Alabama Democrats seek new champion after Artur Davis's defeat

Clockwise from left: Charles Foster, Mills Cosby and Lewis Chisholm talk about Alabama politics at Fife's Restaurant in Birmingham. Foster and Chisholm supported Ron Sparks for governor over Davis.
Clockwise from left: Charles Foster, Mills Cosby and Lewis Chisholm talk about Alabama politics at Fife's Restaurant in Birmingham. Foster and Chisholm supported Ron Sparks for governor over Davis. (Steve Gates For The Washington Post)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. -- At one time, Democrats here talked about Artur Davis in the same kind of buoyant and hopeful language they used to describe Barack Obama. A black four-term congressman with crossover appeal, he seemed on a quick path to the governor's high-back chair in the old Montgomery statehouse. Even those who were skeptical that he could win, given the state's racial narrative, took another look when Davis shot ahead by double digits in the polls. Then came last Tuesday, and Davis's surprising, humiliating, double-digit defeat.

It was yet another dispiriting performance by an Alabama Democrat. For years, Democrats in this state have been forced to view their existence as if inside a hall of mirrors. They see themselves all around -- Democrats control the state legislature -- but the actual reflection is cast by Republicans, who hold most of the top-tier elected jobs such as governor and attorney general.

Democrats have struggled to find a statewide star. The last Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, was recently released from prison on appeal of his conviction for giving an appointment to a supporter. Davis was supposed to be the one to turn things around.

"The Democratic Party began to decline here in 1986," said Natalie Davis, a professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College. "By and large they're a party that has not found a voice. Their decline is a withering process. There is a sense that the Democratic Party is not where voters want to be here."

It has left the Democratic machinery hustling to make itself relevant.

"Alabama, on its face, is still very conservative," says Joe Turnham, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "We're in the heart of the Bible Belt. Sixty-eight percent of Alabama voters attend church at least once a week. Over 60 percent identify themselves as born-again Christians. A lot of Democratic parties, with those numbers, would have folded and gone away. We haven't."

Turnham says racial antagonisms are less a factor now than in the past -- blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic here and make up a quarter of the voting bloc. But there is another view. "The truth of the matter is that the Republican Party here has supplanted the old Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party," says U.W. Clemon, who became the first black federal judge here when President Jimmy Carter nominated him in 1980. He stepped down last year.

"Folks who would have been with [Gov.] George Wallace in 1963 are in the Republican Party now," Clemon said. "And they just may take over the Alabama Senate in November. Alabama is now more conservative than Mississippi."

A segregationist past

Alabama is a state that wrote itself into the history books for the most unflattering of reasons. Wallace championed segregation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a fetid Birmingham jail. Demonstrators were beaten when they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery. Blacks will remind you that Obama received a paltry 10 to 14 percent of the vote here, according to estimates. The defeat of Davis -- Harvard-educated, smooth orator -- summoned those old racial worries again.

"A part of it -- not all of it -- is the permanence of racism," Clemon said. "One would have thought that blacks, who contribute one-fourth of the voting-age populace, and a coalition with just a third of whites, would have produced a governing majority. Now, the president can't discuss race, but that doesn't mean it has disappeared."

Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who defeated Davis, traveled the state delivering passionate speeches about the poor diets of schoolchildren, the need for jobs and the havoc wreaked by the oil spill. "I won't let BP walk away from the citizens of Alabama," he said. He supports a statewide lottery to pay for his promises. For the next few weeks, he will have the field to himself. The three Republican candidates -- Robert Bentley, Bradley Byrne and Tim James -- will have a runoff July 13.

What stayed on the minds of many here in the aftermath of Davis's loss was the beguiling campaign he ran. Black voters turned against him in favor of Sparks, unable, it appears, to forgive him for his vote against Obama's health-care bill. In an act of brazen chutzpah, Davis declined invitations to speak to black political groups. "You can't dis the black leadership in this state," Davis said.

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