Black candidate says no to black Alabama groups

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 15, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A congressman trying to become Alabama’s first black governor said Wednesday he won’t participate in the endorsement screenings for three predominantly black political groups, a move viewed by black leaders as a costly snub.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham said black voters need no permission from the political organizations and no sample ballots to decide who to support for governor.

Black political leaders, shocked by the announcement, said it could be a game changer in a Democratic primary where nearly half of the voters are traditionally black.

“It’s arrogant to say I will not be screened by these organizations. This is thumbing his nose at people who make up his base,” Hank Sanders, president emeritus of the Alabama New South Coalition, said.

Davis announced that he will not participate in the screening processes of Sanders’ coalition and the Alabama Democratic Conference, both statewide organizations, and the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition, which is active in the populous Birmingham area. The screening processes leading up to the Democratic primary June 1 begin Saturday with the Alabama New South Coalition.

Davis said he was first elected to Congress in 2002 without the support of the three groups and “the day has ended when these groups decide who wins the support of black voters in this state.”

The groups normally do not endorse anyone who skips the screening process. Their endorsements are followed by get-out-the-vote efforts and the distribution of thousands of sample ballots.

“As much as I admire the legacy of these groups and their current contributions, the African-American voters who will participate in the primary need no permission, and no sample ballots, to decide who they favor in this governor’s race,” Davis said.

Davis’ announcement followed a news conference by Alabama New South Coalition leaders, who said Davis had been the front-runner for their endorsement until he became the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the federal health care plan.

Sanders and New South Coalition President Robert Avery said the group’s endorsement was too close to call between Davis and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who is white and supported the health care plan.

They also said that in making an endorsement Saturday, they would have to consider a candidate’s electability in the state, where no African-Americans are currently elected to statewide office.

Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, said Davis may be trying to appeal to independents and Republicans, but he’s alienating his base.

“He has probably written off any chance he had of becoming governor. You can’t cuss the Democrats in the spring and expect them to rally around you in November,” Reed said.

Reed, who’s a vice chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, had previously criticized Davis’ health care vote. Reed serves as associate executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, which has reported contributing $95,000 to Sparks’ campaign.

Sparks, who has been running second in polls, said he would appear before all three groups to ask for their endorsements. “I am not conceding any voter in any part of Alabama,” he said.

Sparks said his campaign has been on the rise since Davis’ health care vote and the announcement Wednesday was another boost. “Artur Davis’ campaign has fallen like a rock since he betrayed the voters in his own district,” Sparks said.

Byrdie Larkin, a political scientist at historically black Alabama State University, said Davis’ vote on health care surprised many black voters because he had been friends with President Barack Obama since they were students at Harvard University and he was chairman of Obama’s campaign in Alabama. He also represents a poor, predominantly black district, she said.

“When Congressman Davis came out against the health care bill, he jeopardized his following in the African-American community. He did it because he was trying to placate the conservative white voters in Alabama,” Larkin said.

Davis said he voted no because of the cost of the health care plan and his concern that it could cause private employers to drop insurance coverage for their workers.

Larkin said Davis, 42, appears to be positioning himself as part of a younger group of black politicians who rose to power after the civil rights struggle.

“They base their decisions on majority politics. They don’t see themselves as part of the civil rights movement,” she said.

Sanders said the primary results June 1 will tell who’s right. “We will see whether or not endorsements make a difference,” he said.