On a bright August morning in the quiet waterfront town of Edenton, N.C., Artur Davis, a black former congressman from Alabama, looked out at a sea of beaming white faces and grinned. “I’m gonna let you all in on a secret,” he said. “I used to be a Democrat!” Lusty boos dissolved into chuckles. “He saw the light!” someone shouted. Davis nodded. “I once was lost, but now I am found!”
In one sense, the scene was familiar. Four years ago, Davis made a splash in the presidential race by becoming the first congressman outside Illinois to endorse Barack Obama. He delivered a nominating speech at the Democratic convention and gladly embraced the moniker “Obama of Alabama.” Bright, charismatic, and inclined toward an inclusive, post-racial brand of politics, he seemed a sure bet to thrive in the new era. Just weeks after Obama’s inauguration, Davis set out with great fanfare to become Alabama’s first black governor—only to suffer a searing, life-altering loss at the hands of his own party.
Afterward, Davis received a succession of eager well-wishers, several of whom thanked him for speaking out on what one couple termed his “signature issue”: imposing strict identification requirements on voters to prevent fraud. Instituting voter ID laws has become a Republican crusade that many Democrats deem racist, for while studies have found scant evidence of fraud, they do suggest that requiring photo identification will disenfranchise large numbers of poor, elderly, and minority voters—i.e., Democrats—who don’t have it and can’t easily get it. To a party resentful of being called racist and struggling to attract minorities, Davis is a validation and a godsend. Later that day, he posed for pictures with an excited Republican woman who held up her driver’s license.
Giddy at their unexpected good fortune, Republicans awarded Davis a prime speaking slot at the Republican convention. Sounding notes strikingly similar to Obama’s, he told the crowd, “I know how loaded up our politics is with anger and animosity, but I have to believe we can still make a case over the raised voices. There are Americans who voted for the president but who are searching right now, because they know that their voices didn’t build the country they wanted.”
These apostasies have left his old supporters angry and confused. “He has no core values, no principles; he’s a user and a narcissist,” says Mark Kennedy, Alabama’s Democratic Party chairman. “Who knows where he’ll pop up next? Maybe the circus, because he’s a clown.” The verdict down South is that Davis arrogantly overreached and then had the gall to blame his loss on the very people who had helped him. “He’s a very ambitious man,” says Natalie Davis (no relation), a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College and former candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination. “I remember him telling me two years into his House career that he was destined for bigger things. He’s smart as hell, but he blew it in Alabama.”
Davis, who is polished and charming, weathers these put-downs with cool equanimity, laughing off the suggestion that he’s driven by ambition and animosity. “You don’t switch parties simply because of your party’s candidate for president,” he says. “I made the decision to align with Republicans because it’s become clear to me that on every issue we’re talking about, my sentiments are with Republicans.” He adds: “The Democratic Party changed very, very quickly.”
Yet Davis changed, too. Although not the role he envisioned for himself four years ago, he’s smack in the middle of another presidential race and again the focus of attention, which he plainly enjoys. It’s clear that he regards his Alabama loss as merely a setback. He moved to Virginia and is said to be contemplating a run for Congress, or perhaps even governor, this time as a Republican.
Meanwhile, he’s a potent symbol. In his fierce support and subsequent abandonment of Obama, Davis embodies the way Republicans would like Americans to view the president. His strange journey from ally to apostate could resonate. But first, voters will have to make up their minds about the question that everyone who encounters him eventually ponders: Did Obama and his party really leave Artur Davis—or has he gone so far in the service of his own ambition that he’d willingly bring down his own president?
Davis has the kind of Horatio Alger story upon which many a successful political career has been built. Born in West Montgomery, Ala., in 1967, he was raised poor by a single mother in a house near the railroad tracks, but persevered to become a magna cum laude Harvard University graduate and later a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s. “I was an African-American who had great admiration for Jack and Bobby Kennedy,” he says. “Growing up with that mind-set in Montgomery, Ala., I couldn’t have been anything but a Democrat.”
