LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Today, a story about an African-American politician trying to break through a cultural barrier. He was raised by a single mother, with help from his grandmother. He earned a Harvard law degree. And his message is change. We're not talking about President Barack Obama, but about Artur Davis, a Democratic congressman from Alabama. Today, Davis is launching a bid to become Alabama's first black governor. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy on the top step of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. A little over 100 years later, Governor George Wallace stood in the same columned portico to take his oath of office and declare…
Governor GEORGE WALLACE (Late Governor of Alabama): Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
(Soundbite of cheering)
ELLIOTT: Artur Davis wasn't born yet and it wasn't until 1977, when he was 9 years old, that his mother crossed the railroad tracks and took her son to see the Alabama Capitol on Easter Sunday.
Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): I remember standing on the star where Jefferson Davis stood, standing on the place where George Wallace stood in 1963, and being so awe-inspired by all of these symbols of Alabama's history. And at that time, I was too young, frankly, to appreciate the racial context, but I appreciated the great things that happened, the large things that happened. And it seemed far, far away to me.
ELLIOTT: The steps of the Capitol don't seem so far away to Artur Davis now. The 41-year-old congressman is running for governor in 2010.
Rep. DAVIS: Our state has changed, and my candidacy would be impossible if the state had not already changed.
ELLIOTT: The question is, has the state changed enough? Will Alabamians elect a black governor?
Mr. JEROME GRAY (Field Director, Alabama Democratic Conference): I don't think so.
ELLIOTT: Jerome Gray is the longtime field director for the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state's black political caucus.
Mr. GRAY: I just think he's underestimating where Bubba is. Yeah, we all would like to think that, you know, we have grown - and we have, in many ways - but there really are attitudes that just, you know, haven't died out. There has to be some people discoveries, we got to have some more funerals.
ELLIOTT: Representative Davis is Alabama's lone African-American congressman, elected from a majority black district that includes parts of Birmingham and Selma. African-Americans make up about a quarter of Alabama voters and to win statewide, Democrats need nearly 40 percent of the white vote. Gray says Davis has never been tested in a majority white and mostly Republican political environment.
Mr. GRAY: He's smart, he has a lot to offer, and we've encouraged him to stay put and go - and rise up in the pecking order.
ELLIOTT: Meaning, run for a down-ballot statewide office before setting his sights on the governor's mansion. Even white candidates do that, Gray says. But Artur Davis subscribes to a different kind of politics, the kind that prompted the then-35-year-old attorney and former prosecutor to challenge Alabama's first black congressman, Earl Hilliard in 2000. Davis recalls Hilliard gave him some political advice at the time.
Rep. DAVIS: You should have run for city council and then run for, maybe, county commission or state rep, and then state senator - and then run for Congress. You're trying to start at the top, you know. And I said, perhaps a bit flippantly, but I said, you know, congressman, anything that has 435 parts is not the top.
ELLIOTT: Davis lost in 2000, then beat Hilliard in the Democratic primary two years later. In Congress, he's forged a more moderate record than his predecessor. Back in the district, he's reached out to business and industry. Davis was an early supporter of his Harvard Law School contemporary, Barack Obama's presidential campaign, even though Alabama's black political machine backed Hillary Clinton. Birmingham-Southern College political scientist Natalie Davis - no relation - says Artur Davis, like President Obama, is a new kind of African-American politician.
Professor NATALIE DAVIS (Political Science, Birmingham-Southern College): They are post-racial. That is, they're not looking at politics just in terms of their home communities. And so, their messages tend to be much more moderate, and they know how to make the comfort level. They raise the comfort level of white voters to a point where race becomes less important.
ELLIOTT: But Professor Davis adds that doesn't mean race won't be an issue.
Prof. DAVIS: For most people who follow Alabama politics, everything is about race.
ELLIOTT: Artur Davis says it doesn't have to be. After all, when he was a boy, the governor's office was out-of-reach. Not today, he says.
Rep. DAVIS: It's a miracle that I attribute to people who didn't accept a fixed idea of what Alabama had to be, and what our country had to be.
ELLIOTT: Davis says the ceiling of aspiration for African-American politicians has been lifted. Just look at President Obama.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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