Racial Politics Reach Tipping Point In The South

President Obama did not carry the country's deep southern regions in the 2008 elections. But the south is where some experts say the affects of Obama's presidency are being the felt the most. Host Michel Martin talks with Wall Street Journal reporter Corey Dade and John Archibald a Metro Columnist for The Birmingham News about two elections in the south worth paying attention to. The first is the Alabama gubernatorial race, where the state could elect its first African-American and in New Orleans — long been a stronghold for blacks — has a mayoral race that up for grabs by two white candidates.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, we'll hear what you think about this week's conversations, but first, it's time for our weekly political chat.

It's been nearly a year since President Obama was sworn into office, and we thought it would be a good time to look at how his historic presidency may have changed the political landscape, particularly in the South and particularly in races where race may be a factor.

In Alabama, U.S. Congressman Artur Davis, a Democrat, is looking to make history of his own by becoming the state's first African-American governor. And while Davis attempts to shatter the racial barrier in Alabama, the mayoral election in New Orleans is showing signs of becoming a battle between two white candidates, something that might have been unthinkable years ago.

Joining us to talk about all this is Corey Dade. He covers Southern politics for the Wall Street Journal. Also with us is John Archibald, who's a metro columnist for The Birmingham News. Welcome to you both, and Happy New Year to you both.

Mr. COREY DADE (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thank you.

Mr. JOHN ARCHIBALD (Columnist, Birmingham News): Thank you, good to be here.

MARTIN: Let's start off with that Alabama governor's race. Artur Davis apparently tails Republican contender Bradley Byrne slightly in some polls, but from the looks of it, it looks like he's running a strong campaign. So John, let me start with you. People questioned whether the country was ready for a black president. It turns out the answer was yes. Is Alabama ready for a black governor?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, that remains to be seen. Certainly, Artur Davis is leaning as sharply to the right as he can to kind of try to help make that happen. A lot of people - don't forget, though, that he still has a Democratic primary challenge before he ever gets to that point.

MARTIN: Isn't it true, though, that there's some effort to consolidate the race on the Democratic side, to kind of clear the field, as it were?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Yeah, there is certainly that effort, and conventional wisdom would have him winning that primarily fairly easily. What happens after that really depends on the nature of the Republican challenger, because that could be a widely different thing.

MARTIN: And you said that Davis is tacking to the right in order to presumably broaden his appeal. That decision has not come without some strong criticism. Davis was blasted by Joe Reed(ph). He's a powerful official at the Alabama Teachers Union, a major player in Alabama politics. He said that Davis was turning his back on blacks when he voted against the health care reform bill, at least the first iteration of the health care reform bill in the House.

In a column he wrote last month, Reed said, quote, "Artur Davis is running for governor. His congressional district is blacker than any congressional district in the state and poorer than any congressional in the state, yet he was the only black congressman in the nation to oppose Obama's health care plan. Every other member in the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it, but because he's now running for governor, he's looking out for himself and not the people." Ouch.

John, my goodness, how are people reacting to that? How did he respond?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, it is absolutely devastating to him, and it rings true to a lot of people because - I mean, primarily he started running under the Obama model, basically, or with an intellectual, Ivy League, smart politician who runs - based on his intellect, and he's - while Obama basically gave the impression of answering every question as he thought it should be answered, giving his particular view, Artur David seems to be going to the more political route, which people see as fairly transparent.

MARTIN: Corey, what about you? What's your take on this? I mean, Davis on the one hand, there is a lot in common with Barack Obama. They both attended Harvard. Davis was an honorary co-chair of then-President Obama's inauguration. Davis was one of the - an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign when a lot of other African-American politicians in the South, including Joe Reed, it has to be said, supported Hillary Clinton - what's your take on this?

Mr. DADE: Well, I think, at this point, Artur Davis is running the race that most expected him to run. Rather than sort of tacking him to Obama, saying he's running out of that mold, I think it's more accurate to say he's been a fairly moderate, in some ways right-leaning Democrat since he came to Congress.

And so if anything, he's been fairly consistent that way. I think the question will be whether - as John mentioned, I don't think there is any question about whether or not he'll get out of the primary. The question is whether or not he can prevent himself from being tacked too closely to Obama given the animosity toward Obama during the general election.

MARTIN: How - has that been tried? Corey, I'm putting you on the spot, but has that been tried? I mean, on the one hand to say I support Obama, I'm an Obama-type guy, I'm new, new generation, but running from the right. I wonder if that's been tried anywhere.

Mr. DADE: Not yet, in part because Obama hasn't been in office that long. So he hasn't spent enough time being the political model as it were for this. But I think that in Alabama, just as in Georgia and in other states, you know, you have to - for any candidate, whether they be a Democrat or a Republican - you have to stake your claim as an individual. As an independent, you have to be able to zig when the national political party - your national political party zags. And beyond that though, it'll come down to whether or not he can do that, but also, whether or not he can actually run a nuanced campaign with nuanced messaging. And in the South, nuanced messaging has not always been the thing that wins elections on statewide grounds.

MARTIN: John, how is Arthur Davis's vote against the House version of the health care overhaul bill playing out?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, it certainly hurts him among his real strong base - the base that's going to vote for him anyway, frankly. I mean there's a lot of people who are irritated with him on the Democratic side. But you've got to remember here, I mean for - moderate here is far right for most areas. So I mean for him not to do that I think eliminates - would've eliminated most any chance he would have in a general.

