Artur Davis made national headlines on Tuesday for what some are portraying as an act of political boldness, maybe even courage. A member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he publicly called for Charlie Rangel – a founding member of the CBC – to surrender his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Some clarification is in order. From a political standpoint, there is absolutely nothing courageous about Davis’ move. And at a personal level, there’s nothing surprising about it, either.
First, the politics: Davis is running for governor of Alabama. It would be tough enough for an African-American Democrat to win that position in any election year, and the degree of difficulty in 2010 is off the charts. It is absolutely imperative for Davis to separate himself – forcefully and visibly – from the Obama administration and the national Democratic Party.
This is why he voted against the House healthcare bill back in November. And it’s why he’s now coming out against Rangel, a favorite Fox News punching-bag and a symbol to many Alabamans of what they detest about national Democrats. For Davis, sticking by Rangel would have been politically courageous. But this? This is the easy and obvious play.
And it’s easier still when you consider the personal history between the two men. In 2000 and 2002, Davis, an ambitious young federal prosecutor, challenged Rep. Earl Hilliard, an older generation CBC member, in the Democratic primary in Alabama’s majority-black 7th District. The CBC’s elders, including Rangel, rallied around Hilliard, who beat back Davis’ first challenge only to fall to him in ’02.
When he arrived in D.C., Davis was given the cold shoulder by Hilliard’s CBC allies. Rangel, who actually won his own House seat by knocking off an incumbent black Democrat (Adam Clayton Powell) in a primary, was not as hard on Davis as some other CBC members were, but he wasn't that friendly, either. Most CBC members viewed Davis and his boundless ambition and national donor network with something between suspicion and contempt.
It was clear that Davis, unlike Rangel’s generation of CBC members, didn’t see his long-term future in the House. The older generation had banded together and used its clout to win influential committee assignments and, with a boost from the seniority system, committee chairmanships. But Davis wasn’t going to play this game. Instead, he’d go his own way, make his own name through the media, and position himself for the shot at statewide office he’s now taking.
Eventually, he and the Rangel crowd learned to coexist. But Davis has never been close to Rangel, and surely he remembers how difficult those early days in the House were – and who was responsible for making them so difficult.
In calling for Rangel’s ouster on Tuesday, Davis wasn’t turning on a mentor. He was settling a score.