Originally published in
Since losing his bid for the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Alabama in 2010, in what many political spectators viewed as a shocking 24-point loss to then Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, former Rep. Artur Davis has carved himself out a unique spot inside the inside-the-beltway punditocracy of Washington, D.C.
And with no concrete long-term plans, Alabama’s former District 7 Congressman still is keeping “a watchful eye” on the happenings of Alabama politics, but with perhaps a changed perspective after the state’s Democratic Party turned its back on his candidacy.
“I would say the best and most direct answer I can give you is I honestly don’t know what the next several years hold as far as my career is concerned,” Davis said to Lagniappe last week. “There’s no question that I retain an interest in politics. I retain an interest in elections and the debate that’s going on around various issues in this country. And you know I certainly retain some interest in what’s going on in the state of Alabama.”
Davis explained that his 2010 loss to Sparks wasn’t an “ordinary loss” candidates suffer, and thus rebuilding his brand name would be a tough feat. Davis had sought to become the state’s first black governor while bucking the established positions of black politicians in the state. He now places the blame for the defeat and the collateral damage to his name squarely on the shoulders of the Alabama’s Democratic Party.
“I want to remind people that I pretty much ran a campaign against the Democratic Party in Alabama,” Davis said. “Pretty much the whole hierarchy of the Democratic Party was opposed to my campaign. They opposed it in every way, shape and form. They pretty much opposed it from the very beginning of the campaign. Given that, I ran as someone who was going to fundamentally change the Democratic Party, someone who was going to break up the gravy train you had running over there at the state party.”
Going forward, he said he had no intention of trying to justify his political career to date – including bucking the Democratic Party on not supporting ObamaCare or the 2009 cap-and-trade legislation. That he said would be a needed component to get back in to Democratic politics locally.
“I had no interest in going into a process of apologizing for my whole career and apologizing for the campaign that I ran,” he explained. “After the campaign, there were a number of people who seemed to think what I should do is spend the next six months apologizing for taking this position, that position. I wasn’t going to do that.”
“It would be very, very, very difficult for me to win a Democratic primary in the state of Alabama given the fact that the party has drifted so far to the left and given the antipathy of the people who have power in the party toward me and a lot of the things I believe in,” Davis added.
Following the election, Davis left Alabama and his immediate future involves a stint at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where for the next four months he’ll be serving a fellowship. But his disdain for where he believes the Alabama Democratic Party is headed remains.
“Rather than concluding from the election results in November 2010 – that well, maybe we need to be a more inclusive party, maybe we need to move toward the center – I’ve seen the people that run the Democratic Party pretty much double down in the approach they had in 2010,” he said.
The former gubernatorial candidate said a happy medium needs to be found for the state’s Democratic party. He says it must not be as liberal as the modern Alabama Democratic Party, but also doesn’t want to see a return to the past, either.
“The Democratic Party in Alabama today is very different from the Democratic Party that existed, say 10 years ago or 15 years ago,” he explained. “I don’t think there are very many people that want the Democratic Party that we had in the 1950s or ‘60s when it was the Dixiecrat segregationist party. No one wants to go back to that point. But it’s not the party that it was 10 years ago or in the ‘90s. The Democratic Party in the ‘90s or 10 years ago was a very diverse party in Alabama. It spanned the ranks from liberal whites that lived in Cloverdale, the Southside of Birmingham, to very conservative whites that lived in the suburbs in Autauga and Elmore (Counties). It included working class people. It included small business owners. It included conservative businessmen. It included people who were trial lawyers. It was a very diverse party, and it needed to be a diverse party to withstand the Republican trend that was starting to set in the South.
“At some point in the last decade, the Democratic Party in Alabama seems to have decided that rather than being a diverse party, it’s going to become a party that’s pretty much controlled by narrow interest groups. And candidly what I observed in the last several years in my career was the Democratic Party in Alabama had pretty much fallen under the authority of the black political interest groups and the gambling industry. And that alliance between the gambling industry and the black political groups pretty much dominated every aspect of the Democratic Party. We couldn’t get around that alliance in our campaign. A good many other candidates who were running statewide couldn’t get around that alliance.”
Davis maintains that to succeed in the modern Alabama Democratic Party, one has to be liberal on national issues to accommodate the so-called “black interest groups,” but also set on expanding gambling within the state of Alabama.
