As an Alabama state senator, Hank Sanders has witnessed a long line of White politicians trying to get elected by what they used to call “outniggering” one another. Former Gov. George C. Wallace was a prime example. However, the last thing Sanders expected was an African-American trying to get elected by opposing the best interests of African-American voters and attacking Black leaders.
But that’s exactly what Congressman Artur Davis did in his unsuccessful campaign to become the first African-American governor of Alabama.
“Some Whites use race to consolidate White voters during election and some Blacks use race to consolidate Black voters,” Sanders wrote in Senate Sketches, his regular newsletter to his constituents. “But this time, there is a new context: a technically well-qualified Black person is running for governor of Alabama in the Democratic primary against a technically well-qualified White. There is also a new twist: a Black person is attempting to use the race of other Blacks to consolidate Whites behind him. It’s a new context with new twists in an age old saga.”
Any Black politicians thinking about adopting the same twist should study the outcome in Alabama. Davis was trounced by his White opponent 62 percent to 38 percent. Davis lost 10 of the 12 counties that make up his 7th Congressional District and all of the predominantly Black counties, some by margins as large as 70 percent. He even lost his own polling place, causing news analyst Roland Martin to say that maybe Davis’ mother didn’t vote for him.
Davis has announced that he will retire from politics after being roundly repudiated by voters. It doesn’t come a moment too soon.
In a major tactical blunder, Davis decided to bypass the endorsement screening process of the four major political organizations, leading to their decision to endorse his opponent, Ron Sparks, the state commissioner of agriculture. He also attacked three of the most powerful Black politicians in Alabama: Sanders; Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference and former Birmingham mayor, Richard Arrington.
In addition, Sanders said in his newsletter, “Over a year ago, [Davis] used the race of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had become a racial symbol to send a signal. Reverend Wright was scheduled to speak in Selma at the old-fashioned mass meeting on Thursday night to open the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. Congressman Davis was scheduled to introduce U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that Sunday, yet, he issued a press release objecting to Rev. Wright speaking at a civil rights event.”
Unlike Sparks, who proposed a state lottery and said had he been in Congress, he would have voted for health care reform, Davis never developed a message that resonated with voters.
“Artur Davis gave the race issue another twist,” Sanders wrote. “He accused Ron Sparks, his White gubernatorial opponent, of playing the race card. But he was the one playing the race card time after time again in his pursuit of higher office.”
Sanders continued, “The challenge of using race against persons of the same race is a more delicate endeavor than using race against people of another race. The idea is to attack symbols (i.e. Black leaders and Black organizations) in a way that sends messages to White voters without alienating Black voters. It’s easy to miscalculate and Artur Davis miscalculated.”
A major miscalculation was Davis’ decision to oppose health care legislation. When he first opposed the measure in the House—the only Black member of Congress to do so—Blacks were upset with him but not enraged. Once the bill was scaled back in the Senate and the House had to vote again, and Davis again opposed the measure, there was a groundswell of opposition to his candidacy.
U.W. Clemon, appointed Alabama’s first Black federal judge by Jimmy Carter, said although Davis was his “personal choice,” he voted for Davis’ opponent.
He told the Birmingham News, “Artur told me while he couldn’t vote for the House version, he would vote for the Senate version, not to give up on him.”
Clemon, now retired, said he learned that Davis voted against the re crafted Senate version while watching television.
“I was stunned and I was disappointed,” Clemon told the newspaper. “You have to understand. I love Artur like a son. I’ve never personally known a politician with more intelligence, more gifts than Artur with the exception of President Obama.
“But, I also have to say that I’ve never been more disappointed in a person in my life. Artur walked away from the people who needed him the most, and he walked away from himself.”
Alabama voters showed that when a Black politician walks away from them, he can keep walking. That should be a lesson for anyone seeking office with the twisted idea that they can play Blacks for fools.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge)