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Once 'The Obama Of Alabama,' Now A GOP Headliner

Aug 17, 2012
Originally published on August 17, 2012 9:57 pm

Four years ago in Denver, Artur Davis took the podium at the Democratic National Convention to speak up for Barack Obama.

"I am honored to second the nomination of the man whose victory tonight takes us closer to becoming what we know America can be," he said.

But now, as President Obama seeks re-election, Davis is on the list of scheduled speakers for the Republican National Convention.

The former Democratic congressman from Alabama, who tried and failed to become the state's first black governor, is now a Republican resident of Virginia.

And this time around, he will be calling for the president's defeat.

From Supporter To Detractor

Davis and Obama have known each other since their days at Harvard Law School. Davis was an early supporter of Obama's presidential campaign — the first member of Congress from outside Illinois to endorse him.

He was one of Obama's most prominent supporters in Alabama and helped the future president win the state's Democratic primary. But now, Davis says he is disenchanted with the man he helped to victory in 2008.

"Let's not forget, four years ago, Sen. Obama said, 'We're the ones we've been waiting for. We have the capacity to change and to break this gridlock' — and I think, unfortunately, some of the president's own policies have pushed us further apart."

Davis voted against the president's signature achievement, the health care overhaul, which he said was pushed across with "an aggressive, party-line ... take-it-or-leave-it strategy." In 2010, after four terms in Washington, Davis gave up his safe seat in Congress to run for the Democratic nomination for governor in Alabama. He lost by 24 percentage points.

NPR spoke with Davis in June, shortly after he announced he was leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican.

"When I look at where I lean on the issues that people are debating today, when I look at where I lean in the questions that are most important to me — the economy and education — I see more alignment, more philosophical compatibility, with the Republican Party than I do the Democratic Party," Davis said.

He says there is no tolerance among Democrats for center-right views, such as his own.

A Political Turnaround

Democrats have questioned whether Davis' conversion to the GOP is less a question of dissatisfaction with party ideology and more a matter of sour grapes after losing his bid to become Alabama governor.

Davis' biography is an up-by-the-bootstraps story. He was raised in Montgomery, Ala., by his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced.

He says that while African-Americans have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, Republicans can change that.

"I think that if Republicans talk about growing this economy, talk about overhauling education, and, frankly, govern and operate in an inclusive manner when it comes to race, I think that's the best way to make the case to black voters in the next 10 years," he says.

His role as a headliner at the Republican convention later this month marks a remarkable 180-degree political transformation for Davis. And he carries an important message for the GOP, telling undecided voters that if this man, who was once dubbed "the Obama of Alabama," is now behind Mitt Romney, you can be, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Republicans have released their list of convention speakers, and one name in particular has sparked attention: Artur Davis. He's a former congressman from Alabama who tried and failed to become the state's first black governor. He was a Democrat. In fact, back in 2008 at the Democratic convention, he played a marquee role in supporting then-Senator Obama's nomination. This time around, Davis is a Republican and, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, he'll be calling for the president's defeat.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It was the Wednesday of convention week four years ago in Denver that Artur Davis took the podium at the Democratic National Convention to speak up for Barack Obama.

ARTUR DAVIS: I am honored to second the nomination of the man whose victory tonight takes us closer to becoming what we know America can be, ladies and gentlemen.

NAYLOR: Davis and Barack Obama go back a ways. They were at Harvard Law School together and Congressman Davis was an early supporter of Senator Obama's presidential campaign, the first member of Congress from outside Illinois to endorse him. He was one of Mr. Obama's most prominent supporters in Alabama and helped the future president win the state's Democratic primary. But now, Davis says he's disenchanted with the man he helped to victory in 2008.

DAVIS: Let's not forget, four years ago, Senator Obama said, we're the ones we've been waiting for, we have the capacity to change and to break this gridlock. And I think, unfortunately, some of the president's own policies have pushed us further apart.

NAYLOR: Davis voted against the president's signature achievement, the Health Care Reform Act, which he said was pushed across with an aggressive, party-line take-it-or-leave-it strategy. In 2010, after four terms in Washington, Davis gave up his safe seat in Congress to run for the Democratic nomination for governor in Alabama. He lost by 24 points. NPR spoke with Davis this past spring, shortly after he announced he was leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican.

DAVIS: When I look at where I lean on the issues that people are debating today, when I look at where I lean in the questions that are most important to me, the economy and education, I see more alignment, more philosophical compatibility with the Republican Party than I do the Democratic Party.

NAYLOR: He says there's no tolerance among Democrats for center-right views such as his own. Democrats have questioned whether Davis' conversion to the GOP is less a question of dissatisfaction with party ideology and more a matter of sour grapes after losing his bid to become Alabama governor. Davis' is an up-by-the-bootstraps story. He was raised in Montgomery by his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced.

He says while African-Americans have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, Republicans can change that.

DAVIS: I think that if Republicans talk about growing this economy, talk about overhauling education and, frankly, govern and operate in an inclusive manner when it comes to race, I think that's the best way to make the case to black voters in the next 10 years.

NAYLOR: His role as a headliner at the Republican convention later this month marks a remarkable 180-degree political transformation for Davis. And he carries an important message for the GOP, telling undecided voters that if this man who was once dubbed the Obama of Alabama is now behind Mitt Romney, you can be too. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.