Can Alabama Spark a Democratic Revival in the South?

Can Alabama Spark a Democratic Revival in the South?

Late on a recent Monday afternoon, Artur Davis, the Alabama congressman, stood before a racially diverse crowd of casually dressed men and women in the vast main hall of Rainbow City’s community center. The talk centered on how to bring jobs to Alabama’s economically depressed northeastern corner, bolstering parental responsibility, making college more affordable, and, simply, hope. Five months earlier, Davis won reelection to a fourth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional district, which includes the hub of the state’s once-robust cotton industry. Now, he has begun his campaign to win the governor’s office in Alabama in 2010 — and to usher in a Democratic revival in the South.

Davis’ candidacy is a distinctive part of a coming electoral test. Between now and November 2010, in fact, nearly 40 of the nation’s governor’s seats will be up for grabs. One of the most intriguing battlegrounds will be the South, where Republicans dominate the governorships, 6-to-5. Democrats are emboldened by Barack Obama’s victory last November, particularly in Southern states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — wins achieved partly because of high participation by those states’ large black electorates, as well as the infusion of relatively affluent transplants who aren’t beholden to the region’s old-school political regimes. Now, of course, the Republican Party is struggling to move beyond its base of rural Southern white Protestants and into the Midwest and Northeast. So the governor’s races quickly taking shape in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and in Alabama will be key tests of whether the Democrats can extend their recent gains.

If elected, Davis would lead the Confederacy’s first capital, Montgomery, where Alabama’s best-known governor, George Wallace, in his 1963 inaugural address, called the state the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” the “very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” and declared, “segregation now…segregation tomorrow… segregation forever.” Davis’ election would deliver another blow to what remains of the G.O.P.’s racially divisive Southern Strategy. He would also be only the third black elected governor in American history, the second from the South. Is Alabama ready for that much change

Davis, 41, is keenly aware that much of his bid’s appeal — and challenge — lies in his personal narrative. That’s why he began his recent talk in Rainbow City, before the audience of a couple of dozen people, with a familiar anecdote. On the day before Easter Sunday, 1977, he tells the audience, his single mother, a high school teacher, brought him to Alabama’s state capitol for the first time. He was awed by the place. “I never could have imagined, growing up in West Montgomery, I’d ever have a chance to travel beyond that neighborhood, much less have a chance to serve as governor of this wonderful state. I can confidently tell y’all,” he continues, “I was born where both sides of the track were wrong.”

What he does not mention, though, are details of his story that mark him as firmly part of the elite. He attended Harvard for both undergraduate and law school, where Barack Obama was a couple years ahead. Davis eschewed joining a New York or Washington law firm, and became a federal prosecutor, frequently handling drug cases. In 1998, he joined a prominent Birmingham law firm, Johnston Barton Proctor & Powell, where he specialized in employment and white-collar criminal cases.

The following year in Davis’ life was instructive for the fledgling politician. Then just 31, Davis announced plans to challenge Earl Hilliard Sr., the first African-American elected to Congress from Alabama since Reconstruction. Davis was largely dismissed as an upstart who hadn’t paid his dues by winning a lower-tier office. Despite being hailed by the Birmingham News as a “leader for the future,” Davis lost. He attributed defeat to having raised barely $100,000. The next time he ran, in 2002, Davis had become adept at raising money, benefitting from donations from American Jewish groups concerned about Hilliard’s views on Israel. Much of the African-American political establishment derided Davis as an elitist whose polished demeanor, Ivy League credentials and prosecutorial record made him inauthentically black. But this time, he won. One of the first congratulatory calls he received came from Obama, then an obscure Illinois state senator plotting his own U.S. Senate bid. Though they were among a handful of black men at Harvard Law at the same time, the two men hardly knew each other.

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