When I set out to write a book several years ago about a generation of up-and-coming black political leaders, I had no idea how much would change in the course of a single presidential election cycle.
Of the four main characters I profiled, the one who vaulted most quickly to national prominence was, of course, then-Sen. Barack Obama. The book, therefore, was titled The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
But I discovered a lot of equally interesting characters along the way whose political fortunes and misfortunes have since turned out to be head-snappingly interesting.
There was Deval Patrick, who at the time was stumbling out of the gate as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. He has since regained his footing. There was Cory Booker, the charismatic, tweeting mayor of Newark, N.J., who dashes into burning buildings to rescue trapped neighbors.
There were politicians who aimed high and scored, like Kamala Harris, then-San Francisco district attorney who has since won statewide office as California attorney general. And there were the ones who aimed high and missed, like Rep. Kendrick Meek, who tried and failed to become a U.S. senator from Florida.
But perhaps the most spectacular flameout was Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated member of Congress who gave up his seat to run for Alabama governor. He didn’t just lose. He lost in the primary by nearly 2-to-1.
After he lost, he moved to Virginia and left his home state behind. Earlier this year, he left the Democratic Party behind as well. And this week, the GOP announced that Davis, who had become increasingly critical of the president whose nomination he seconded in 2008, will be a featured speaker when the Republican National Convention convenes in Tampa, Fla., later this month.
This sent me back to my book, in which I described a midday stroll I took with Davis in 2008 through Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. That’s the park where, 45 years before, child protesters were set upon by snarling dogs and fire hoses in one of the most memorable turning points of the civil-rights movement. Think Bull Connor.
As Davis and I took our walk, two men lounging under a tree yelled out to him, “Keep doing a good job in Washington.”
“I will if we get Obama elected,” he yelled back.
There was no hesitation then. Davis was the first non-Illinois lawmaker to endorse Obama, and in our conversations it was clear that he saw their fates linked.
“Voters are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, if a black can be elected president of the United States, then the idea of a black being elected governor of any state is not so implausible,” he told me.
His conversion this year is a dramatic one, but in retrospect not as surprising as one would first think.
After losing the first time he ran in 2000, Davis was elected to Congress in 2002 only after district lines were redrawn to include more white voters. His plan was to get a solid black vote and win over enough white voters to break through.
Earl Hilliard, the incumbent he ultimately beat 56 percent to 44 percent that year, complained that Davis attracted a lot of out-of-state money, including from donors who also supported George W. Bush.
Davis’ advisers admitted as much. “He became a congressman getting the white vote,” Davis’s pollster John Anzalone told me.
But this was not all about race. It was also about ideology. In Washington, Davis promptly allied himself with the middle-of-the-road Democratic Leadership Council, voted to limit partial-birth abortion and against President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
But he lost the statewide race. He didn’t even survive the Democratic primary. Slate political writer Dave Weigel explained it best this week in a blog that used three maps to show how Davis lost not only the white vote in Alabama, but also the black vote — even his own congressional district.
After the blistering defeat, Davis moved to suburban Virginia, vowed to quit politics, returned to a private law practice, and stayed low.
But that’s changing. With his party switch, he has ratcheted up his criticism of the president, who he said has not lived up to his 2008 promise.
He now follows in the footsteps of Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller, two disgruntled Democrats who were awarded speaking roles at GOP conventions to criticize Democratic nominees.
Expect Davis’ profile to rise. It seems he has not quit politics after all.