Obama Should Learn From Artur Davis Debacle

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis

The full story has yet to be written about last week’s rout of favored Democratic candidate Artur Davis in the Alabama gubernatorial primary.

Little-known Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks ran to the left of the better-funded Davis and trounced him by a 62-38 margin even though Davis was his state’s senior Democratic congressman and enjoyed a close relationship with President Obama, whose Harvard Law School studies overlapped by a year.

The corporate-owned media know that the Davis defeat is big news, as shown by two stories in the June 6 Washington Post alone, here and here.

But this is mostly horse-race coverage about winning. The MSM are reluctant to scrutinize the substantive issues, the campaign’s deep intrigues, or the White House view that it should recruit Republican-lite careerists like Davis for open seats in conservative or swing districts. Most of these stories are like a cake missing salt or sugar.

My take:

In one of the reddest of the red states, Sparks ran an issue-oriented campaign that offered solutions to the hopes and fears of voters threatened by further job loss, inadequate health care, gambling as a job-creator and source of government funding, and, most recently, the horror of the BP’s oil drilling catastrophe.

Furthermore, significant segments of the Democratic base suspected Davis of making self-serving deals with their Republican enemies to help his own career.

True, Davis was burdened also as an African-American running in the onetime “Cradle of the Confederacy,” which also has the highest white population percentage of any Deep South state.

But this was not a race-determined election. Sparks managed to beat Davis in many heavily African-American districts. Some were within his opponent’s congressional district, which has been gerrymandered to include Birmingham with the rural Black Belt to help minority candidates.

On June 3, I wrote Why Alabama Democrats Rejected Centrist Artur Davis, Obama’s Pal. It noted that Sparks won the support of all four of the state’s major black political organizations while Davis was winning endorsements for the primary from reliably Republican major newspapers.

Alabama Democratic Conference Chairman Dr. Joe Reed, for instance, was quoted as saying:

It’s no secret that Davis is the preferred opponent of the Republican Party. This may be because he will be the most easily defeated Democrat, or because he is the most Republican of the Democratic candidates.

Also, Davis was too clever by a half in turning his back on Alabama’s most recent Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, after Siegelman was framed by the Bush Justice Department on corruption charges in 2006.

Last summer, I received what I believe to be reliable information that Davis, with encouragement party leaders in Washington, worked out a deal to keep Bush-appointed U.S. attorney Leura Canary running the Middle District office that prosecuted Siegelman. In return, Davis received support for his campaign from her husband Bill Canary, CEO of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA). Davis denied the tale and it never reached mainstream media.

But enough people in Alabama were getting the picture by Internet and word-of-mouth so that I predicted last July that Davis would never be elected Alabama governor.

After my article last week I received as feedback a document written by a well-connected, white Alabama Democrat entitled, “10 reasons Artur didn’t make it, based on voters’ perceptions.” For three years, I’ve found the source to be reliable. So, I pass on the list, edited slightly for space and privacy reasons, and with a warning that I’ve not personally confirmed each claim:

1. He’s arrogant and took black voters for granted.

2. He abandoned Siegelman and quit the House Judiciary Committee. Siegelman is still a hero to black voters.

3. He took money, $4,500, from BCA Leader Billy Canary. Lobbyists have said for two years that Artur would let Leura stay in office until she could get her federal retirement in exchange for a BCA endorsement. Now, Leura is launching new indictments aimed at Democratic officeholders in seats where Republicans may be able to take over. Most Democrats see this as Artur’s fault.

4. Late in the campaign, he was accused of keeping the Middle District U.S. Attorney’s seat open for himself.

5. He didn’t campaign much and sent a flock of young white kids to the Jefferson-Jackson Day event instead of showing up.

6. His rejection of the Health Care bill and its reconciliation companion were shocking to his base.

I’m going to skip my correspondent’s specific allegations in factors No. 7 and 9, which involve widespread rumors (at least among party insiders) of Davis romantic activities outside of marriage, plus his supposed special deference for two major Alabama companies.

The larger point is that politicians now need to understand that allegations once considered off-limits are going to get vastly more scrutiny during times when so many voters are financially devastated, hurt or angry.

