Can Alabama Spark a Democratic Revival in the South?

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Dave Martin / AP

Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., right, greets supporters after announcing his candidacy for governor during a press conference in front of the Archives and History Building in Montgomery, Ala., Friday, Feb. 6, 2009.

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Davis quickly proved himself to be a centrist Democrat — voting, for instance, for a 2006 bill to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, a measure that divided Democrats. The previous year, he followed his party in supporting a bill to halt restrictions on federal spending on embryonic stem cell research. He also showed an independent streak: Even as much of Alabama's Democratic establishment, including its black caucus, backed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the state's Democratic presidential primary, Davis endorsed Obama. (Obama won.) In the days after Obama's victory last November, there was talk that Davis would be the President-elect's attorney general nominee. But Davis was already weighing other options. One was running for the U.S. Senate seat long held by Richard Shelby, a Republican. Or bidding to succeed Alabama's Republican governor, Bob Riley, who is barred from seeking a third term. "The easier course for me would have been to stay in Washington until the Senate seat comes open," Davis says. But, he says, the governor's seat carries considerably more influence on issues he is most interested in. Furthermore, this governor's race is the first in nearly a quarter-century that lacks an incumbent. "An open seat, by definition, means voters are going to vote in a prospective way. That kind of election" Davis adds, "is a good fit for me."

Many Alabama politicos were surprised by Davis' February announcement to run for governor. Some hoped he'd first prove he could win a mid-level statewide office. He scoffs at such talk, and says, "I didn't go to see people in Montgomery to get permission to run for governor, and I won't. I'm trying to get permission from the people I'm seeing today — the voters." Davis says he did not expect support from the state's Democratic establishment — and that helped him decide to announce his candidacy early. He needs as much time as possible to build a campaign apparatus. He certainly has a war chest to start building that operation: nearly $1.1 million.

Inside the Rainbow City center, Davis frequently, and comfortably, mentions God. He is a Lutheran, recently married to a follower of the African Methodist Episcopal faith; he often attends a Baptist church and he describes himself as "a true ecumenist." From the crowd, there are questions, like: How would Davis, as governor, help make health insurance more available to folks who barely make $15,000 a year? And, why is Alabama consistently ranked near the bottom of the nation's education achievement tests, and what would Davis, as governor, do about it? "We pat ourselves on the back when we move from 46 to 42 in education," he tells the audience, standing in front of a large blue sign that says, in white and red ink, DAVIS 2010. There are a couple "uh-huhs" and "hmmmms" from the crowd, as the candidate makes clear Alabamans need "more of a sense of ambition than we've ever had."

Then comes a trickier issue. Despite talk of a post-racial America in the Obama era, Davis is acutely aware that the issue of race remains, and that he must manage it deftly. And so he does, at times directly, from the podium. "People say to me, 'You know, what you're trying to do is kind of difficult, right?' They mean different things when they say that. But ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to let other people talk about what we're not ready for. Or what they think we cannot do. I trust the people of Alabama — to vote with their imagination, not their fears."

In a poll commissioned by Davis' campaign, 51% of respondents said they believe Alabama is "ready" to elect a black governor in 2010, and 38% said the state is not. Davis' supporters point to those figures as evidence the state has progressed significantly on matters of race. Peggy Wallace Kennedy, George Wallace's daughter, drew headlines recently for endorsing Davis, and says, "I believe he'll be one of the best governors we've ever had." Asked what her father would say about the prospect of a black governor, she adds, "He'd just say, 'It's the future,' and I think he'd be okay with it." (Read a 1992 TIME interview with George Wallace.)

Still, exit polls during the November 2008 election showed that only 10% of white Alabamans voted for Obama, compared with 19% for the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. (John McCain won Alabama last November.) That's partly why many Republicans are salivating at the prospect of Davis winning his party's nomination. At the same time, says Glen Browder, a former Alabama Democratic congressman completing a book on the South's shifting racial politics, "a lot of Democrats are scared for Artur Davis to be the nominee," partly because Republicans will likely try to pounce on his connection to President Obama. Davis will find his toughest proving grounds in the state's largely white northern hill country. "They know his candidacy doesn't make sense in the context of Alabama's history," Browder says.

To succeed, Davis believes he must take several key lessons from Obama's campaign strategy of attracting a new crop of voters. "It's people like the young professionals — black and white — who come to me and say, 'I haven't felt that politics in this state spoke to me.'" Like Obama, Davis has overcome initial skepticism among many African-Americans. So he will certainly galvanize Alabama's black voters in much the way Obama did in last November's elections. Historically, Democrats running for statewide Alabama office needed roughly 90% of black voters, and about 40% of white voters in the general election in order to succeed. Davis believes he will need fewer white voters — if blacks show up at the polls.

The Alabama of 2009 is a far different place from 1963, and from 1994, when an African-American state Supreme Court Justice, Ralph Cook, was advised not to show his image in his election campaign advertisements so as not to draw attention to the fact that he was black. "Forget race," Davis says. "There are parts of the state where people haven't seen a Democrat in a while."

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