Post-Label Politics

Why Artur Davis says that “The New Black Politician” is impervious to the old classifications

By Atticus Rominger, Photos by Bryan Johnson

THICKET: You’ve been labeled a “bipartisan
congressman,” as well as a member of a “new wave” of black politicians, is that accurate?
Artur Davis: I’m not big on labels.
THICKET: Why not?
AD: I don’t think they capture the complexity of the public debate.

And yet, that doesn’t stop Artur Davis from riding a wave of public attention focused on the nation’s young African-American politicians. On the day of my interview with him, the Democratic Congressman from Alabama’s 7th District had just taped a documentary segment with former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. The day before, PBS moderator Gwen Ifill interviewed him for a new book. The subject of both interviews: the Rise of the New Black Politician. Even Davis himself, Alabama’s only black congressman, is quick to compare himself with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, New York Governor David Patterson, and former Senator Harold Ford, Jr., of Tennessee. All are young, well-educated black Democrats (Davis graduated cum laude from Harvard). All, Davis says, are people who believe that to be successful in government one has to form coalitions, rather than stick rigidly to historic party positions.

This summer on the FOX News Channel program The Beltway Boys, political commentator Juan Williams noted the dividing line between these up-and-coming, modern black politicians and the generation that preceded them—the civil rights leaders who often fought from the margins. “It seems like there’s a new generation of black and minority politicians coming forward,” Williams said, “and they’re pushing the likes of [Jesse] Jackson to the side, and Jackson doesn’t like it.”

THICKET: Are you pushing Jesse Jackson’sgeneration to the side?
AD: I don’t think anybody is pushing anybody.I think we have different sets of arguments. My friend Harold Ford likes to say we have a different set of tools available to us.

For the first time, Davis contends, a minority candidate can be seen as a spokesperson for everyone. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, he was trying to make a statement. Two decades later, an African-American is a candidate for president in many polls. Davis says Barack Obama owes a great deal of credit to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, as of now the two highest-ranking African-Americans ever in U.S. government. In turn, Davis admits he owes a great deal of credit to Barack Obama, especially as Davis seeks the highest office in his home state. He now openly talks about his intention to run for governor of Alabama in 2010. In August, Davis seconded the nomination of Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention. He told a national audience that he watched the DNC 20 years before . “The fact that I could go from a foreclosure and watching the convention in a tiny motel room to standing before you and the nation 20 years later nominating the next President of the United States tells you very little about me, but tells us everything that is right about our country.”

It is in this regard that Davis, Obama, Patrick, and Patterson share the label of the New Black Politician. Years before Obama arrived on the national scene, Artur Davis was differentiating himself from the old guard, black politicians who came up in the Civil Rights Movement. The first wave of post-Reconstruction, African-American elected officials built political dynasties through support from, and representation of, black voting blocs. In the last decades of the 20th century, black voters were largely dependent on political groups like the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), which bills itself as the state’s largest and most effective grassroots political organization. Since 1970, the organization has been formally screening and endorsing candidates for public office, slating their picks on the well-known ADC yellow ballot. But by 2000, Davis believes, an increase in the number of information sources like talk radio, and later the Internet, made black voters less beholden to organizations like the ADC. The first noticeable sign may have come in 2002, when Davis, a young former assistant U.S. Attorney from Montgomery, defeated 10-year incumbent Congressman Earl Hilliard, Sr., in his second attempt. In 2004, the same year Obama was elected Senator from the obscurity of the Illinois State Legislature, Davis handily fended off a challenge from Albert Turner, Jr., the son of one of the celebrated leaders of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march.

THICKET: So then, can you make the argument that this difference in black politicians has more to do with the voters than the politicians themselves?
AD: I think you can make a very strong point that the voter is doing it more than the politician.

But what accounts for the change in white voters that has allowed a black man to contend for the White House? And will that national shift be mirrored in the Deep South? The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Alabama was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even Davis ranks Obama’s chances for sweeping Alabama as slim. On the heels of a likely Democratic defeat here, how can Davis win the gubernatorial race, especially considering he may once again be going up against the scion of one of the state’s most well-known political dynasties, the Folsoms? Former Governor, now Lieutenant Governor, Jim Folsom, Jr., is widely considered, even by Davis, to be a front runner to clinch his party’s nomination. Davis can only hope his messages on access to health care and economic investment in rural areas resound so loudly with black and white voters alike that they drown out any rumblings over race.

Where Artur Davis stands in the political spectrum may be of more interest to voters than where he falls on the color wheel. He has earned praise from political writers for being a “bipartisan legislator,” again a label that makes Davis wince. “You can’t get anything done without working with both sides,” he says. This summer, the third-term Congressman got into a war of words with a writer for the alternative paper The Birmingham Weekly. In an article titled, “The Weak in Review: Artur Davis Disses the Fourth Amendment,” Columnist Courtney Haden challenged Davis’ approval of a Bush administration wiretapping bill that gives federal investigators wider power to scrutinize American citizens suspected of involvement with terrorists and espionage. Davis fired back in a rebuttal letter, “…it is wrong to mimic the Bush tactics and suggest that there is only one responsible way to look at this debate and that only a civil liberties weakling could vote for this compromise.”

And while acknowledging that the Democratic majority could have pushed the administration harder in the past two years, Davis also takes his party’s leadership to task for being “too inflexible” at times on issues like domestic oil drilling. He takes heat for comments his fellow Democrats have seen as too generous to Republicans President George W. Bush and Alabama Governor Bob Riley. If not a conservative Democrat, if not a Blue Dog Democrat, just what kind of Democrat is he?

THICKET: Let’s turn the tables, then. If you were writing this article, what label would you put on yourself?
AD: I think “centrist” is fair, because I think it describes someone who is between left and right.
THICKET: Does that make you a fence sitter?
AD: Doesn’t make me a fence sitter. A fence sitter is someone who can’t make up his mind.
THICKET: Can you fight for the marginalized from the center?
AD: Absolutely, I think you can.

Davis’ centrist view requires that he look to public and private solutions to the state’s most pressing problems. Whether the problems are economic uncertainties, health care disparities, or social syndromes, Davis advocates a diversity of strategies for dealing with them: more public money, more private money, more personal responsibility in the inner cities, and stronger programs for at-risk youth. “That’s a centrist’s way of looking at things,” Davis says. “Anyone who tells me they have a prescription for problems that is purely left and purely right is underestimating the complexity of the issues.”

Davis hurried from his interview for a two-hour drive to a town hall meeting in Alabama’s economically stagnant Black Belt. Davis’ audience would likely be unimpressed by his membership in politics’ most celebrated modern club. He knows he cannot bring them an immediate solution to their lack of jobs and lack of healthcare. What he hopes to bring them is a reason to believe, from his center stronghold, that he can help pull them from the margins.