The Republican Who Helped Elect Obama and Now Wants Montgomery, Alabama, to Elect Him

Former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis is hoping to beat the odds in his hometown.
July 2015
Artur Davis is running as a Republican. (Flickr/ Third Way)
By Alan Greenblatt  |  Staff Writer
Alan Greenblatt is a Governing staff writer.

Party switching doesn’t always pay off. Consider Charlie Crist, who last year lost his comeback bid to be Florida governor again. Or Lincoln Chafee, another Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democratic governor, who was too unpopular in Rhode Island even to run for a second term.

Despite these odds, Artur Davis is hoping his luck will be better. The former Democratic member of Congress has returned to his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., to run for mayor as a Republican. He joins a crowded field. The current GOP Mayor Todd Strange is facing two other opponents, making a runoff likely after the Aug. 25 election. But Davis isn’t being received with open arms. He faces two big handicaps. Not only do Democrats consider him a turncoat, but many question whether he’s a carpetbagger. Davis grew up in Montgomery but represented western Alabama in Congress. “What he’s trying to do is repair that image,” says Brad Moody, a retired political scientist at Auburn University at Montgomery. “My sense is that he has a long way to go.”

Davis was once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, making one of the nomination speeches for his old Harvard Law contemporary Barack Obama in 2008. But Davis was always a bit more conservative than most Democrats. He voted against the Affordable Care Act, for instance. After an unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 2010, Davis moved to Virginia and switched parties. Once again, he had a prominent speaking slot at a national party convention in 2012, this time the GOP’s.

Now, back in Alabama Davis is doing his best to tune out the noise surrounding his party identification, says campaign spokesman Will Steineker, emphasizing basic issues such as the state of schools, crime and whether economic development will spread beyond downtown. Davis has been on the air with ads for months, which is unusual for a Montgomery mayor’s race. “The simple fact that we got out early, got on offense,” Steineker says, “put us in a good position.”

The race is complicated by the campaigns of Democrats Ella Bell, the vice president of the state board of education, and County Commissioner Dan Harris. Like Davis, they are both African-American, while Strange is white. Montgomery is a majority-black city and its vote is likely to split along racial and partisan lines.

Given Davis’ party-switching history, that won’t necessarily make his task of rebuilding his political career any easier. The county commission recently fell into Democratic hands and the party would naturally prefer to win control of the mayoralty, even though the race is nominally nonpartisan. “In terms of Artur, he’s not a Democrat,” says Tyna Davis, who chairs the Montgomery County Democratic Party. “He is an announced and proclaimed Republican and our position is we will be supporting Democrats.”