When Artur Davis, savvy member of the Congressional Black Caucus, filed to run for governor of Alabama it provoked one of the biggest head-scratching discussions among blacks in Washington, D.C.
Was he smoking something, they mused, or was it a case of unmitigated arrogance for which politicians are too well known? Or was it just a case of taking the new ideology of post-racialism for a ride in one of the toughest arenas in the country?
Davis answered this question by crafting a campaign strategy that was designed to appeal to general election voters. The first sign of this was his decision to vote against President Barack Obama’s health care plan — the only member of the Black Caucus to do so.
Then, gearing up for the primary election, he proceeded to reject the endorsement of powerful black organizations in Alabama, such as the New South Coalition and the Alabama Democratic Conference, both of which proceeded to endorse Davis’ white opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
Sparks had criticized some of Davis’ votes, including his vote against the health care bill, otherwise, he was a convenient foil. Sparks won the primary (63-37 percent) by a crushing margin of nearly 80,000 votes, a resounding defeat for Davis and a strategy that was unrealistic from Jump Street.
Why? Alabama is not now and never has been ready for post-racial anything. Davis had designed a flawed strategy that flew in the face of the reality that blacks live with in Alabama every day. So, not only did it violate political reality by rejecting the black vote which was half of the Democratic primary election vote in that state, but the social reality of a mythical “coalition” that was supposed to move past race. The coalition never materialized. Maybe it would have worked in the Northeastern part of the country, but not Alabama.
Davis should have taken a lesson from the mayoral campaigns of David Dinkins or Harold Washington, or Doug Wilder’s election as governor of Virginia and other blacks who ran for citywide or statewide offices where blacks were in the minority.
They also had the necessity to build outward from their base to achieve interracial political coalitions, but did not decide to junk the black vote in the process and go for the white vote hoping that some blacks would follow and build a coalition.
Barack Obama, also dependent on a multi-racial campaign strategy, appealed strongly for the black vote in places like South Carolina, Pennsylvania and others.
But most important, when I think about the legacy of struggle that black people in Alabama waged for the right to vote, even if Davis were to have gone all the way and won election as governor, that legacy would have been devalued. Is that a post-racial event to be proud of? Sometimes, it isn’t whether you win or loose, but how.
I am proud of the way in which blacks in Alabama used their vote to restore their sense of power over part of the political process in that state. At the end of the day, politics also asks a question more fundamentally than perhaps any other profession — “What do you stand for?”
If a black candidate’s only answer is that one wants power with no connection to the historical legacy that allowed him or her to stand for office and to win, then perhaps the project was not worth supporting in the first place. I say this because of the tendency of post-racial politics to down-play the legacy of African American history as though it is no longer relevant. Given that, if such candidates are successful in their pursuit of elected office, there is no hint of predictability about whether their power will be used to deal with the unfinished agenda of black inclusion in American society.
Ultimately, one wished Davis could have become governor of Alabama, but not at this price. This result is a huge nail in the coffin of the new post-racial political phenomenon, described by some commentators as the next big thing.
This election shows that it is bound to fail if it does not follow the first rule of politics: the nature of the constituency is fundamental and the science of campaigning for office is about choosing the right numbers to form a winning coalition within that base.
Dr. Ron Walters is a political analyst and Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.