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Let it never be said that Rep. Artur Davis isn’t up for a challenge. The three-term congressman recently announced plans to run for governor of Alabama, making him the first Democrat to formally throw his hat into the ring for the 2010 election.
If successful, Davis would become the state’s first black governor, but that’s a very big if, given its history of troubled race relations. Alabama may indeed have come a long way since the days when it was ruled by the infamous segregationist Gov. George Wallace, but is it really ready to elect a black governor?
According to longtime University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart, people there now have a more progressive attitude toward race and may even be receptive to Davis, depending on his message. But, Stewart adds, there’s no question he faces an uphill battle with a population that is 75% white.
Davis, however, is optimistic enough about his chances that he’s willing to risk a very safe seat for what some consider to be a rather long shot.
“I recognize that there are some outside and within Alabama who have a certain perception of the state’s racial history, so they believe the campaign is unusually difficult because of that. But I’ve never been one who believes that because something’s not been done before that it can’t be done,” he says. “My state faces some very unique challenges as we try to develop a modern economy, and a first-class public school system, and the governor is going to be the person who drives those decisions and opportunities over the next decade.”
Thanks to investment in the state by major auto manufacturers such as Mercedes, Honda, and Toyota, as well as a steel mill currently under construction that will create thousands of new jobs, the local economy is a little stronger than in some of its neighboring states. Still, unemployment figures have recently doubled, and state lawmakers are being forced to make some tough budget decisions. As a result, voters may be more open-minded, says D’Linell Finley, Auburn University political scientist.
“Because of economic conditions, people will listen to good ideas and not make race their first and foremost priority,” Finley says. “We’re faring a bit better than the rest of the nation, but this is still a conservative anti-tax, anti-government spending state. Davis will have to talk about a vision where the state can care for the needy and provide necessary programs without putting additional tax burdens on voters.”
Davis says that in addition to recruiting industry to the state, the next governor must also diversify the job base. “We have to figure out how to become a leader on the alternative energy front and in areas that right now seem foreign in Alabama, like biomedicine and information technology. That’s going to require a sustained, disciplined strategy,” he says. Davis also wants to ensure that corporations doing business in Alabama begin paying their fair share of taxes. Some