Former Democratic U.S. representative Artur Davis of Alabama, a prize Republican recruit a few years ago, is moving ever-closer to a return to electoral politics, as right-of-center D.C.-area stalwarts David Frum, Reihan Salam, and Juleanna Glover host a fundraiser for him Thursday night (at Glover’s house) for his expected 2015 run to be mayor of Montgomery.
Before examining his upcoming race and its importance, here’s a bit of background for those unfamiliar with Davis. He had his biggest national exposure in 2008 when he gave the seconding speech for Barack Obama’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Davis had been two years behind Obama at Harvard Law, and admired Obama (and knew him slightly) as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, with a reputation for cross-philosophical friendships and working relationships. But long before that, Davis had shown evidence of independence from Democratic orthodoxy. He won election to Congress by ousting liberal Black Caucus stalwart Earl Hilliard, and he soon (and bravely) bucked the national party orthodoxy by endorsing the federal judicial nomination of solidly conservative then-attorney general Bill Pryor, even as Senator Ted Kennedy and company were using every trick in their book to try to slime Pryor’s reputation. And even as Davis seconded Obama’s nomination in Denver, he spied me in the concourse and made a point of talking up solutions across political and racial lines.
By 2009, he was the only prominent Democrat honestly acknowledging that he had been wrong in giving too much rope earlier in the decade to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and by 2010, while running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Alabama, he undermined his own nomination battle by voting against Obamacare. He lost the nomination to the state commissioner of agriculture, pronounced himself disgusted with politics, moved to Virginia — and then increasingly spoke out against racial gerrymandering, in favor of voter-ID laws, and against the leftist politicization of Eric Holder’s Justice Department. In 2012, he announced he was now a Republican — the honest, believable, and reasonable result of a natural re-assessment of his political philosophy, partly through some mild evolutions to the right and partly through the reality that, overall, much of his worldview had been right-of-center all along.
In recent years, Davis’s name has been floated for various races in Virginia, but he didn’t bite. He long has told me he has more interest in an executive position than in another legislative one, and he kept looking homeward to his native Montgomery, the state’s capital city of just over 200,000 people. (Davis, who turns 47 on the day of this week’s fundraiser, grew up in Montgomery and represented it in Congress; his wife attended college there; and his mother still lives there.) Davis told me last weekend that Montgomery voted more than 60 percent for Obama in 2012 and more than 55 percent even for the wildly overmatched Democrat, Ron Sparks, in the 2010 governor’s race. The city is about 58 percent black — but its municipal elections are non-partisan, and the current mayor, Todd Strange, is a Republican who won reelection in 2011 with 81 percent of the vote.
“I am very, very strongly leaning toward running,” he told me. He’s doing all the usual things of having preliminary discussions with grassroots organizations, community leaders, top businessmen, and local elected officials, and said that he would make his final decision by about New Year’s Day. He talks about an agenda that sounds typically non-partisan: reattracting population (the city has lost 6,000 residents already this decade), improving the job base, improving its education system, being aggressively reformist rather than complacent . . . and so on.
But, I asked him, why should national conservatives care about what he calls “solutions that . . . don’t fit into a liberal box or a conservative box or a Democratic box or a right-of-center Republican box”?
“Because I have right-of-center political ideas that I will translate into the practical realities of running a city,” he said. “How do we attract people to the city? You don’t attract them to the city by putting more taxes on them. . .
One of the challenges for conservatives and for the Republican Party is showing that we actually know how to govern. We have to make the case ever day about why liberal policies don’t work, but also the case for why our policies do work. One of the few places in government you can still get things done in America these days is at the local level. Cities have to show that they can provide services that they can meet the needs of their people without resorting to the old answer of figuring out who we can tax or how we can take more taxes out of the same people. How do you grow? You get your schools to the point that they attract people. You make government be as lean as you possibly can; you figure out how you get the most of your services. You ask what are some job sources not in our economy right now: You find new ways of investing in the new energy economy, the new information-technology economy. The way you grow your tax base to to bring in more people, not to figure out to to raise every penny you have from current sources. . . . Plus, I do think it is always important for national conservatives to show that not all conservatives look the same, think the same, sound the same.
Even as a Democrat, Davis was a proverbial breath of fresh air on the political scene. As a thoughtful, center-right Republican trying to make inroads into Democratic territory, he’s a tremendous boon to the conservative cause. He may never be a “movement conservative,” but he’s a great ally in the cause of effective, ethical, limited government. In a national off-year for elections, the 2015 race for mayor of Montgomery might well be worth national conservative attention.
(Those in the D.C. area interested in the fund-raiser should contact Glover or Davis’ national fund-raising consultant, Neal Harrington of Harrington Forward Thinking in North Carolina.)