Ex-Democratic Star on Blacks and the GOP

(The Root) — In Part 1 of our interview with former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, he explained his reasons for crossing the aisle to the Republican Party. "There is no center right in the Democratic Party. There is in the Republican Party, and it fits, in many ways, how I see the world," explained the man who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the decidedly red state of Alabama.

Davis — now a visiting fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and living in his adopted home state of Virginia — elaborated on his disillusionment with President Obama, whom he endorsed in 2008, in Part 2 of his interview with The Root. He also talked about whether he would campaign for Mitt Romney or run for office again, as well as why he believes that younger African Americans will take a second look at the Republican Party over the next decade.


The Root: You hold the distinction of being the first House member to endorse Barack Obama for president. What was it that you admired about the president back then, and what about him has changed for you since?

Artur Davis: I got behind Barack Obama early and enthusiastically for two very simple reasons. First, I really believed that Barack Obama being elected would change race in this country. I believed that it would change the way we regarded each other around racial lines. And I believed that it would make this the kind of country where African Americans could aspire to hold office without their color being a disqualifier.


I know 100 percent what it's like to have people tell you that you can't hold an office because of your color, and to have people vote based on that belief. I really believed electing Barack Obama would change that obstacle — not for some 5-year-old out there, but for those of us who are around right now.

Second of all, I believed that the president was going to be a centrist figure who would steer the Democratic Party in that kind of direction. I didn't believe that Barack Obama was going to be an ideological figure. I believed that he was the one Democrat who had the potential to draw moderate Southerners into the party. I had very specific reasons for believing that an Obama election would change the country and the party in ways that I liked.

Well, that didn't happen. The opposite happened. The country's become more racially polarized. Race is probably more of a barrier today than it was four years ago, and the party has moved in a leftward direction that is far less inclusive ideologically than it used to be. Those things diminished my enthusiasm over time. So, like many people who get the opposite of what they vote for, they ultimately begin to be sympathetic to the other side and hear other arguments.

TR: But in terms of the social change around race that didn't occur, is that really something that can be pinned on President Obama?


AD: It's not a matter of blaming Barack Obama for that. It's a matter of recognizing that I thought Barack Obama had a unique potential to move past it. You vote for someone for president hopefully because you think they can change the country in a certain way.

I believed that Barack Obama was not just another politician who was going to be limited by the circumstances and constraints of the moment. I thought that he had the potential to be a transformative figure, and that was the basis of my enthusiasm. My saying that things have gotten worse and moved backward is not saying that I blame Barack Obama for that. It's saying that the potential that I saw five years ago was not realized.


TR: As you know, there's a stigma that black Republicans often hold among other African Americans. How do you feel about inhabiting a political space where many people may be quick to write off you and your ideas?

AD: I've had people writing my ideas off for years, so that wouldn't be a new experience. I recognize that there is a huge loathing in the African-American community for the Republican Party. And I recognize that it's only intensified in the era of Barack Obama. I fully understand that many African Americans look at Republicans as racists who can't get over a black man being in the White House.


I also realize that people have short attention spans and that African Americans forget how ugly and aggressive the opposition was to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson, back in the 1960s. I've been in many black churches on Sunday and heard preachers say, "They ain't never done no president like this before!" That's wrong historically. But at the end of the day, Barack Obama will not always be on the ballot. So I do think there's an opportunity for Republicans to get a second hearing with African Americans as the years go on.

TR: What do you think could eventually draw more African Americans to the Republican Party?


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AD: One thing is happening in the Republican Party that the Democratic Party can't say: African Americans who don't live in African-American communities are having a chance to serve their country at the political level. That includes Allen West in a white district in Florida; Tim Scott in a white district in South Carolina; and Mia Love, a 36-year-old black woman running for Congress in a Utah district that has virtually no black people.


These individuals are going to be examples of people of color holding office, having a chance to serve their country, without their race disqualifying them. As younger African Americans see that these people are having a chance to participate in the debate in this country, even though most people in their communities don't look like them or share their backgrounds, I think that's going to become a point of attraction for a lot of African Americans under 35.

Because what they want is to live in a country that doesn't start the conversation with, "You're black, so therefore you have to live in this kind of community to hold office. You have to have this kind of point of view to be relevant or be taken seriously. You have to do this to earn your stripes."


Many younger African Americans want to be Americans who have a chance to thrive based on their ability. That's going to be the biggest selling point for the Republican Party in the next 10 years, and that's going to get the interest of a lot of younger African Americans. [Editor's note: Fifteen black Democrats in the House represent districts that are predominantly nonblack, including several — Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), André Carson (Ind.) and Keith Ellison (Minn.) — who represent majority-white districts.]

Now, once [their] interest happens, then the burden will be on the Republican Party to have ideas on the table where those younger African Americans can say, "That sounds like something I think is right." I think in the next decade, as Republicans talk more about really shaking up our schools, making the way we pay for entitlements more fair and streamlining government to make it more efficient, then I think more younger African Americans are going to say, "I hear some sound arguments over there, and I see people like me over there succeeding and thriving regardless of their race." That's going to be what pulls African Americans into the party over the next decade.


TR: Are there parts of the Republican Party platform that you disagree with?

AD: When you show up in a new church, you don't spend your first few weeks standing up and telling the preacher why he's wrong. So I've resisted when interviewers ask me to go through what I disagree with Republicans about. [Laughs.]


In [an] essay last week, I did mention a few specific areas. I mentioned that I think the Republican Party would do very well to be more inclusive-sounding in the immigration debate – and by the way, Newt Gingrich said that, too. I mentioned that I think there is a difference between increasing marginal tax rates and removing tax breaks that don't make a lot of sense, while some Republicans will not draw that distinction.

And I mentioned that I don't think you can look at every federal program that's part of the low-income subsistence network and say they're all wasteful and worthless. Some of those programs have done very well, and I'm for performance-based accountability in government.


But for everything I've just said, there are major people in the Republican Party who would say it, too. Gov. Romney recently said that he was not going to impose overly draconian spending cuts in his first year because that could cause the economy to contract. There are other Republicans who disagree with that, who want him to come in and immediately implement the most aggressive budget cuts possible. This idea in D.C. that there's one "Republican viewpoint" and there's no room for diversity of opinion is a myth.

TR: You're not focused on elective politics now, but what plans are on the horizon? Will you be hitting the campaign trail for Mitt Romney?


AD: I don't exclude running for office again; nor do I have any specific plans [to run] for office again. I don't exclude the possibility of campaigning for Gov. Romney; nor do I have any specific plans to [campaign] for Gov. Romney.

Frankly, I never expected to enter politics again after I was defeated two years ago [for governor] because I knew that the scope and size of the defeat I suffered, and the antagonism of the Alabama Democratic Party to my candidacy, meant that I had no realistic political future at the time.


Today I don't live in the state of Alabama, so that perhaps creates an opportunity to begin again. I've certainly been in politics for a period of time, and I find public service to be a very fulfilling and productive thing. But I have no idea what I will end up doing politically. Obviously, we have an election in five months. That may have some impact on it, and then I'll make a judgment from there.

Editor's note: Read "Artur Davis: Why I Left the Democratic Party," Part 1 of The Root's interview with the former congressman.


Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.

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