alabama was Jimmy Carter in 1976, not in 1980.