A previous version of this article on Rep. Artur Davis's campaign for governor in Alabama mistakenly referred to the state as "traditionally Republican." It should have said "traditionally conservative."
Rep. Artur Davis seeks to become Alabama's first African American governor
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 2:17 PM
Rep. Artur Davis, long regarded as one of the most promising of a younger generation of black politicians that has emerged over the past decade, took a bold stance this week as he seeks to become the first African American governor of Alabama: distancing himself from the biggest legislative achievement of the first black president.
The four-term lawmaker joined 33 other Democrats, most of whom hail from the South, in opposing the health-care legislation that President Obama signed into law Tuesday. Davis originally voted against the House version of the legislation in November, and Democratic leaders did not spend much time trying to get him to change his vote, perhaps in a nod to the political dynamics of his state, where Obama won only 38 percent of the vote in 2008.
But in opposing the health-care bill, Davis, a longtime Obama ally who was one of the first lawmakers to back his White House run, split from the other 41 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They not only all voted for the legislation, but cast it in historic terms as an extension of the policies of the civil rights era.
Davis drew criticism for his vote from some on the left, as well, who accused him of abandoning the interests of his majority-black district in Birmingham. In Davis's congressional district, 19 percent of people are uninsured -- a figure higher than the national average -- and Obama won 72 percent of the vote, his biggest margin of victory in any district where a House member opposed the health-care legislation.
The congressman's opponent in the June Democratic primary in Alabama, Ron Sparks, said Davis's vote was an example a politician willing to "blatantly ignore the will of the people in his district," although Davis's campaign says Sparks has given conflicting statements on whether he would have backed the overhaul.
Roland Martin, a influential black commentator who hosts a show on TV One devoted to African American issues, also criticized the vote. "He was elected to represent the people in his district in Congress, not a future position that he may or may not get," Martin said. Davis, who declined an interview request for this article through a spokesman, said in a statement, "A comprehensive, 2,000 page, near $1 trillion dollar overhaul of the health-care system is just too cumbersome and too costly in a time of trillion-dollar deficits."
"I believe the no vote I cast tonight was the right one, and a significant number of other Democrats joined me in casting that no vote," Davis said Sunday. "Going forward, I hope for the good of our country that this legislation ends up working and that my reservations are proved wrong."
Davis, in an interview with the Birmingham News on the eve of the vote, said "I just don't see this as a racial vote or a racial issue," and he noted that he supported the principle of health-care reform -- just not this bill.
"I vigorously reject the insinuation that there is a uniquely 'black' way of understanding an issue, and I strongly suspect that most Alabamians will as well," Davis said late last year when he was first criticized for his health-care stance.
His aides dismiss the view that his health-care vote was cast simply because of politics, noting he has opposed other Democratic initiatives, such as a climate-change bill the House pushed through last year.
And in his years in Congress, Davis has stood apart from his black colleagues at times, most recently when he called for Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y). to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee this month. He has not been a prominent figure in the CBC, instead playing a major role in recruiting and advising candidates for House seats in 2006, working closely with then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Rahm Emanuel, who is now the White House chief of staff.
It's not clear that his vote will affect his bid for governor in Alabama. All seven of the state's House members voted against the bill, including Democratic Rep. Bobby N. Bright. And when Rep. Parker Griffith switched to the GOP in December, he cited the health-care bill as one of the reasons.
The seven GOP candidates for governor -- including former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, who famously refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse seven years ago -- are not supportive of the legislation. And political observers in the state say Democrats are unlikely to move toward Sparks, the congressman's only Democratic opponent, simply because of Davis's vote on this one issue.
"Davis is the most progressive member of the Alabama delegation. It's just very a conservative group of folks, and he's been with us on a lot of things. He voted for SCHIP (a children's health care bill), the stimulus bill, the jobs bill. Folks give a lot of weight to that," said Sherry Walker, publisher of liberal blog Left in Alabama.And she added, "we are all just glad the bill passed," referring to health care.
Davis is favored in the Democratic primary, in part because of his support among African Americans, who are expected to constitute more than half of the voters in the June contest. A rift remains between Davis and some of the older establishment black leaders in the state, who have criticized his health stance. But polls Alabama have shown Davis winning upward of 80 percent of the black vote in the primary over Sparks, who is white.
At the same time, political analysts in the state say that even with his opposition to the health-care bill, Davis faces an uphill climb in the general election. The state is traditionally conservative and has never elected an African American as governor or senator. (Nationwide, only three blacks, including Obama, have been elected to the U.S. Senate in the past century, and only two have won governor's races.) Davis has played down the impact of race in his run but acknowledged that being a Democrat is a challenge in Alabama.
"Artur Davis is running to the right because he believes that's the only way he can get elected," said Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College. "But it's a tough to row to hoe [for a Democrat] in this climate. Add to it the person is African American."