MARTIN: And we don't know how he'll vote on the final version of the bill because the two bills still need to be reconciled. It's an interesting question.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with John Archibald of The Birmingham News and Corey Dade of the Wall Street Journal. We're talking about Southern politics in the post-Obama era - it actually is the Obama era. We're talking about interesting political races this year, with a particular focus on races in the South.

Before we go to New Orleans, I wanted to get your take on the congressional race that - the congressional issue that we talked about earlier, briefly. Congressman Parker Griffith, who represents Alabama 5th District announced he was jumping from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Apparently, even his staff was surprised by this. John, what's your take on this? How is that decision received?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, certainly it's been divisive and his entire staff quit. And I was in Decatur in his district when that happened and there was actually quite a bit more outrage than you would think - maybe the loyalty issues came to mind, I think. But it has been very difficult for Democrats in that part of the state.

MARTIN: But do you think then does that damage him fatally for the - I guess it's a long ways until the election - but do you think that that sort of really damages him fatally for the general? I guess that depends on who's recruited to take his seat on the Democratic side.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, it's hard to say. I mean frankly in the last, really since the health care issue became so divisive, I do think that Democrats have been reading a lot of the tea leaves here and think that, you know, they are damaged. And their only chance, I think, is - he believed his only chance was to go the other way and I guess time will tell whether that's accurate.

MARTIN: So let's switch over to New Orleans. Over the weekend, State Senator Ed Murray announced he was dropping out of the mayoral race. Murray was the leading African-American candidate in the race, but he'd been trailing Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and another candidate John Georges who are both white. Corey this is an - it's an interesting development.

Mr. DADE: Well, it is and it isn't. I covered New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and post Katrina for quite some time and still check in with it. But the thing to keep in mind is that this is the new post-Katrina reality. There was a lot of consternation about how the city may be remade and kind of discouraging African-Americans, particularly poor African-Americans, from returning to the city to the point where now some of that has happened. The city council is now a majority white for the first time in two decades. The black majority has declined to a slim majority from about 65 percent and, you know, really even with Ray Nagin's election, as mayor, he was a newcomer, he was a political novice. That showed that there had not been an heir apparent to Marc Morial in coming from the black political power structure. And so now with the black population being further dispersed and displaced, that's coming home to roost here. And with Mitch Landrieu running, what people have to understand is that in some ways he actually picks up some of that black political base that another black candidate would have.

He obviously had his long family ties. His sister is the senator, U.S. senator there. But also his father is the former mayor. But beyond that, he grew up around a lot of African-Americans, many of his key political operatives, supporters, donors, etcetera, come from the black professional class. And there's been a movement among many African-Americans in New Orleans to kind of realign - they've kind of been working on the ground level to kind of realign their political priorities, taking away from sort of race and racial politics being the definer and kind of realigning it along issues to the point where they're like we don't really care the race of the candidate. We want to back the best candidate.

And so what I think you're seeing here is the existing black political structure such as it is at this point in post-Katrina is really deciding that having a black mayor in office for the sake of tradition isn't good enough anymore.

MARTIN: You know, it's worth noting that you know, Baltimore, which is a majority black city, had a white mayor who, Martin O'Malley, who is now the governor.

Mr. DADE: Sure.

MARTIN: The District of Columbia, which is a majority black city has a majority white city council, and I wonder if the broader issue is not so much the - it is partly, of course, population shifts after Hurricane Katrina as you point out, but also this sort of sense of realignment of the way African-American political thought thinking about giving, you know, assigning their loyalties. I wonder if you - is that the conversation that you're having with people down there?

Mr. DADE: Indeed. I think what you're seeing especially in the South where you see many of the South - many of the Southern cities becoming far more urban. In North Carolina, for example, you know, the majority of the population is now concentrated in three metropolitan areas. In Atlanta, as we've talked about on this show prior, a white candidate nearly - by less than a thousand votes -became mayor here in Atlanta and the black majority here is shifting.

I think the sort of solidarity, the ceremonial and the spiritual and sort of kind of ethereal value of having a black mayor in many of these cities has quite frankly worn off and it's a little bit more results oriented as far as politics are concerned on the part of voters. I think you're seeing, especially on the part of African-Americans voters, an increasing sophistication when they go to the ballot box. It's not enough to be black anymore.

MARTIN: And John, if I could have a final thought from you. I mean obviously African-Americans have been voting for white candidates for a very long time. The question, of course, has been whether, in particularly in statewide races or in sort of larger races where the white candidates would vote for African-Americans and, of course, that's what, which was, of course, the exciting news about Barack Obama, in places particularly, there were not large minority populations that white candidates demonstrated a willingness to vote for an African-American candidate. What about - is there any initial polling to suggest what the disposition of white voters toward Arthur Davis might be, whether is race is a factor?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, I really, I'm not sure if I have up to date polling, but I do believe here that it is more an issue of ideology really where it comes to Arthur Davis and his chances. I mean if he faces a Roy Moore, the Ten Commandments judge who is extreme right he has a decent chance of winning because I think a lot of white candidates would support a more moderate position. So it really is a matter of those choices, I think, rather than race.

MARTIN: John, we would be remiss if we didn't congratulate you on the victory of the Crimson Tide.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Roll Tide.

MARTIN: Are you still celebrating?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Absolutely. Everyone will celebrate for quite some time.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll let you get back to that.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Thank you.

MARTIN: John Archibald is a Metro Columnist for The Birmingham News. He joined us on the phone from Birmingham. We were also joined by Corey Dade. He's a reporter with the Wall Street Journal where covers Southern politics and he joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Thank you.

Mr. DADE: Thank you.

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