Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sweet Home Alabama

They held their primaries in Alabama this week, and I'm a little bewildered.

A black man named Artur Davis, who has represented west Alabama's Seventh District in the U.S. House since 2003, ran for governor and was handily beaten by the state's agriculture commissioner, a white man named Ron Sparks.

Unofficially, Sparks received 62% of the vote in what the Birmingham News called "one of the more remarkable upsets in Alabama primary history."


I grew up in the South, but I have never lived in Alabama. In fact, I have seldom even been in Alabama. And — no offense intended to the congressman — I had never heard of Artur Davis until a few days before Christmas, when his colleague, Parker Griffith, switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Obviously, my credentials as an Alabama insider are seriously lacking. Actually, I would characterize them as nonexistent.

In the course of researching my blog article on that decision, I learned about Davis' campaign and discovered that he had been saying that Griffith's decision "repudiates the hard work of many Democrats who sustained him."

I saw nothing at the time that indicated whether Davis or Sparks was in front in the governor's race. I knew nothing of their political philosophies (I have since learned that Davis is, based mostly on his congressional voting record, a centrist, but I still know very little about Sparks' views). And I will readily admit that my gut reaction was based on what I have seen and heard about Alabama and the Deep South all my life.

My gut reaction last December was that Davis would lose — eventually. I didn't know if he would lose the Democratic primary, because most blacks in America are Democrats and Alabama (like most Southern states) has a fairly large black population.

It was possible, I reasoned, that the Democratic Party in Alabama — the same Democratic Party that nominated George Wallace for governor four times — might nominate Davis.

That's the same George Wallace who was remembered in a PBS documentary by a black lawyer for being "the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of," but, after losing the 1958 gubernatorial nomination to a Ku Klux Klan–backed opponent, ambition may have gotten the better of him, and he vowed never to be "outseged" again.

After being sworn in as governor the first time in January 1963, he famously proclaimed, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" Accurate or not, that came to summarize Wallace in the minds of most Americans — a defiant, stand–in–the–schoolhouse–door racist.

And, more than 10 years later, Wallace lamented, after endorsing Jimmy Carter (the symbol of the "new" South) for president, that "I had to do things — say things — to get elected in Alabama that made it impossible for me to ever be president."

Well, Wallace (along with just about all of the American politicians who built state and national careers on the tragedy of racial conflicts) has been dead for many years now. But the attitudes that he and others exploited for their own political gain were generations in the making and cannot be completely erased in a single election.

Still, there is no doubt the parties have moved farther to each extreme. Wallace's son and namesake is a Republican now, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of the descendants of the Alabamians who elected the elder Wallace governor so many times now regard themselves as Republicans, too. Thus, it wouldn't shock me at all if Alabama's Democrats are more liberal than their ancestors.

So I couldn't conclude that Alabama's Democrats would not nominate a black man for governor — but, ultimately, I believed his candidacy was doomed. I found no reason to believe, as some people apparently did after Davis was elected in 2002 to represent a newly created district that is more than 60% black, that he was a rising star in Alabama politics. And, yes, I suppose that was not politically correct in the modern sense because I presumed his lack of statewide star quality was a racial thing.

Oh, yes, a lot of things have changed in the South, and, for all I know, Davis was doing much better in the polls at some point than he did when the voters cast their ballots this week. But maybe this was one of those Bradley effect deals, where poll respondents said they would vote for the black guy but, at the moment of truth, just couldn't do it.

OK, Davis lost the party primary. But if he had not lost the party nomination, I'm inclined to think he would have lost the general election — when the more conservative Alabamians will participate along with the left–leaners.

But, as I study accounts of the final weeks of the campaign, I wonder if maybe Alabama's Democrats actually gave the nation some reassurance that the state has progressed farther than most had dared to dream.

Maybe it was mostly about race. Maybe it was a case of the so–called Bradley effect.

But, maybe, it was something as simple and as basic as the adage so memorably expressed by Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local."

A couple of weeks ago, the Tuscaloosa News quoted a political science professor as saying that there was a significant difference in the candidates' approaches. Davis, he said, appeared to be structuring his campaign with the general election voters in mind while Sparks was focused on the party's voters, the ones he had to persuade to win the nomination.

Now, to put it bluntly, it is never a good idea to run as if you have already won the preliminary and you're mostly positioning yourself for the general election campaign. It seems like a recipe for disaster for any politician — never mind the politician's race, gender, age, religion, etc.

Maybe, to paraphrase Michael Jackson, it don't matter if you're black or white — as long as you tell 'em what they want to hear. Perhaps Democratic voters didn't want to hear Davis defend his vote against health care reform, which might have played well in November. Perhaps they were more impressed by the facts that the state's black leaders and the teachers and other groups that appeal to today's Democrats endorsed Sparks.

Anyway, I believe race did play a part in what happened. Maybe its influence was very subtle. In spite of all the talk of a post–racial America, it seems to me that such change is coming more slowly in the South than it is in other regions. At some point, I hope the South can overcome its racist legacy, but it will require a certain amount of tolerance and understanding on the part of the rest of America.

There seems to be a one–size–fits–all mentality outside the South about black politicians. Since Obama's election in 2008, the conventional wisdom appears to be that it is all a matter of strategy — especially if you read Jeff Zeleny's article on the Alabama primaries in the New York Times: "[T]he decisive defeat of Artur Davis ... illustrates the limits of trying to replicate the strategy that helped carry President Obama to office," he writes.

That strikes me as being willfully ignorant of certain facts — one of which is that there is nothing of the sort to replicate in Alabama. Two years ago, more than three–fifths of Alabama voters voted for John McCain.

I don't know if Davis openly sought to emulate Obama's national triumph in a Deep South state or if that objective was a presumption by some in the outside media, but, if that was the strategy, it leads me to ask a simple question: Why?

Blacks have seldom won statewide races in America — and almost never in the South. And it is worth remembering that most Southern states did not vote for Obama, either. It may be hard for people in other regions to understand, but even with the sizable black populations in this region, Obama has never been especially popular here.

And maybe that is, to a certain extent, the product of racial conflict.

Because, you see, another fact that has been conveniently ignored is that, in 2008, the results in Alabama clearly were polarized by race. Whites, who account for nearly 69% of the state's population, voted heavily for McCain; blacks voted heavily for Obama.

The same thing happened in other Southern states, too. It just wasn't as pronounced as it was in Alabama.

And, yet, as I say, Davis' voting record was a centrist one. Alabama Democrats who wanted to win a governor's race for the first time in the 21st century should have been tempted to nominate Davis — and, yet, most of them picked his white opponent.

You can reach a racist conclusion based on that information if you wish. And, human nature being what it is, there may always be those voters who make choices based on irrelevant factors like race or gender or age or religion. Politicians don't get to choose what the voters get to use to make electoral decisions.

But maybe the message from most of Alabama's Democrats wasn't that a black man had been rejected by the voters (although there is no getting around the fact that a black man did lose the primary).

Maybe the message was that voters have evolved so much in this country that a black Democrat can be defeated in his party's primary because his views did not reflect the voters' — not because he was black.

Isn't that what Martin Luther King was talking about when he spoke of being judged not by the color of one's skin but the content of one's character?

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