Davis, Artur 1967–
Artur Davis 1967–
U.S. congressional representative
When Artur Davis defeated U.S. Representative Earl Hill-iard in the 2002 Democratic primary election in Alabama’s Seventh District, the race gained national attention for several reasons. The contest drew financial contributions from far outside the district as Davis emerged as a supporter of Israel while Hilliard had supported Arab causes. The Harvard-educated Davis, a lawyer and federal prosecutor, was a different kind of politician from Hilliard, who had emerged from the rough-and-tumble world of Alabama Democratic politics. And the race seemed to exemplify a generational shift in African-American politics, as younger aspirants began to displace the first generation of southern black officeholders.
Davis earned his educational credentials the hard way, however; he grew up poor. Born on April 9, 1967, in Montgomery, Alabama, Davis grew up on the city’s generally low-income west side, by his mother and grandmother. This was near the site where Rosa Parks touched off the bus boycott that marked one of the first major battles of the civil rights revolution. Lacking athletic talent and not the sort to make friends easily, Davis spent his youth immersed in the world of books. His studious ways won him a scholarship to Harvard, often regarded as the top educational institution in the United States. “If you want an American bootstrap story, his is it,” political scientist Natalie Davis told the New Democrats Online website.
Davis graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1990 and went on to law school there, finishing in three years. His initial exposure to politics came while he was at Harvard, as he took an internship in the office of Alabama U.S. Senator Howell Heflin. Returning home to Alabama, Davis worked for a time as an intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a durable anti-racism group, and then began climbing the ladder of the government legal hierarchy. He took a clerkship with Montgomery judge Myron Thompson, and in 1994 he was named assistant U.S. attorney for Alabama’s Middle District. In 1998 Davis opened his own law office in Birmingham, focusing on civil rights law.
His job in the U.S. attorney’s office was a high-profile assignment that often featured Davis in the courtroom
At a Glance…
Career; Office of Senator Howell Heflin, intern, early 1990s; Southern Poverty Law Center, intern, early 1990s; Office of judge Myron Thompson, Montgomery, clerk, early 1990s; Middle District of Alabama, assistant US. attorney, 1994–98; private civil rights law practice, Birmingham, AL, late 1990s early 2000s; Fox Network, Birmingham, legal and political commentator, late 1990s early 2000s; U.S. House of Representatives, Alabama 7th District representative, 2002–.
Addresses: Office— 206 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 2003.
prosecuting drug dealers, and he raised his profile still farther by doing legal commentary on the news broadcasts of a Birmingham television station. In Davis’s mind, prosecuting a legal trial was ideal preparation for a life in politics. “It gets you accustomed to making a case to a group of people, quickly and concisely,” he told the New York Times. Clearly he had political ambitions, and in the year 2000 he jumped into the Democratic primary race against well-entrenched incumbent U.S. Representative Earl Hilliard, one of the first blacks to be elected to Congress in Alabama and a political institution thought to be invincible despite a controversial 1997 visit to Libya, a country widely thought to be linked with terrorist attacks such as the 1987 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Davis lost by a 58 to 34 percent margin in the 2000 primary, but several factors turned in his favor when he decided on a rematch in 2002. Alabama’s congressional redistricting removed from the Seventh District several areas central to Hilliard’s base of support. Hilliard was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee for dipping into campaign funds for personal use. And, perhaps most important, some constituents in the desperately poor district—the third-poorest in the United States—felt that Hilliard had little to show for his ten years in Congress besides a failed bill he sponsored that would have required the inspection of rabbit meat. Davis hit Hilliard with a television advertisement showing a rabbit’s face superimposed with the text “Send Earl Hilliard back to Washington: Why?”
In assembling a war chest for the 2002 campaign, Davis turned to Jewish voters irked by Hilliard’s trip to Libya and persistent criticism of Israel. “The first thing you do is isolate a community the incumbent has offended,” Davis explained to the New York Times. Arab Americans responded with contributions to Hilliard, and some national observers linked the primary with another, in Georgia, that pitted firebrand incumbent Rep. Cynthia McKinney against a more moderate challenger well financed by out-of-state money (and that like Davis’s race ended with the incumbent’s defeat). At times the campaign turned ugly; an anti-Semitic flyer backing Hilliard circulated, although the candidate distanced himself from it.
Davis hit back with an ad of his own suggesting that Hilliard had encouraged terrorists with his Libya visit. In the end, however, most observers agreed that local economic issues emerged as most important in the campaign. Davis forced Hilliard into a runoff in the June 4, 2002, primary, taking 43 percent of the vote to Hilliard’s 46 percent (a third candidate garnered 11 percent) and won going away, 56 to 44 percent, in the runoff three weeks later. Though a majority of Davis’s funding came from out-of-state donors, much of it from New York, he garnered important endorsements from reformist political groups in Alabama, including the Voter News Network of Birmingham businessman Donald Watkins.
Proposed Black Belt Development Authority
Davis cruised to victory in the November 2002 election, facing only token opposition in the heavily Democratic district. Hilliard warned grimly of future conflict between blacks and Jews, and his office lent Davis little assistance as he took over in Washington. Davis hit the ground running on Alabama economic development projects, however, proposing a regional development authority for the Black Belt, the dark-earth agricultural area whose residents suffered some of the nation’s highest poverty rates. In the summer of 2003, Davis also emerged as one of the leaders of the ultimately successful Democratic effort to extend President George W. Bush’s tax rebates to poor families who had paid no taxes. Davis was named to the House Financial Services and Budget committees.
Even Republicans were impressed by Davis’s energy, and he began to inspire talk among political insiders that he might have a bright future. Handsome and well-spoken, Davis was sometimes named as a potential candidate for Alabama governor. Davis did nothing to dampen such speculation when he explained to the New Democrats Online website his theories on how to rebuild the appeal of the Democratic Party among Southern whites: “We have to say to them: You’re part of that excluded America. Check your pay stub. Check whether you can get a nursing home for your grandmother. See if your child can afford college [when] Pell Grants are being cut.” Clearly he was a young politician with both ability and ambition.
Associated Press, Political News, June 28, 2002.
Birmingham News, June 6, 2002; December 29, 2002; February 8, 2003.
Montgomery Advertiser, February 14, 2003, p. A8; April 29, 2003, p. C3; June 13, 2003, p. A1.
New York Times, July 3, 2002, p. A18.
States News Service, January 6, 2003.
Washington Post, June 26, 2002, p. A7.
“From the Railroad Tracks of West Montgomery to the Halls of the U.S. Capitol,” Congressman Artur Davis Official Website, www.house.gov/arturdavis/biography.html (July 14, 2003).
“Shifting Ground,” New Democrats Online, www.ndol.org/blueprint/2003_mar_apr/09_shifting_ground.html (July 14, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
"Davis, Artur 1967–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-artur-1967
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