His ambition was evident from early on. In The Breakthrough, her 2009 book on the rising generation of black politicians, Gwen Ifill notes that Davis’s biography reads as “a carefully plotted political career map.” More precisely, it was a carefully plotted Democratic career map, impeccably credentialed and attuned to the shifting politics of the South. Davis worked for Senator Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), the Southern Poverty Law Center, and clerked for a U.S. District Court judge; he also practiced civil rights law and added a dash of law enforcement toughness by prosecuting drug cases for four years as an assistant U.S. attorney.
His initial foray into electoral politics showed similar care. In 2000, Davis, then 32, challenged Representative Earl Hilliard, Alabama’s first black congressman since Reconstruction and, at 58, a senior member of the state’s black Democratic political machine who was under scrutiny for campaign finance violations. (Congress would rebuke Hilliard for misusing campaign funds the next year.) Hilliard’s district—Alabama’s seventh—was 62 percent black. Davis lost badly. But two years later he beat Hilliard, drawing enough financial support from the business community to outspend him and showing he could attract black and white voters alike.
In Congress, he aligned himself with centrist New Democrats, though his district was one of the country’s poorest and many of his constituents depended on the federal government. He carved out a name for himself on education policy, fought an effort to cut funds for public housing, and took up the cause of reforming Alabama’s racist constitution, long a source of embarrassment for the state. Written in 1901 explicitly to disenfranchise black voters, it imposed a poll tax, school segregation, a land ownership requirement, and a ban on interracial marriage. Rallying under the banner of “White supremacy, suffrage reform, and purity in elections,” its advocates narrowly won ratification that same year, although, as Wayne Flynt of Auburn University points out in Alabama in the Twentieth Century, historians have concluded the election was rigged. Black voter eligibility plunged from 181,000 in 1900 to fewer than 3,000 in 1903.
The U.S. Supreme Court and Congress have restored many of these rights, but the Republican push for voter ID laws has begun to roll them back in Alabama and elsewhere. Davis fought this at home and in Washington, where he famously dressed down the Justice Department’s voting rights chief under George W. Bush during a hearing on a Georgia ID law. “I happened to be sitting in Artur’s office one day in 2003, when he was quite animated about exactly these issues,” says Flynt, a former Davis supporter and contributor. “He said, ‘Wayne, do you know what the legislature’s just done? The governor has signed a bill that would require voter ID for African-Americans.’ He talked about what a betrayal it was. He was outraged.” (Davis says he doesn’t recall this.)
In Washington, Davis came to be regarded as one of the brightest Democratic lights. The parallels with another rising star were obvious: the broken home, Harvard law degree, civil rights work—even the early, failed attempt to unseat an entrenched black congressional incumbent—all echoed Obama’s story. Davis plainly felt a kinship. To Ifill, he recalled being at a Congressional Black Caucus party in Washington with Obama, soon after each man had challenged, and lost to, a senior CBC member: “We ended up standing in a corner talking about politics. I have a vivid memory of people looking at us and one person pointing to us. I think they were probably thinking, ‘There are the two losers over there.’”
It’s hard not to see Obama as the pivotal figure in Davis’s career, the exemplar and enabler of his own grand designs. When Obama challenged Hillary Clinton in 2007, Alabama’s black establishment lined up with Clinton. Davis, still at odds with that establishment, endorsed Obama.
In February 2008, Obama swept the Alabama primary, carrying most of the black vote and much of the white vote. To Davis, this portended historic change. Months later, when Democrats won unexpected special election victories in Louisiana and Mississippi, he declared, “The Republican hold is eroding in the South.” His pollsters released a memo arguing that “the Obama phenomenon has dramatically changed the way Alabamians view the viability of African-American candidates at the national and state level.”
Davis began hinting that he would run for governor. What’s striking in hindsight is how few people, his supporters included, thought he had a prayer. “The racism in this state is just palpable,” Flynt says. “I told him, ‘Artur, I’ll certainly support you, but I wish you wouldn’t do this. We need you in Congress.’”
The excitement of Obama’s victory obscured some ominous signs. In the general election, white Alabamians voted 88-10 for John McCain, blacks 98-2 for Obama, the largest such spread in any state. Davis prided himself on his ability to draw white support and staked out positions well to the right of his party’s mainstream to capture it. He also made a show of ignoring the black establishment. “He basically told the leadership that their endorsements were not worth having,” says John Anzalone, his former consultant.
Both these imperatives led Davis to cast a fateful vote against Obamacare. The day before, Anzalone quit in frustration. “He made a fatal mistake in voting against the president’s health-care law,” says Natalie Davis, “and was taken to task inside the black community.” Kennedy, the Democratic chairman, agrees: “He made a calculated decision to break with his caucus and vote against the best interests of his district because he wanted to build a larger coalition. He just assumed there was no African-American who wouldn’t vote for a candidate who could erase the image of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.”
Rather than embrace Davis, voters spurned him. He was trounced in the Democratic primary by the lightly regarded agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, who’s white but carried the black vote and even took Davis’s district. Sparks ultimately lost to Republican physician Robert Bentley. “Davis and Bentley were clearly the most impressive pair in the race, but he was really done in by the identity politics,” says David Ferguson, Bentley’s campaign manager. Adds Flynt: “Everything that’s happened since then is rooted in the bitterness of being rejected by his own constituents.”
Davis refused to endorse Sparks, then said he was quitting politics. He moved to Virginia and returned to law. Last October, he astonished his old allies by recanting his opposition to voter ID laws, and soon after left the Democratic Party and joined the GOP. The intensity of this reaction is one of the many mysteries about Davis, and one he doesn’t care to explain. “The Democratic Party in Alabama is a dead letter at this point,” he says. “So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a race that’s over and done with.”
To spend time in Davis’s company is to appreciate what a strange world he now inhabits. Old friends have disavowed him. New Republican friends don’t quite seem to know what to make of him. “I think he’ll feel a great reception,” says Tom Davis (no relation), the former Virginia congressman. “What that translates to over time, I couldn’t tell you.” This is a common sentiment among Virginia Republicans, many of whom seem to have a lurking suspicion of someone who could so easily cast off his beliefs and adopt those of his rivals, as well as uncertainty about what precisely Davis is after.
Davis seems most comfortable answering these questions at a level of broad generality. “Electing someone of Obama’s obvious abilities and talents, who seemed to have staked his political career on overcoming polarization, I thought that was enormously attractive,” he says. “I really expected Barack Obama would be a president who would do exactly what he talked about in his famous Boston speech. What I heard that night was a very powerful statement about the country overcoming its polarization and ideological division. I thought electing a talented, capable, African-American president would alter this country. That is not how Barack Obama has governed.”
He brushes aside the suggestion that his new party might play a role in this state of affairs. “I know the mantra on the other side: ‘Oh, these evil, mean Republicans have frustrated him at every turn.’ You’d think the separation of powers was invented in the last several years to be a special hurdle for Barack Obama!”
Davis is coy about his intentions. “I’ve aligned myself with the Republican Party now, and I want to be a good, constructive member of that party,” he says. “For the foreseeable future, that’s what I see myself doing.” To that end, he’s dedicated himself to politics full time. In February he quit his law firm. He’s made an effort to appeal not just to Republican leaders but also to the Tea Party rank and file. And he’s well aware of his totemic power on many of the issues that animate the party base.
To Alabama Democrats, his championing the cause of voter ID laws seems like a way to rub salt in the wound—the ultimate retaliation upon those who rejected him. Davis now mocks their concerns. A photo ID is not “a firehose. … It’s not some kind of weapon or club that Southern sheriffs used to keep people from voting or participating,” he told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington in July.
His former backers swear he’ll pay a price. “Right now, he’s like a little trophy doll,” says Kennedy. “They’ll parade him around, but after the election they’ll dump him and he’ll be what he was before: a man without a state or a party. I feel sorry for him. To be seen at a Tea Party rally talking about the president—he just can’t believe he’s not living in the White House.”
Yet Republicans may embrace him. Davis won’t speculate about his future, but it’s not hard to imagine what he might be thinking. His convention speech could hasten his path back to Congress, or into a Romney administration—or even the Virginia governor’s mansion. A shrewd black politician could go far in a Republican Party that will soon confront the country’s changing demographic realities. There’d be ample opportunities to advance. A black Republican governor of a pivotal state would be on any short list for national office. Delusional? Maybe. But for a politician with a surfeit of ambition, hardly unthinkable. It would be the ultimate vindication and rebuke, and might finally satisfy what seems to be eating at Davis—not that Americans elected a talented, capable, black president, but that they elected the wrong one.