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Making Sense of the Artur Davis Saga

Posted: 06/02/2012 3:47 pm

The strange saga of Artur Davis took an even stranger turn this week when "Alabama's Obama" switched parties and hinted that he'll run as a Republican in Virginia.

I know Davis about as well as anyone here in Alabama knows him; so I'll try to add some personal background for folks around the country who are wondering what happened with the guy once considered an integral part of the future for the Democratic Party.

Impressive Biography

Davis' young biography, for the most part, had the makings of African-American legend.

The 45-year-old lawyer was born and raised in a poor Montgomery neighborhood, in the Heart of Dixie, in the iconic shadows of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Harvard honors graduate and law degree, alongside his friend Barack Obama. Congressman from the Black Belt. He was the first House member to endorse the would-be First Black President; and he was rumored to be the next U.S. Attorney General.

Disastrous Election.

Then disaster struck. He lost his 2010 bid to be the first black governor of Alabama -- not because of white racism but because his own people, black voters, overwhelmingly rejected him in the Democratic Primary. He left Alabama for employment at a D.C. law firm, accepted appointment as a visiting fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and set up residency in a Virginia neighborhood outside the national capital.

Now Changing Parties

That's not all. He criticized his Democratic Party and the Obama Administration, then began articulating GOP talking points. So there was little surprise, but considerable notice, this week when he publicly embraced the Republicans and revealed his possible electoral plans in Virginia.

Partisans from both sides have thoroughly spun the story to their respective liberal or conservative advantages. But serious scholars, journalists and citizens are still scratching their heads as they try to fathom the Davis situation.

The nagging questions: How could this bright, polished, successful black Democrat squander such splendid beginnings; and what logic can explain his switching to the Republican Party?

Our Long-Time Friendship

Artur Davis and I are long-time friends. In many ways, our personal and political careers are similar -- other than the fact that he's black and I'm white. In fact, he has written elsewhere that I helped engender his interest in public service. Interestingly, too, both of us served in the U.S. Congress and suffered lop-sided defeat in statewide Democratic primaries because we were unacceptable to the liberal Democratic core.

So I probably know him about as well as anyone here in Alabama knows him; and I think I understand why he has taken such a strange course at this stage of his life.

Issues, Egos, and Race.

I take Artur Davis at his word regarding various issues and his concern about the political direction of the country. But I think there are other factors figuring into the angst of his political life. My judgment is that Davis is an ambitious, driven, independent personality who rebels against the confining, demeaning racial directives of southern and national party politics.

Davis has his own ideas about who he is -- and who he is not. He is not a child of the movement that stormed the segregated southern citadel in the 1950s-60s. I also have many friends among the beaten and bloodied veterans of the movement; and they consider him a recipient of their struggles who has turned his back on his people.

He, on the other hand, sees himself as a "leader" period -- not simply a "black leader." He chafed at catering to the traditional black leadership in Alabama; and he yearned for a broader role in post-racial, transformational America.

I don't expect him to confirm these statements publicly. But I'm guessing that my long-time friend will not argue with my assessment.

What's Next?

I would not have taken his chosen course; and there's no telling how his current venture will turn out. But I wish Artur Davis well. As we often say about someone who is struggling to find his or her way, he has good instincts. He can be a strong civic leader; and America -- including Alabama, Virginia, and Washington -- can use strong civic leadership.

 
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