The election of Barack Obama in November 2008 was widely hailed by political pundits and veteran poll watchers as the beginning of a new era of post-racial politics in America. The ability of Obama to pull together a coalition of whites, Blacks, Latinos and some Republican voters was viewed as a sign that the nation’s electorate was overcoming some of its racial inertia. The junior Senator from Illinois deftly avoided having his candidacy defined by race, in stark contrast to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s still remarkable campaign in 1988. Obama was not the only candidate to frame his campaign outside the contours of his racial identity. In Massachusetts Deval Patrick found success running a renegade campaign for governor that consisted of a multi-racial coalition and a strong grassroots effort. The Patrick and Obama campaigns appeared to be turning points in American politics.
That was until Tuesday in Alabama. That’s when Rep. Artur Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic primary gubernatorial candidate, ran smack into the wall of racial reality. Davis, with a pedigree like President Obama, patterned his campaign after that of the nation’s first Black president and learned firsthand that one size does not fit all. Instead of declaring victory, Davis found himself in the uncomfortable position of conceding the race to his white opponent, Ron Sparks. Far from creating a coalition, Artur Davis managed to motivate voters who should have been in his column, to work against his candidacy. His defeat was so stunning that Davis announced that he would not seek election to another public office.
At first glance, it is easy to assume that Davis lost the race because he is Black, sought statewide office in the south, and due to Alabama’s tortured history as a state that gave comfort to Jim Crow. After all, Alabama gave the nation George Wallace, was the loyal resistance to the civil rights movement and only one Black – Virginia’s Doug Wilder – found success in a statewide election in a southern state since Reconstruction. The experience of former Charlotte, North Carolina mayor Harvey Gantt, who lost a racially charged U.S. Senate race to conservative icon Jesse Helms, seemed more the norm for a Black candidacy, despite the emergence of the so-called “New South” and the phoenix like rise of Barack Obama and Deval Patrick.
The fate of Artur Davis is both an eye opener and a lesson to Blacks who claim that the nation has moved beyond race. In the case of Davis, voters might have been prepared to move beyond race, but in a strange twist the congressman’s attempt to run a race neutral campaign only heighted the issue. In a strange twist, Davis not only failed to build a coalition but he also managed to alienate Black voters in the process. He became the first Black candidate in a statewide race to lose the Black vote. His candidacy did not defy race as Davis had hoped, it managed to sharpen the distinction. In the process, the Davis campaign is a cautionary tale for Black candidates who run away from race to appease prospective white voters. The primary election in Alabama also sends a strong message that the election of Barack Obama is most likely an anomaly not the racial realignment claimed by many.
Artur Davis’ loss was stunning by the degree to which Black voters abandoned his candidacy. Ron Sparks defeated Davis decisively, taking 61 of Alabama’s 67 counties. In the process Sparks, the white candidate, racked up 70 percent of the vote in several counties where Blacks comprise the majority. He also scored 60 percent of the vote in four counties and in three took over 50 percent of the vote. Davis only won two counties in his own 7th Congressional District, out of 12 counties. In the two counties Rep. Davis won, his opponent took 48 percent of the vote. In his home county of Jefferson, Davis lost in his own polling place.
Clearly, Davis was not simply the victim of white-flight, but an intense Black rejection in reaction to his abandonment of the Black community. In his zeal to operate outside the admittedly confining space of “Black politician” Davis attempted to recast himself in a more conservative posture to appeal to white Alabama voters. The final straw might have been his opposition to the Obama health care plan, seen by many of his constituents as the ultimate betrayal. Davis was the only Black Democrat on the Hill who voted against the President’s health care reform package. He also refused to seek the support of Black political organizations in the state in open defiance of tradition and seen by Blacks as Davis’ abandonment of his political base to serve his own personal ambition. Judging by the comments of some Black Alabamans, Davis had no chance of winning because Black voters were determined to teach the 42 year-old, Harvard trained lawyer a lesson.
What Artur Davis’ defeat reveals is that the euphoria over the election of Barack Obama needs to be put in perspective. There are very few instances when Black candidates have received the crossover support of white voters, particularly in statewide races. While there are now a record number of Blacks serving in Congress, there is only one Black American in the United States Senate. The Black members serving in the House are elected from districts that are either majority Black or have a plurality of Black voters. There are only two Black governors, and one of them, New York’s David Paterson, has opted not to seek election after enduring a scandal ridden and politically challenged tenure after he succeeded Eliot Spitzer, himself a victim of political scandal. There have been gains in state legislatures but the true measure of power in state capitals is at the legislative committee level and in most states, Black legislators are not chairing key committees. Black politicians continue to find success in municipal elections but even in some of the nation’s major cities, they have lost control of City Hall. It is not a pretty picture and it puts Davis’ loss in perspective. Blacks, who seek to run outside the comfort of their own community, face the prospect of losing Black votes if they switch gears and abandon their core policy beliefs for the sake of white votes.
While attention has been paid to the degree Davis lost Black voter support, the real issue is white voters’ reluctance to support a Black candidate who expresses any degree of genuine concerns for the Black community and expresses support for policy initiatives to address policy disparities borne by race. This was evident in the Obama presidential campaign and remains so in his presidency. Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama steered clear of any specific reference to fairly obvious instances when race was at the heart of disparities, even in health care. His now famous Philadelphia speech, given primarily to put white voters at ease over the remarks of Rev. Jeremiah White, served to legitimize the Illinois senator as a “race-neutral” candidate. This racial neutrality has continued in the Obama White House, most prominently on display in the position the President has taken on the nation’s unemployment crisis and his refusal to acknowledge the disparate impact of the recession on Black Americans.
If the Obama model is deemed the gold standard for Black candidates running for statewide office, as Artur Davis assumed, then Blacks may have hit the proverbial wall in finding Black candidates who will speak to their issues. In the Alabama Democratic primary Black voters loudly declared that a white candidate willing to hold the line on key issues was preferable to a Black candidate who is not. The awful truth might be that white candidates who take on issues important to Blacks face an easier path to election because they can attract Black voters while not being rejected outright by whites.
Though it is one race, what occurred in Alabama sends a powerful message to Black candidates and the Black electorate alike. In 2010, a new political model is necessary to advance Black political success beyond City Hall and Congressional districts, and it will require a degree of honest dialogue between Black candidates, Black voters and self-defined “progressive” white voters heretofore not the norm.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated there were no Blacks serving in the United States Senate. We regret the error.