MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A well-funded black congressman has a shot at becoming the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for governor of Alabama, even without the backing of the state’s traditional civil rights organizations.
But a victory for Rep. Artur Davis in Tuesday’s primary may be a short-lived milestone.
In a state that has gone Republican in five of the last six votes for governor, GOP candidates may draw more voters and are jostling for attention, particularly Tim James. The son of a two-term governor, James has aired blunt ads against illegal immigrants that set off fierce Internet debate and gave new momentum to his campaign.
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There is no clear leader in either primary, and voter interest seems sidetracked by economic doldrums and worries over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens Alabama shores.
Blacks make up nearly half of those who can vote in the Democratic primary, but Davis may have hurt his chances by scorning the state’s four major black political groups. The four have thrown their support behind his white opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
“I made a decision to take my case directly to African-American voters,” said Davis, who skipped each group’s mandatory screening process.
Davis won his congressional seat in 2002 without the groups’ support, and some of them fought him again in 2008 when he led Barack Obama‘s successful effort to defeat Hillary Clinton in Alabama’s Democratic presidential primary.
Davis said the groups no longer determine who wins black voters’ support, but they still want candidates to put up large sums of money to have their names marked on ballots listing the groups’ endorsements that are handed out on election day outside polling places in black areas.
The president emeritus of the Alabama New South Coalition, Hank Sanders of Selma, said racial politics is nothing new in a state where George Wallace once proclaimed “segregation forever” and served four terms as governor. But he said Davis’ tactic was one he had never seen: spurning the black political group to make himself more appealing to white voters.
“The idea is to attack symbols, such as black leaders and black organizations, in a way that sends messages to white voters without alienating black voters. It’s easy to miscalculate, and Artur Davis miscalculated,” Sanders said.
Not all agree, with Davis picking up endorsements from the black mayors of Selma and Mobile — along with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was beaten by Alabama state troopers during a 1965 voting rights march in Selma.
“I am an Alabamian by birth, and I know what it would mean to see Artur Davis sworn in on the same steps where George Wallace stood,” Lewis said.
Mae Thomas, a black auto assembly plant worker from Montgomery, said she isn’t interested in what organizations throw their support behind a candidate.
“Endorsements don’t matter to me. What the person has done speaks for them and the type of person they are,” she said.
Thomas, who’s attending college part-time, she said hasn’t decided whether to vote for Davis because she likes Sparks’ plan to create a state lottery to provide college scholarships.
Sparks has taken positions popular with Democrats, calling for an expansion of gambling, including a lottery, and supporting the federal health care plan. Davis, trying to claim a more centrist position to be viable in the fall, was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the health legislation that was opposed by many in his home state.
Leah Graves, a student at historically black Miles College in Birmingham, said she is leaning toward Davis, but she is troubled by Davis’ health care vote because it stands to benefit many low-income Alabamians.
“Was it something he really believed, or was it politics?” she said.
David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said Davis expects African-American voters will vote for the first serious, well-funded black candidate for governor regardless of who has endorsed him.
“It’s a gamble, but it’s a gamble that makes a lot of sense,” Lanoue said.
On the Republican side, James has received more than 800,000 hits on YouTube with his ad promising to end Alabama’s practice of giving its written driver’s exam in a dozen foreign languages. James says he will use English only.
“This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it,” James says in the ad.
The ad coincided with the resurgence of the immigration debate as Arizona passed a new law that makes being an illegal immigrant a state crime enforced by police.
James’ ad sparked a lot of discussion among the state’s conservatives, including critics who said the ad is counterproductive in a state that has received substantial help from foreign businesses like Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai. However, a front-runner still has yet to emerge among the seven candidates in the party’s primary race, and incumbent Gov. Bob Riley said he isn’t endorsing anyone.
A runoff will be held July 13 between the top two vote-getters if no one wins a majority — with the likely matchup being James and former two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne. Behind them in fundraising are Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — known as the Ten Commandments judge for his unsuccessful fight to display a Ten Commandments monument in a state judicial building — and state Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa.