On a bright August morning in the quiet waterfront town of Edenton, North Carolina, Artur Davis, the black former congressman from Alabama, looked out at a sea of beaming white faces and grinned.
“I’m going to 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 for president. He delivered a speech nominating Obama 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, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 3 issue. 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.
On this day, Davis, 44, was addressing a crowd of Republicans gathered outside Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign headquarters, many of them drawn by his startling decision last May to quit the Democratic Party, denounce Obama, and endorse Romney.
Giddy at their unexpected good fortune, Republicans awarded Davis a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican convention last night. He had no trouble making an impression. “Thank you for welcoming me where I belong,” he said to applause and cheers. “America is a land of second chances, and I gather in this close race you have room for the estimated 6 million of us who know we got it wrong in 2008 and who want to fix it.”
In Edenton and elsewhere, Davis slid easily into his new persona, reverently invoking Ronald Reagan, hitting all the Republican talking points, and always circling back to what he presents as his puzzled disappointment with the president, drawing sympathetic nods.
A political consultant would say that Davis was supplying a “permission structure” for people once supportive of Obama to abandon him with a clear conscience.
“I have this crazy theory,” he told the crowd in Edenton, “that some of you kind of liked what a smart, impressive young man from Illinois had to say four years ago. Well, here we are four years later, and I just want to ask you something, North Carolina: How’s that working out for you?”
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.
Instituting voter-identification 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 elderly and minority voters -- i.e., Democrats -- who don’t have it and can’t easily get it.
To a party resentful of the charge of racism 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. These apostasies have left his old allies angry and confused.
‘He’s a Clown’
“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 overreached and then had the gall to blame the very people who had helped him for his loss.
“He’s a very ambitious man,” says Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham Southern College and a former candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination who isn’t related to Artur Davis. “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 charges with equanimity, laughing off the suggestion that ambition and animosity are what’s driving him.
“You don’t switch parties simply because of your party’s candidate for president,” he says. “I have all manner of disagreements with Obama’s policies, but 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 added, “The Democratic Party changed very, very quickly.”
Move to Virginia
Yet Davis changed, too. Although it isn’t the role he envisioned for himself four years ago, he’s smack in the middle of another presidential race and once again the focus of attention, something he plainly enjoys. While his ambitions may have been set back, they clearly haven’t been destroyed. He’s 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 about to receive an important national platform. In his fierce support and subsequent abandonment of Obama, Davis embodies the way Republicans would like Americans to view the president. In an election shaping up as a referendum on Obama, Davis’s strange journey from ally to apostate could have real resonance.
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 Davis gone so far in the service of his own ambition that he’d willingly bring down his own president?
Horatio Alger Story
Davis has the kind of Horatio Alger story upon which many a successful political career has been built. Born in West Montgomery, Alabama, in 1967, he was raised poor by a single mother in a house near the railroad tracks, and persevered to become a magna cum laude Harvard 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 mindset in Montgomery, Alabama, 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 noted 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 new South.
Davis worked for Alabama’s Democratic senator Howell Heflin, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and clerked for a U.S. District Court judge; he also worked as a civil rights lawyer and added a dash of law-enforcement toughness by prosecuting drug cases 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 political machine who was under scrutiny for alleged corruption. Congress would rebuke Hilliard for misusing campaign funds the next year.
Hilliard’s district -- Alabama’s seventh -- was 62 percent black. Davis lost badly. Yet two years later he beat Hilliard, drawing enough financial support from progressive members of the business community to outspend his opponent and showing that he could attract white voters as well as black.
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. Still, he carved out a name for himself on education policy, fought back 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 on behalf of powerful economic interests 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 writes in his book “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.
Although the Supreme Court and Congress have restored many of these rights, the Republican campaign for voter-identification laws has begun to roll them back in Alabama and elsewhere. Davis fought this at home and in Washington, where he dressed down the Bush Justice Department’s voting-rights chief during a hearing on a Georgia identification 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, once a 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, political ambition -- even the early, failed attempt to unseat an entrenched black congressional incumbent -- all echoed Obama’s story.
Talk With Obama
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 there 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 for the nomination 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, too.
To Davis, this portended historic change. Months later, when Democrats unexpectedly won special elections 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 started dropping hints 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.’ But he was convinced by some of his white business supporters that he had this Harvard degree, this great narrative coming out of single-parent public housing.”
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. Yet 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 big show of ignoring the black establishment. “He basically told the leadership that their endorsements were not worth having,” says John Anzelone, his former consultant.
Both these imperatives led Davis to cast a fateful vote against Obama’s health plan, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The day before, his campaign brain trust 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 rejected him. He was trounced in the Democratic primary by the lightly regarded agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, who is white. Sparks carried the black vote and even took Davis’s own 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, who was Bentley’s campaign manager. “Artur was astounded,” says Kennedy.
Adds Flynt: “Everything that’s happened since then is rooted in the bitterness of being rejected by his own constituents.”
Complaining of voter fraud while offering no proof, Davis refused to endorse Sparks. Then he announced he was quitting politics to return to practicing law. He moved to Virginia. Last October, he astonished his old allies by publicly recanting his opposition to voter-ID laws, and soon after quit the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans.
The intensity of this reaction is one of the many mysteries about Davis, and one he’s disinclined to shed any light on.
“The Democratic Party in Alabama is a dead letter at this point,” he says. “It’s irrelevant. 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. His old friends have disavowed him. His 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, the former Virginian congressman, whose old seat Davis may be eyeing. “What that translates to over time, I couldn’t tell you,” the former congressman, who is no relation, said in a judgment echoed by other Virginia Republicans.
Davis seems most comfortable answering questions about his ease in casting off his views, and what he is after, at a level of broad generality.
“I thought that 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 waves off the suggestion that his new party might play something of 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 to Republican leaders and the Tea Party rank-and-file as well.
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 seemed like a way to rub salt in the wound -- the ultimate retaliation upon those who rejected him. Davis now mocks those who oppose the laws.
A photo ID is not “a fire hose,” he told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington in July. “It’s not some kind of weapon or club that Southern sheriffs used to keep people from voting or participating.”
“It was really quite a reversal for Artur,” Flynt says. “But then, what hasn’t been? Everything he’s ever believed in or stood for he’s reversed.”
His old allies swear he’ll pay a price for this.
“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 of the United States -- he just can’t believe that he’s not living in the White House.”
Yet Republicans may embrace him, especially if last night’s convention speech, in which he appealed to “those Democrats and independents whose minds are open to argument,” is deemed successful. Davis won’t speculate about the path he envisions for himself, yet it isn’t hard to imagine what he might be thinking.
Demonstrating loyalty to his new party could hasten his path back to Congress or into a Romney administration. A smart young African-American who played his cards right could go far in a Republican Party that will soon confront the country’s changing demographic realities.
Virginia governors serve a single term, so there’d be ample opportunity to advance. And a black Republican governor of a pivotal state would be on any short list for national office.
It would be the ultimate vindication and rebuke, and might finally satisfy what seems to be eating at Davis -- not that America elected a talented, capable, African-American president, but that they elected the wrong one.