MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The man vying to become Alabama’s first black governor is battling some unlikely critics — black Democratic leaders who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement.
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, 42, wasted little time launching his campaign after Barack Obama‘s presidential victory last year. The prospects seemed promising for the Harvard-educated lawyer, a moderate with proven appeal to white voters who will be running in a June Democratic primary where black voters could account for as much as half the turnout.
But a year in, Davis is finding that racial prejudice is not the biggest obstacle to presiding at the Capitol where Gov. George C. Wallace once proclaimed “segregation forever.”
Among those criticizing him are Joe Reed, founder and longtime chairman of the black wing of the state Democratic Party, and former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, who was that city’s first black mayor.
Across the South, a legitimate black candidate for governor is a rarity, but finding old-fashioned political opposition within black political ranks is not.
Ferrel Guillory, an expert in Southern politics at the University of North Carolina, says there is a “generational cleavage” caused by the emergence of black leaders like Obama and Davis who are too young to have been part of the civil rights era. Those who were on the front lines of that movement want to maintain their influence.
Davis, a three-term congressman who was Obama’s campaign chairman in Alabama, is no stranger to the phenomenon. Reed and Arrington opposed him in 2002 when he recruited strong white support to beat an incumbent black congressman with a long civil rights resume, and again in 2008 when many black leaders at first supported Hillary Clinton over Obama, warning that America wasn’t ready to elect a black president.
“There is a group of insiders in this state who benefit from protecting the status quo,” Davis said.
D’Linell Finley, an expert in minority politics at Auburn University Montgomery, says some Democrats are also concerned that if Davis tops the ticket in November, some white voters will cast straight Republican tickets and doom other Democrats.
“They may have some merit,” Finley said.
After all, Obama received only about 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama, according to some exit polls, and did worse among white Alabama voters than John Kerry four years earlier. In modern times, no black candidate has won any statewide office in the executive branch of Alabama’s government. Only about 25 percent of the state’s registered voters are black.
Davis and Obama got to know each other at Harvard law school, but Davis’ political record is much more moderate — and on health care legislation, a sensitive issue for black voters, he has veered to the conservative side. Criticism from Reed was fast and pointed when Davis was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the health care overhaul bill.
Reed said Davis voted “no” to help himself in the governor’s race by appealing to more conservative voters, not to help constituents in his mostly black, low-income district that stretches across the civil rights battlegrounds of Birmingham and Selma.
“He is not likely to get a ‘profiles in courage’ award when any political issue makes him uncomfortable,” Reed said.
For many black leaders from the civil rights generation, health care legislation “is a litmus test,” Guillory said.
But Davis said he rejects Reed’s “insinuation that there is a uniquely ‘black’ way of understanding an issue, and I strongly suspect that most Alabamians will as well.”
Reed, 72, didn’t take kindly to criticism from someone 30 years his junior.
“My record is second to none, and I was doing this when Congressman Davis was making mud cakes under the shade tree,” he said.
Reed has been a power broker in Alabama politics since about the time Davis was born. He is chairman of the party’s black wing, the Alabama Democratic Conference. He’s also the No. 2 official at the state teachers’ organization, which has more than 100,000 members and has contributed to Davis’ white opponent in the Democratic primary, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
Sparks is running with the support of Arrington, 75, the first black mayor of Birmingham.
“As good a man as Artur Davis is, I’m not sure he can win and, frankly, I’m concerned that with him at the top of the ticket I’m not sure what that might mean for Democratic control of the House and state Senate,” Arrington said.
Even if Davis wins the primary, he could face an uphill battle. Republicans have won every Alabama governor’s race but one since 1986. Republican incumbent Bob Riley has served two terms and can’t run again, but the GOP has a big field of contenders.
Davis is focusing his campaign on rewriting Alabama’s heavily amended constitution and enacting tougher government ethics standards, reforms that appeal to middle-class voters. It’s his opponent, Sparks, who is stressing issues that traditionally appeal to black Alabama voters — creating a state lottery and expanding gambling to provide money for education and Medicaid. Sparks has also endorsed the federal health care legislation.
Still, Sparks is trying to win a June primary where nearly half the vote is traditionally black. His chances of winning go up if Davis alienates significant numbers of black voters and can’t manage to appeal to white voters.
Byrdie Larkin, a political scientist at historically black Alabama State University, said Davis has positioned himself as more conservative than Sparks, but that might not be enough for him to capture the white votes needed to win.
“They might see Davis as an answer to their concerns, but for a majority of Alabamians, race is still a factor,” she said.