In something of a break with custom, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis has said he will not endorse or campaign for his primary opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who beat Davis in June to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Alabama. Davis explained his decision in an op-ed in Sunday’s Montgomery Advertiser, in which he harshly attacked Sparks for a “lack of vision,” but also offered some rarely-heard criticism of the Alabama Democratic Party.
We’ll get to the op-ed, but first we need historical context, which we can find by journeying back to the summer of 1998, in the midst of the Alabama gubernatorial campaign.
Things then weren’t so different from now. For the first time in the modern era, more Republicans voted in their primary than Democrats did in theirs (this year’s primary was the second time). The grocery tax was an issue, and there was much unwarranted ado about crossover voting in the GOP run-off. The Democratic candidate, Don Siegelman, ran on an education lottery to fund college scholarships (Sparks has made this a centerpiece of his campaign, as well) and avoided a run-off by winning his party’s primary outright.
The GOP was not so lucky. Winton Blount III, a moderate conservative with the support of the business community, faced Gov. Fob James, Jr., in a run-off. James, a religious conservative, was massively outspent by Blount, but managed to pull 55.9 percent of the vote to beat Blount’s 44.1 percent.
Now imagine replacing Siegelman with Sparks, Blount with Bradley Byrne, and James with state Rep. Robert Bentley. You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between 1998 and 2010, right? Even the vote percentages in the GOP run-off were off by a mere two-tenths of a point.
This is not to say that the ’98 and ’10 campaigns are the same. While the Bentley-Byrne GOP run-off was petty at times, the Blount-James race was simply vicious. One of many examples: Blount, recalling a 1996 incident in which the then-Gov. James imitated an ape at a school board meeting to mock the idea of including evolution in textbooks, said James was “walking across the stage like a monkey.” James—who was, again, the sitting governor—replied by calling the admittedly paunchy Blount ‘fat.’ “If he says I’m a monkey, I must say, well, I’m a pretty slim monkey,” James said. “I’m not a fat monkey.”
The scars of that brutal run-off left Blount and the voters disgusted with James. Blount did not even endorse James, and Siegelman easily won the general election with nearly 58 percent of the vote.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In 2010, there is still squabbling among primary opponents, but this year it’s coming after the primary and from the Democrats. Davis made that clear in his op-ed. Under a headline reading “A lack of vision,” Davis lambasted Sparks’s main campaign issue: legalizing and taxing gambling to create jobs and increase revenue.
“Ron Sparks’s strategy is straightforward and it just isn’t good enough,” Davis wrote. “The problem is that even with the casinos, Greene and Macon are still impoverished and are centers of the worst examples of economic misery.” Greene County, the home of the recently-shuttered Greenetrack “bingo” hall, is in Davis’s congressional district.
Davis also went after his fellow Democrat’s character, writing that he “observed a pattern of thinly veiled personal smears and a casual approach to spreading falsehoods about lives and voting records.” He even brought the Alabama Democratic Party into the mix, suggesting that ADP is “anti-reform” and consumed by special interests.
In a statement regarding Davis’s op-ed, Sparks chose to highlight his campaign proposals rather than attack Davis. “I won the primary because my ideas for change were more powerful than my opponent’s: pre-k for all four year olds, scholarships for every high school graduate, a $1.4 billion highway jobs program that will benefit every county in the state and create 38,000 new jobs,” Sparks said. “And those are the ideas that can win this election in November, too.”
WISDOM AT THE CENTER OF CHAOS
For the most part, Davis sounded like a sore loser, and little like the candidate who, in his elegant and seemingly off-the-cuff concession speech just months ago, rattled off a sparkling version of Sparks’ biography as if it was his own.
As Blount’s example showed us, Davis’ refusal to endorse his fellow Democrat is not unprecedented, but it is unexpected. And some would say that Davis’ inability or refusal to hold his tongue—at least in the public sphere and at least until November—is inexcusable. Indeed, it seemed at times that the only thing Davis was holding back was an endorsement of Bentley.
But while there was much gnashing of teeth in Sparks’ direction, Davis also made principled arguments that demonstrated that his position came from a place of genuine concern for the direction of his party.
Sparks, Davis is convinced, “is no champion of real change.” He cited Sparks’ opposition to a constitutional convention and charter schools, and a perceived lack of general interest in education reform and ethics reform.
One might guess that Davis believes his party, which has controlled the legislature for 136 years, is stagnating. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion. The state ethics commission is basically powerless.
As is often noted, the state’s cosmetology board has subpoena power but the ethics commission does not, leaving investigation and prosecution of public corruption up to the federal government.
Alabama’s lack of a ban on transfers of funds between political action committees (PACs) allows campaign donors to obscure the source of their donations, making it nearly impossible to see who donated to a candidate. Year after year, Democrats have been elected to the legislature while promising to ban PAC transfers, but the legislation always ends up lying dead on the floor of some committee room on the last day of the session, despite support for wide-ranging ethics reform from Gov. Bob Riley. Sparks, it should be noted, supports a PAC transfer ban.
The state is constantly hamstrung by a broken and regressive tax system—seemingly carved in stone in the 1901 Alabama Constitution—that favors wealthy landowners. For a decade now, reformers have urged legislators to hold a constitutional convention to write a new constitution. The effort gets lip service, but eventually that legislation, too, ends up dead at the end of the session. Those dead bills are rarely explicitly rejected; instead, they are just not voted on. Maybe this happens because the legislature has other priorities, but when a bill is referred to a committee that can’t convene because it has no chairman, as often happens, one must wonder if someone is trying to kill it.
For whatever its worth, the interest groups that support reform don’t put up any real money for campaign donations; interests opposed to such legislation can and do. When well-heeled interests like the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Education Association, Alabama Power and the gambling industry speak, they speak with money. People tend to listen to money.
These issues are complicated ones for voters, and they’re not easily boiled down into an easily digestible message. Sparks has many proposals, including a slew of ethics reforms aimed at lobbyists. However, he was able to fine tune his message in the primary into a relatively simple one—tax gambling and institute an education lottery—that seemed to resonate with voters.
Davis never bite-sized his many proposals, and left voters confused. It should be clear enough now—one can imagine the Bentley ads featuring Davis slamming his fellow Democrat. Davis should have learned from the James-Blount race that what he says can hurt Sparks and his party.
Or maybe that was the point.
Madison Underwood is a Birmingham Weekly staff writer. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.