Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Artur Davis' Turn for the Worse

Former Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis has announced he is switching parties, though he has not committed to a renewed political career (if he did run, however, it would be in Virginia, not Alabama).

There's a lot of "good riddance" being put out there. And I certainly see where that comes from. But I find my feelings are mixed -- while I am deeply disappointed in the man Rep. Davis has become, I also recall the fall from what he once was.

At one point, Davis was considered a rising star amongst young African-American politicians. And while he had already spent several term in Congress (knocking off incumbent Democrat Earl Hilliard to get there)*, it was the 2010 Alabama gubernatorial race that looked to be his coming out party. Young, smart, and Harvard-educated, Davis cut a character that folks thought might have cross-over appeal and could bite into the overwhelming margins White voters were providing to Republican candidates statewide -- a Barack Obama for the south.

But therein lay the problem: Davis looked ahead to the general election and took his base for granted. He tacked hard to the right, assuming that the Black voters who made the core of Alabama's Democratic activists would continue to support him -- particularly given that his main opponent was the White Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks. He voted against the Affordable Care Act and spurned the local Black leadership. And come election day, he was not just beaten but throttled by Sparks, who took home over 60% of the vote. Rep. Davis had made an elementary mistake -- he assumed that Black voters vote on basis of race, not policy. And his rising star came crashing to earth.

After that defeat, Davis turned hard against the Democratic Party, and his recent moves reek of sour grapes. The breaking point was his endorsement of the voter fraud panic, a "problem" that is by all empirical accounts mostly non-existent but has been an effective pretext for purging the rolls of valid voters, many people of color.

The thing is, I saw Rep. Davis in Congress, and I remember being extraordinarily impressed by his savvy and intelligence. Artur Davis is a smart man, and that's what makes his decision so infuriating. He's smart enough to know that "voter fraud" is a fraud, but he's also smart enough to know that jumping on that train is a fast way to leap to prominence amongst the GOP, who are always looking for Black faces to say what White audiences want to hear.

The tragedy is that someone as smart and talented as Davis is deciding to use his talents like this -- trying to exploit the game to put himself in power, rather than to do good for the nation. People say good riddance, and in a sense they're right to -- someone who sells out like this does not deserve our respect. But I can't help but feel a twinge of regret. Artur Davis' story could have had so many endings. It's a shame he chose this one.

* I distinctly remember the Davis/Hilliard race because Hilliard had issued several anti-Israel votes (as well as a solidarity trip to Libya), which put him on the radar screen of the pro-Israel and Jewish Democratic community. Davis received strong support in the Jewish community at the start of his career (people say he received money from AIPAC, but that's strictly speaking inaccurate -- AIPAC doesn't have a political action committee and does not give money to candidates. It is true that he received strong support from various Jewish and pro-Israel groups -- both Davis and Hilliard received most of their large donations from out-of-state as the race began to be seen as a referendum on mid-east policy), and I think many of us had warm feelings towards him as someone who was responsive to us when we were feeling hurt or aggrieved. Again, that makes it more difficult when you see what he's receded into.

But in a sense, Hilliard's defeat (like Cynthia McKinney's similar defeats in Georgia) wasn't about who ran against him, but about the voters who made a decision to listen. The Jewish community said to them "your representative is hurting us", and they responded. Every minority group should be so lucky as to have their claims of hurt be met with empathy like that. I try to be empathic in the same way to others, so that when I'm a position where my community is alleged to be causing a hurt, I do my best to be responsive as well. So, no matter how Congressman Davis' career ends, Jewish voters owe a debt of gratitude to the voters of the Alabama 7th District surrounding how it began.

No comments: