Not so long ago, he was viewed as one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, routinely evoking comparisons to Barack Obama. A smart, ambitious Harvard Law School graduate like Obama, Davis appeared to be on a trajectory to make history as Alabama’s first black governor. Some saw the youthful congressman as a future attorney general.
Today, all that is gone.
Less than a year after leaving Congress after a failed bid for governor, he is persona non grata in his party, another K Street lawyer living in the northern Virginia suburbs.
The story of the talented, youthful politician-who-fell-to-earth is a familiar one, but Davis’s fate is singular.
Many of his former Democratic colleagues now view him as something of a traitor, and Davis himself has emerged as a vigorous critic of the party and President Barack Obama. He’s even taking to supporting GOP candidates. Friends and allies who helped guide his ascent say they no longer talk to the congressman — and some Democrats believe he will leave the party altogether.
“I have been chairman for a year and no one in this office has been contacted by Artur or members of his staff. That tells me he’s left the party behind,” said Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy, a former state Supreme Court justice and an influential player on the state’s political scene. “I’m sure we won’t have a conversation at this point. I’d be very surprised if he calls me.”
For all his talent and promise, Davis always had something of a strained relationship with his party, dating back to his defeat of Rep. Earl Hilliard in a 2002 primary that left him on the outs with the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members publicly supported Hilliard and resented Davis for taking down their friend.
Those long-simmering tensions came to a boil in last year’s Alabama gubernatorial race, a contest in which Davis — with an eye toward currying favor with the Republican voters who dominate the conservative state — sought to bypass Alabama’s Democratic power structure to claim the nomination.
He refused to seek the support of the state’s two dominant black Democratic organizations, the Alabama Democratic Conference and the New South Coalition, and, in a poke in the eye of party faithful, was the only CBC member to vote against the president’s health care bill.
Joe Reed, the ADC chairman and an influential Alabama Democratic power broker, rallied support for Davis’s white primary opponent, then-Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who won in a stunning — and, for Davis, humiliating — landslide.
For Davis, the loss signaled a devastating rejection in a race he had long been expected to win. He offered a few complimentary words for Sparks in his election night concession speech, but later, rather than endorsing Sparks and uniting the party behind the nominee, Davis publicly declared that he didn’t think Sparks would win the general election and all but vanished from the governor’s contest.
Today, Davis says he has no regrets about his post-primary comments.
“I think he would have been a lousy governor, and I said that during the campaign,” Davis told POLITICO.
Sparks, who decisively lost the general election, still feels the sting of Davis’s rejection. He said the congressman never called him after the race, and that the two still haven’t spoken.
“Everybody has to learn how to lose with class. I’ve been in the political arena for a long time. Some of my best friends are people I’ve run against, and I think it’s sad, some of the comments he’s made,” Sparks said. “I think my heart is in the right place, and he’s got to live with his.”
Davis hasn’t just rejected his home state Democrats. This year, the former congressman contributed to the campaigns of two Republicans — one of whom, New Mexico Senate candidate Heather Wilson, is running against Rep. Martin Heinrich, who served with Davis in the Democratic Caucus. Davis also cut a check to Mississippi Republican Phil Bryant, who defeated Democrat Johnny DuPree — another politician vying to become the first black governor of a Deep South state — though Davis also contributed to DuPree’s campaign.
Alabama Democrats are fuming over the donations, calling them proof that Davis has gone over the edge.
“I think that it really says a lot about where Artur Davis’s heart is,” said Kennedy, who supported Sparks in the primary. “What he’s doing is losing any credibility he’s had in the state Democratic Party. He’s a disappointment.”
Davis shrugs off the contributions, explaining that he gave to Wilson, a former congresswoman, because she is a friend, and to Bryant because he viewed him as more experienced than DuPree.
Once a loyal friend and an ally of Barack Obama, Davis has recently broken publicly with the president, as well. In a recent post on POLITICO’s Arena, Davis hammered Obama over his education agenda and suggested that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, should launch a 2012 White House bid. Davis told POLITICO this week that he hadn’t decided whether he would support Obama’s reelection.
Black leaders, furious over what they call Davis’s turncoat behavior, said they believe the former congressman is laying the groundwork for an eventual switch to the GOP.
“It does appear that he’s moving away from the Democratic Party and closer and closer to the Republican Party, and I think it’s as clear as daylight,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the CBC chairman who publicly clashed with Davis recently over the former congressman’s push for stricter voter identification laws — a position that has drawn derision from the black community. “I don’t know how anyone can listen to him and not come to such a conclusion.”
Davis wouldn’t answer directly when asked whether he was thinking of becoming a Republican. He was similarly vague about whether he would wage another campaign for elected office. “I don’t have any plans, and I don’t plan to have any plans,” he said.
There are few signs he is setting the stage for a future bid. He is detached from Alabama’s political arena — he openly acknowledges that he has visited the state infrequently during the past year — and many of his closest advisers privately said they have no plans to work for him again. Others said they just don’t want to talk about Davis.
“I really have nothing to say about Artur,” Jere Beasley, the former lieutenant governor and a prominent Montgomery-based attorney who chaired Davis’s gubernatorial campaign, wrote in an email.
George Talbot, the political editor of the Mobile Press-Register who counts himself as a Davis admirer, said the stories he’s written on the former lawmaker generate reams of feedback from Democrats — most of it negative.
“Whenever I quote him, the backlash is just vicious,” Talbot said.
Davis says he’s more than comfortable taking on his party and telling hard truths. He argues that, as a former member of Congress, it’s not his job to sit on the sidelines and cheerlead for his party — a role he sees many of his ex-colleagues embracing. Those who are surprised by his willingness to challenge his party, he says, shouldn’t be since he accumulated a moderate-to-conservative record during his eight years in the House.
“I’m not someone who believes in taking positions to curry favor with the party establishment,” he said. “I was not the establishment candidate. I was a pretty independent guy.”
Reed, the Democratic Party elder who has long viewed Davis with disdain, regards the former congressman as a vanquished foe.
“I don’t really care what he does,” Reed said. “He’s probably bitter because he lost the Democratic primary in Alabama. I think he’s bitter because he thought he was going to win but he didn’t. I think he was more surprised that he didn’t win than anyone in the state.”
Davis, meanwhile, has a message for those lobbing criticisms his away.
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