US Rep. Davis seeks to be 1st black Ala. governor

Published 11:25 am Friday, February 6, 2009

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, an early supporter of Barack Obama with uncanny similarities to the new president, announced his Democratic candidacy for governor Friday in a bid to become the first black to win Alabama’s top office.

Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer in his 40s like Obama, ended months of speculation with his announcement, attended by a crowd of at least 100 people, made up largely of whites. That voting bloc will be crucial for Davis to win in 2010.

“I will not promise you this path will be easy,” said Davis, 41, who chaired Obama’s campaign in Alabama.

“Yes, this will be hard, but if find our way, we can build a state like we have never known, not at some distant point called one day, but right now, in our season,” he said.

Davis has more than $1.1 million in his congressional campaign account that he can use for his gubernatorial bid.

He will face a Democratic field that’s likely to include Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., who served a partial term as governor during the early 1990s, and possibly Ron Sparks, Alabama’s agriculture commissioner. Both are white.

Like the new president, Davis overcame long odds to make it in politics. He was raised in Montgomery by a single mother and grandmother yet went on to graduate from Harvard University’s law school, where he met Obama.

A skilled orator, Davis upset a black incumbent to win Alabama’s 7th Congressional District. He has either won easily or had no opposition in re-elections to the mostly black district, which extends from Birmingham to rural west Alabama. He has styled himself as a moderate pragmatist who looks out for the needy in his district, but also has business interests in mind.

Davis can’t win unless he attracts large numbers of white supporters in a state where, in a 2000 referendum, 40 percent of voters opposed ending a constitutional ban on mixed-race marriage.

Exit polls in November showed Obama got fewer than 20 percent of the white vote. Republican John McCain easily won the state.

Voter registration among blacks than whites grew before the Nov. 4 election, but whites still make up almost three-quarters of registered voters in Alabama, which is about 70 percent white.

In last year’s Democratic presidential primary, about half of those voting were black. If he wins the party nomination, he would still need nearly all the black vote and about 40 percent of the white vote in the general election.

“That has been very difficult for even white Democratic candidates in recent election cycles,” said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University in northern Alabama.

Blacks hold scores of local offices and make up about 25 percent of each chamber in the Alabama Legislature, but no other minority candidate has previously had a real chance to win the governor’s office.

Republican Gov. Bob Riley is barred from seeking a third term. The GOP race to succeed Riley is expected to more crowded than the Democratic contest.