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Davis, Part 3: Transparency in campaigns and what is next

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

APR: When we sat down with republican leaders , and others to explain Alabama Political Reporter, I told them that I don’t kid myself that after 20 years in power without being unchecked that the Republicans will be as corrupt as they consider the Democrats to be today. I think the press is partly responsible to help politicians from heading down the wrong road at least expose their corruption when they do and I intend to do that. But I also think if you have one-party rule like any nation of one-party rule then there is a tendency toward bad ideas that lead to corruption. Any number of unwanted things can happen when government is allowed to go unfettered and flourish under one banner.

DAVIS: “I agree, one-party rule does not work from Moscow to Montgomery. One-party rule does not work. It did not work for Democrats, it will not work for Republicans because one-party rule means that you really never have to question what you believe.

artur-davis“If your side can win elections simply by sticking an ‘R’ next to a candidate’s name, that means you never have to really examine the things that you believe. You never really have to do a gut check on things you believe are working or not. And it means that, as a practical matter, we don’t have the kind of competition that we need to really push both political parties to be better.

“If only one political party can win an election, and the only competition that happens, happens in primaries, there is a whole set of ideas that will never be advocated in Alabama politics.

“I would like to see a competitive two-party system or I would like to see a system in which a third party or an independent force would provide a home for people who didn’t feel connected to one party or the other.

“What I see today, is a Democratic Party in Alabama that has no new ideas, a Republican Party that does have ideas but those ideas haven’t always been tested and some of them work better than others and some will not work at all. And I see a significant number of people, frankly, just disengaged from Alabama politics.

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“You know people often say to me, ‘Well, haven’t you kind of given up on Alabama politics?’ (And I point to them because there are a whole lot of people in the State of Alabama who seem to have given up on Alabama politics.) There are a whole lot of people sitting in Montgomery and Birmingham right now who seem to have disengaged from Alabama politics. That is not a function of where you live but a function of can you make a difference. I see a lot of people who have concluded that the system is so locked in the status quo that there is no real opportunity for new voices to be heard. I see a lot of people who have disengaged from Alabama politics.”

APR: If you tomorrow found yourself the head of a news organization, what might be your advice in say “better coverage” or how do we make, from the press’ point, more transparency in government? How do we demand it? Because the news bureaus are shutting down in Montgomery, you do not have people down there with institutional knowledge of what is going on. And basically, right or wrong, the newspapers get painted as liberal, most of my colleagues in the press in NYC or in Alabama are much more liberal than probably their neighbors. Of course some of my friends in the media think because they are more educated that it has made them more liberal. I’m not sure that is the case though, I know people that have great educations that have no thought process.

DAVIS: “I would say that if you are running a newspaper, the most important thing that I think any newspaper can do is (one thing that I think journalism as a whole in Alabama can do) to press candidates on what they believe.

“I was frankly struck during my campaign how uninquisitive most journalists were about public positions in the campaign.

“When I was running, my Democratic opponent took a range of different positions on different issues. He was against the healthcare bill, and then he was for it. He was against gambling, then he was for it. He was against extending unemployment benefits to part-time people, then he was for it. But I didn’t see the press really care.

“On the Republican side, I didn’t see the press spending a whole lot of time asking Dr. Bentley, ‘exactly what is your relationship with AEA and tell me where you disagree with AEA. We don’t really care you got money from them, we know that. That is really not so much the issue, the issue is what does the money mean to you?’

“I didn’t see the press spend a whole lot of time on that. They were usually willing to take only a surface level position. So, I think it is important for you guys [APR] to not take the surface level position. I think it is important to do the homework.

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“Second of all, it is very important to look where the money is coming from in politics. And with the Alabama press, I can’t speak for the national press, I am more aggressive about this, but the Alabama press wasn’t always willing to follow the money trail.

“Look to see where is a candidate looking to get resources. All candidates have to raise money, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is important for the public to know where the money is coming from and it is important to ask every candidate, “Where do you differ from the people who are helping to finance your campaign?”

“Candidates love to say, ‘Oh, I am simply getting money from people who support the things that I support. Who are you going to go to? To your enemies?’ That is what candidates always say. Pro-business candidates say, ‘Well, I am pro-business.’ Pro-gambling candidates say, ‘I am pro-gambling. Of course, Milton McGreggor gave me money.’

“The question that you guys and ladies ought to ask is, ‘Tell me where you disagree Mr. Pro-business candidate with the business lobby that is giving you money? Is there any issue that you disagree with them on?’ ‘Mr. Pro-gambling candidate who is getting money from the casino operators, tell me where you disagree with them.’ I think you would be surprised at how many candidates will very quickly decide that the interview is over at that point.”

