Candidate to Become 1st Black Ala. Governor Faces Opposition From Entrenched Black Leadership

Phillip Rawls, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), December 29, 2009

The man vying to become Alabama’s first black governor is battling some unlikely critics–black Democratic leaders who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, 42, wasted little time launching his campaign after Barack Obama’s presidential victory last year. The prospects seemed promising for the Harvard-educated lawyer, a moderate with proven appeal to white voters who will be running in a June Democratic primary where black voters could account for as much as half the turnout.

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Among those criticizing him are Joe Reed, founder and longtime chairman of the black wing of the state Democratic Party, and former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, who was that city’s first black mayor.

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Ferrel Guillory, an expert in Southern politics at the University of North Carolina, says there is a “generational cleavage” caused by the emergence of black leaders like Obama and Davis who are too young to have been part of the civil rights era. Those who were on the front lines of that movement want to maintain their influence.

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D’Linell Finley, an expert in minority politics at Auburn University Montgomery, says some Democrats are also concerned that if Davis tops the ticket in November, some white voters will cast straight Republican tickets and doom other Democrats.

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After all, Obama received only about 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama, according to some exit polls, and did worse among white Alabama voters than John Kerry four years earlier. In modern times, no black candidate has won any statewide office in the executive branch of Alabama’s government. Only about 25 percent of the state’s registered voters are black.

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Reed said Davis voted “no” to help himself in the governor’s race by appealing to more conservative voters, not to help constituents in his mostly black, low-income district that stretches across the civil rights battlegrounds of Birmingham and Selma.

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Reed has been a power broker in Alabama politics since about the time Davis was born. He is chairman of the party’s black wing, the Alabama Democratic Conference. He’s also the No. 2 official at the state teachers’ organization, which has more than 100,000 members and has contributed to Davis’ white opponent in the Democratic primary, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.

Sparks is running with the support of Arrington, 75, the first black mayor of Birmingham.

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Still, Sparks is trying to win a June primary where nearly half the vote is traditionally black. His chances of winning go up if Davis alienates significant numbers of black voters and can’t manage to appeal to white voters.

Byrdie Larkin, a political scientist at historically black Alabama State University, said Davis has positioned himself as more conservative than Sparks, but that might not be enough for him to capture the white votes needed to win.

“They might see Davis as an answer to their concerns, but for a majority of Alabamians, race is still a factor,” she said.

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