“That’s not a broad enough platform to win in the state of Alabama,” Davis said. “It’s not a broad enough platform to move the state ahead substantively, and it’s certainly not a broad enough platform to win elections.”
Davis noted the party’s willingness to play the race card when it needed a fall guy for its lack of success in the last few years. He explained that since the party insisted upon aligning itself so closely with President Barack Obama, it has been at the mercy of the administration’s policy successes, which have failed to impress Alabamians for the most part. Instead of acknowledging what Davis says are the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s policies, Alabama Democrats have blamed racist attitudes from the Alabama GOP.
“The reality is Obama had a 58 percent approval rating in April 2009 in the state of Alabama,” he said. “I think people kind of knew he was black at that point. It is that his policies haven’t worked in the way that many of us would have wanted them to work and his policies have been ones that many people in Alabama wouldn’t support.”
Throughout the last few decades, the powerful Alabama Education Association (AEA) teachers’ lobby has been a fixture in state politics and has been often seen as a bogeyman to state’s Republican apparatus. However, Davis said their role in his 2010 loss was negligent.
“AEA is definitely a part of it,” he said. “I will tell you in 2010 that the AEA got a lot more involved in the Republican Party primary than the Democratic Party primary. Frankly the AEA got more involved in supporting Gov. (Robert) Bentley than they did supporting Ron Sparks.”
He explained that the AEA more or less became aligned with the state’s gambling interests, which the AEA viewed as a potential source of revenue for education in Alabama.
“What I observed in the last couple of years is that AEA – its politics aligned with the gambling industry,” he said. “Now some of that was understandable. Obviously AEA became very concerned about having extra funding for education and became very concerned about finding a new revenue stream to keep teachers’ pay at a certain level, and I basically think that led to an alliance forming between the gambling industry and the AEA.”
In 2007, Davis was serving on the House Judiciary Committee and had been outspoken about the 2006 conviction of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. He implied that the Bush administration had been playing politics with that conviction. That along with remaining in office during his 2010 gubernatorial run he said were his two main regrets while in politics.
“Well, people ask me a lot do you have any regrets from the last several years in politics, and I tell them number one, I should have resigned from Congress during the governor’s race so that we didn’t give our opponents in the Democratic Party the convenience of using federal issues to beat me up in the governor’s race,” he said. “And running for governor is a full-time job. You can’t run for governor and have a job that takes a significant amount of your time unless you have some apparatus where you can hand your office over to someone. In Congress it is hard to do that because you have to cast votes and you have to travel back and forth.”
“Regret number two is candidly, I wish I had never been as vocal in raising the issues around Don Siegelman’s prosecution in 2007,” he said. “Once I raised the issues around Don Siegelman’s prosecution, two things happened that frankly surprised me that were enormously disappointing.”
One of those two things was the perception he was soft on corruption and that he believed prosecutions were politically motivated, which made him popular with former politicians who had been convicted of crimes and needed someone to take up their cause. The other, he said, was that his outspokenness put his integrity on the line, as being so critical of the Department of Justice. He said that created the suspicion among some that he had something to hide.
“That was the only time in my career that a question was raised about my integrity in the aftermath of the Siegelman events,” he said. “And as someone who very strongly believes in ethics reform and as someone who believes in cleaning up politics at the federal and state level, frankly, a number of people took my criticisms of the prosecution as a defense of Siegelman, which it never was. But that’s a distinction that gets lost.”
Supports state’s voter ID law, but not immigration laws
Since leaving office in 2011, Davis has penned columns for Politico and in recent months has had his work featured by National Review, a standard bearer on policy for many in conservative circles. But he explained that one he penned about his stance in support of voter identification laws, which was in contrast to the left’s stance on the issue, garnered a lot of attention nationally.
He said he was accused of turning his back on his own party and everything he believed in. But that didn’t deter him from continuing to remain outspoken on the issue.
“I think my position on voter ID is exactly the right one, that frankly when someone goes in to vote, they shouldn’t be threatened by somebody asking them if they have a driver’s license,” he said. “That didn’t bother me and it never bothered any other African-American that I saw vote in the state of Alabama.”
Davis said the rise of this issue in recent months wasn’t out of an interest to enhance access to the polls, but instead to create an issue to better the chances of reelecting President Barack Obama.