And speaking at least for myself, my research has shown that Davis cynically cooperated in a self-serving sellout of Bush-era political prosecution victims now rotting in prison for no good reason. The defendants and their families number far more than just Siegelman, with one study showing them to be 46 percent African American nationwide. So by any reasonable standard of proportionality, whispers about Davis don’t make him a victim.

Another factor in the Davis defeat is the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) election-day machinery of the four black political groups and an overlapping network of black churches.

To understand what happened last week, it’s useful also to recall how Davis was propelled into office in a 2002 primary win. Davies won the help of heavy outside financing over black incumbent Earl Hilliard, who was perceived by a number of Israel’s U.S. supporters as not sufficiently supportive.

The fault lines continued Tuesday, with Hilliard’s son Earl Jr. winning both local and the Congressional Black Caucus endorsement to succeed Davis in Congress, but narrowly failing to qualify for a run-off against the better-funded front-runner Terri Sewell, a Harvard Law friend of Davis and a Jefferson County commissioner.

The level of intrigue in Tuesday’s election is illustrated by a news report that fake guide ballots angered Reed and the ADC showing Reed’s picture and Barack Obama’s, along with false endorsements of Davis and a congressional candidate from the fifth district. WHNT-TV in Huntsville reported the story as follows:

The idea of a fake guide ballot really irks Dr. Reed.

“This was an effort on the part of somebody to frustrate the ADC’s endorsement and try to frustrate the people who look to the ADC ballot for guidance,” said Reed, in a phone interview….These evil doers are out there plotting, trying their best to undermine ADC and frustrate black voters….I think we’ve got to expose them and when we can, prosecute them.”

To be sure, it’s not clear who might have distributed the flyers, and elaborate tricks can come from anywhere on election days.

A larger lesson developing from all this is that political leaders in the national Democratic Party – and the pundits who cover them – should understand that the Davis debacle in Alabama illustrates how hungry the public is for real change that helps people.

Democratic leaders who take the base for granted do so at their peril, as House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said last summer in my blog last summer. I quoted the longtime Democrat from Detroit as predicting a one-term Presidency for his friend Obama unless he adopted harder-hitting and more progressive measures on such issues as health care.

One of the advantages of today updating my initial report from Wednesday on the Davis primary is the opportunity to draw on the apt observations of others. Among the most perceptive is Alabama journalist Glynn Wilson, who wrote a wrap-up for his Locust Fork News-Journal website entitled, “The Big Picture.”

Wilson, whose other stories last week included a breakthrough investigative reporting about how BP is using foreign nationals detained in U.S. prisons as a cost-effective strategy for shoreline oil clean-up, provided a tough verdict on the primary:

The political career of Birmingham Congressman Artur Davis is over. Davis made a show out of trying to become Alabama’s first black governor in one of the most bizarre and ridiculous political campaigns in the state’s history.

“I have no interest in running for political office again,” Davis confirmed to a reporter for a Birmingham paper. “The voters spoke in a very decisive way across every sector and in every section of the state. A candidate that fails across-the-board like that obviously needs to find something else productive to do with his life.”

Years ago as a young newspaper reporter at the Hartford Courant, I came across a group of colleagues bad-mouthing a once prominent publisher who’d just lost his job.

“This is kicking a guy when he’s down,” I remonstrated.

“That’s when you get your best shot at ‘em!!” responded one of the best journalists I’ve ever met.

In that spirit, let me close with an admirably concise overview by Huffington Post political columnist Sam Stein last week.

The strains between Davis and the black community, indeed, ran far deeper than conventional wisdom ever held. So much so that Roland Martin, a prominent CNN analyst, syndicated columnist and television talk show host felt compelled to email the Huffington Post a withering critique of the Alabama Democrat for ducking African-American media.
Davis lost, Martin told Huffington Post, because:

He was arrogant as hell. Davis pointedly refused to do black media. He turned my TV One show down six times; he didn’t do Tom Joyner’s show, with 8 million listeners – TJ is a Tuskegee native; he turned down dozens of requests from Joe Madison of Sirius/XM; and he didn’t do many others. He assumed because of his skin blacks would flock to his campaign. Sparks outhustled him and worked black voters in a major way.

Any smart politician knows to shore up their base. He was advised by top Democratic strategists, from the White House on down, to solidify his base. He never did that.

Last week, Davis was the fall guy for a failed, top-down, “moderate” strategy.

Who’s next?

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