APR: When we were in St. Clair County we tried to get the word out as to the differing policy positions or where campaign money was coming from but we were just a small voice and not really in the arena.

DAVIS: “Not enough news people were doing what you were doing. One newspaper, whether it is the Birmingham News or the Montgomery Advertiser or one St. Clair paper is not going to make the difference.

“This is something journalism has to do in the State of Alabama. You have to press these people and ask the question, ‘Tell me what, not just again, where you agree with your friends (we know you agree with your friends on some things, probably most things). Tell me where you disagree with your friends.’

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“Because I would submit to you that is really the measure of a politician. How often that person is willing to break ranks with the people who support them because if you are simply a mouthpiece from the people who are pouring money into your campaign that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in what kind of governor you will be. I want to see where you differ, as a voter, I want to see that.”

APR: During the next election, we plan to have reporters with video recorders following candidates to multiple campaign stops. That way if their campaign position changes when they are Moody from say, Montgomery, we will have it for the voters to view.

DAVIS: “I would encourage you to do that because having been to a whole lot of candidate forums and heard a whole lot of campaign speeches, you would be surprised how many people say different things in different places.

“And I’m not talking about different emphasis, I’m not talking about moving your head around a little bit when you speak to a black group and be perfectly still when you speak to a white group. I am talking about people saying one thing in one place and the opposite thing in another place.

“I can’t tell you how many candidates I have seen do it and to the point that they actually view themselves as clever for doing it. It would be one thing if a candidate did that and thought, ‘You know what, I hate that I had to do that.’ But, when I see candidates walk around and believe that it is a sign of their political skill and believe that is how you do it, that you go in front of one group and say one thing and say the diametrical opposite to another.

“We had 18 debates in the governor’s race and I wish all 18 of them had been televised. It turned out not one of them was.

“One of the constant challenges that we faced in our campaign was frankly trying to correct misstatements and trying to say to people, ‘Okay, this is what this person said to you, you know a week ago they said the opposite,’ or ‘That is what this person said to you after the debate, did you catch what they said during the debate?’ It was amazing.”

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APR: When are you coming back?

DAVIS: “You know people ask me that question all the time and the most direct answer I can give you is my wife is working here now, I’m working here now, and this is where we are.

“I don’t exclude the possibility of returning to Alabama in the future. I don’t exclude that possibility, however there is no master plan to do it. The reality is…I have made it very clear the whole course of my career…I like politics, politics is something I enjoy. I think I was a very good member of Congress. I think I was a very good candidate.

“We didn’t get the results we wanted but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you weren’t a good candidate and that you wouldn’t have been a good official but to run for office you have to have two things: You have to have donors and you have to have a support base.

“You know its not always advertised and talked about but it is the reality. You can’t get out there by yourself. And second of all there has to be an opening and your talent needs to fit that opening.

“I recognized last year when I lost the Democratic primary that a lot of doors were closed to me because I made a decision that rather than being good cheerleader or a good party soldier that I was going to speak my piece. I frankly did that before the primary. And I made a decision to keep doing that.

“I knew that was going to antagonize a range of people. I didn’t do what a lot of candidates do when they lose elections which is to say, ‘Oh everything I did I wish I had done the opposite way. Please forgive me and please help me next time.’ That is not the route that I chose to follow, so I knew that would close some doors to me.

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“I am not a partisan. I’m not someone that believes that Republicans are evil and Democrats have all the answers and because I am not a partisan, for me to have a chance to win I would have to be in an environment where frankly there was a chance for all kinds of people to be able to vote for me.

“I have had various people encourage me to run for office. I had several major national donors encourage me to run for Congress as an independent in the 7th district. They said they believe that there need to be more independents in Congress and they believe that there needs to be that viewpoint and they are interested in supporting a group of folks out there who may be running in various states.

“I have already served in Congress, so that is not something that is on my radar screen to do. There were people who encouraged me to run for chief justice when Sue Bell Cobb announced that she wasn’t running.

“I have had people encourage me to run for mayor of Montgomery in the next election. That is four years off.

“The reality is today, I am not focused on any of those things. I made a decision not to seek office in the 2012 election cycle and barring something completely unexpected happening that would just completely change the political dynamic in such a way that all people needed to show up and kind of report for duty, absent something like that happening I wouldn’t be a candidate in 2012 and as I said, beyond that is a long time in politics.”

We want to thank Congressman Davis for his candid and frank conversation, we value his insight as an intelligent Alabamian who has served his state with honor and distinction. We wish him the best and a bright future whatever he does in the future.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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