“The issue has become controversial because some people want to make a political football out of it,” he said. “There are some people on the left that want to argue that Republicans are trying to suppress the black vote to defeat a black president. That’s the argument they want to make and it’s a convenient argument for them to make.”
Davis made the argument many on the right often make — that rights come with responsibilities.
“I think there are some on the left that believe unfortunately that if we have a right, we have no responsibilities,” he explained. “Yes, people have a right to vote as long as they’re a certain age and are not convicted felons. But that doesn’t mean you can’t attach responsibilities to those rights and that, I think, seems to be a core distinction emerging between a lot of people on the right and a lot of people on the left.”
Another hot-button issue in Alabama politics has been the state legislature’s passage of a tough immigration law. While Davis said he supported the state’s right to act where the federal government had been lacking, he said he was not supportive of many of the provisions in that legislation.
“I’m not a fan of the immigration law that was written in Alabama,” he said. “It is not the law that I would have written. I absolutely think Alabama has a right to pass an immigration law. I absolutely think Alabama has a right to address this area given the absence of federal action in the last several decades.”
Davis said his law would have been aimed at those engaging in hiring illegal immigrants, which is included in the Alabama law. However, the law has made teachers and principals “immigration cops.”
“Guess what they’d be doing if they weren’t in school?” he said. “They’d be stealing hubcaps, throwing rocks through windows, or attacking people and breaking into people’s homes. That’s what 15-and 16-year-olds do when they’re able-bodied, and they can’t go to school and they’re allowed to just sit around and affiliate themselves with the wrong forces and gangs during the day. It’s in our public safety interests that those kids are in a classroom and not wandering around in street gangs.”
Other provisions, like disabling water and power service to those in the country illegally, Davis said seem too difficult to enforce.
“I think there’s room for Alabama to pass an immigration law and one that’s very tough on employers who hire illegal immigrants,” he said. “Some of the extra provisions there that are incredibly difficult to enforce, that create basic issues of exclusion and stigma for people who frankly have every right to be here, but who just happen to look like they may not — those kinds of things are problematic.”
And while immigration and the voter identification laws have been hot-button issues both locally and nationally, the priority for Alabama’s legislature should be to get that state’s economy in order by bringing job growth, he said.
“If it doesn’t encourage companies to come to Alabama, then we ought to think twice about doing it,” he said.
Where else has the Republican-controlled state government been lacking? According to the former Alabama Democratic congressman, the state GOP has fallen short on ethics reform.
“I don’t understand why they don’t cap campaign contributions,” he said. “I think it’s a very good thing that PAC-to-PAC transfers were prohibited. I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t understand why someone can write someone a check for $1 million in Alabama politics. I don’t understand why someone can write a check for half-a-million dollars in the governor’s race. I don’t understand how someone can loan a candidate for governor $500,000. I don’t understand how a group of businessmen can loan a candidate for governor $750,000.”
Davis’ proposal: A $5,000 cap in primaries, in run-offs and in general elections.
“That means the most you could give anybody running for governor is $15,000 and that’s basically if they won their party’s nomination and went through a run-off,” he said.
And if he had his way, Davis said he would cap PAC contributions to at least $10,000, in addition to strict limits on bank loans with immediate disclosure of such loans and the loans’ terms.
But he said where the most glaring inadequacies of the Alabama’s ethics shortcomings lie are in the state’s lobbying laws, specifically where elected members of the legislature are allowed to lobby on behalf of special interests and being a voting participant at the same time.
“If you’re a member of the Alabama Legislature, you shouldn’t be lobbying for anybody,” he said.
Davis would have extended those provisions to conflicts of interests where family members are involved and the use of discretionary money.
“I wish the legislature had gone further, and I wish the legislature had been tougher in dealing with some of the ways connections and money influence Alabama politics,” he added.
In 2008, Davis was a supporter of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for president of the United States. The two had been classmates at Harvard, although several years apart, but they had maintained a close relationship all the way up until his inauguration in 2009.
But in 2012, Davis is somewhat critical of Obama, suggesting his focus should not have been on his pushes for cap-and-trade carbon regulating legislation or a comprehensive reform of health care. Instead he said it should have been the economy.
“Speaking generously, the best you could give is ‘incomplete’ at this point,” he said. “Obviously not many are going to be generous about it. I’ve certainly been disappointed in general policies the administration has followed. I think the administration’s priority in 2009 should have been the economy.”
Davis’ criticisms of the president sounded remarkably like those cast upon Obama by his Republican rivals — that the standard of economic improvement had been severely discounted.
“The president squandered an enormous amount of political capital in fights that were not the right battle,” he said. “And it allowed things to fester in the economy. It allowed weaknesses in the economy to deepen and even though, thankfully, we’re in a much better place than we were in 2009, we have gotten to the point that new normal is eight-and-a-half-plus percent unemployment. We have gotten to the point where we celebrate the fact that eight-and-a-half percent of the people in his country are out of work and 15 percent of the people have stopped looking or are only working part-time when they used to be working full-time.”
One other issue Davis criticized was the administration’s attack on Boeing for wanting to relocate a portion of its industry from Washington State to South Carolina, a right-to-work state. He said the National Labor Relations Board, appointed by the president, had initially overstepped its bounds, and it could have had a chilling effect on other Southern states wanting to recruit business to improve their respective economies.
“I try to stay away from the question ‘are you going to vote for the president’ or that kind of thing,” he said. “You know since I’m not an elected official, my vote is a secret ballot. But I’ve stated publicly in terms of my writings where I have disagreed with the administration.”
On Israel and Ron Paul
Another disagreement Davis had with Obama was the suggestion Israel should return to its 1967 borders. Davis’ opinions on Israel go back to his 2002 race when he defeated an incumbent Earl Hilliard for the Democratic nomination for the Alabama’s 7th Congressional District. Hilliard had been criticized for a 1997 trip to Libya and that made him a target of some pro-Israel forces within U.S. politics, including Mobile businessman Mayer Mitchell, the former chairman of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
After winning the nomination, Davis easily won the congressional seat, but he also maintained his hawkish defense posture on Israel.
“I’m not someone who has the Ron Paul approach for looking at the world,” Davis said. “What Ron Paul has done is he’s making an appeal to the isolationist right and the anti-war left. Well guess what, the anti-war left and the isolationist right, if they had their way the Soviet Union would have owned the last 50 years of the 20th century. So they don’t have a great track record.”
In speaking about Israel, Davis deviates from the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party and sounds more neoconservative.
“The most enlightened tolerant place in the Middle East is Israel,” he said. “And that is a fundamental matter of morality. It is a fundamental matter of right or wrong and it is in our interest to align ourselves with Israel and firmly align ourselves against a country like Iran who would completely destabilize the region if given the opportunity to do that.”
Artur Davis, a Republican?
There has been speculation that if Davis should get back into politics on a state level, he would enter not as a Democrat, but instead as a Republican. He said despite this speculation, history shows he has an allegiance to the Democratic Party.
“I have been in the Democratic Party my entire public career,” he said. “And I’ve certainly voted for more Democrats than Republicans. I’m not going to tell you I’ve voted for every Democrat who has been on the ballot because I haven’t and don’t know any Democrat who has.”
And changing that allegiance would only be a decision he would make if he ran and was forced to have such a label.
“The only way I would really have to cross this threshold would be if I decided to run for office again, because that is the only thing that frankly requires you to put on a label and wear that label that publicly,” he said.
Davis said he had been urged to run for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court when Sue Bell Cobb resigned in 2011, which he decided against because he thought 2012 would be a bad year for the Democratic Party and because he was skeptical of his abilities to fund the race. He said he has also been encouraged to run again for the 7th Congressional District seat currently held by Democrat Rep. Terri Sewell, but has ruled that out as well.
One possibility Davis did mention was a run for mayor of Montgomery, a non-partisan race that wouldn’t require a party label. But that election is four years away, and “a very long time” as he put it.
Otherwise, Davis said it is a decision he’s not in a rush to make.
“Unless I make the decision to seek office, I don’t need to address the question of what party label I would wear,” he said. “I would say this much — I’m not going to run in a party where the price of admission is pretty much repudiating your whole career or pretty much spending the whole campaign apologizing for positions you’ve taken. I’m not going to run in the Democratic Party if that means you spend the campaign saying ‘I wish I hadn’t done this, please forgive me.’ And I’m not going to run in the Republican Party having to explain ‘why did you support Barack Obama in 2008?’ So again, both parties need to have an openness to anybody who might not think like everybody in that party. If I make the decision to run for office again, because of the incredible difficulties one would face running as an independent, I would probably have to cross the threshold of choosing to run in one party or another.”