Ask Patricia Todd what party she belongs to and she answers quickly. “I’m an Obama Democrat,” she says. But ask her who she’s caucusing with this year in the Alabama House, and her answer takes more time. Beginning this year, she’s a party of one.
When I met Todd five years ago, she had won the Democratic primary for Alabama House District 54, but the party establishment wasn’t keen on giving her its nomination. Democratic Party boss Joe Reed threw every timber and cross tie on the tracks first. Finally, the party executive committee confirmed Todd in a floor fight.
In the five years since, Todd says, the party hasn’t done much for her. At the same time, it has moved away from its ideals, and quarantined itself from the president. As Todd describes them, Democratic caucus meetings have turned into strategy sessions for pushing the party further and further to the right.
Democrats could have done more, she said. Make a list of issues Alabama progressives ostensibly care about — repealing sales taxes on groceries and prescription drugs, reforming the tax code to make it less regressive, rewriting the state constitution, providing greater transparency. Do that, and you’ll have a list of Democratic Party failures of the last several decades.
“You cannot out-Republican the Republicans,” Todd said in an interview last week. “We don’t have a message in this party in this state. We talk about middle class and jobs, but what have we done in the 136 years that we have been in power?”
The final straw came during the last legislative session, when the House was debating a Republican bill to change teacher tenure. Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, a Democrat from Red Bay, attempted to amend the bill to make teaching homosexuality a firing offense for teachers.
“I’m not sure how anyone teaches homosexuality, because no one taught me that,” says Todd, who is Alabama’s first openly gay elected representative. “The Democrats felt like the Republicans could not resist voting that amendment on, but they miscalculated.”
If the amendment was meant to be a poison pill for the tenure bill, it failed. Instead, Republicans got to cluck their tongues at their Democrat rivals for throwing Todd under the bus.
“Even though I caucused with them, they didn’t listen to me,” Todd said. “My input was not solicited. Ideas I came up with were never done. I figured that I would be more effective as an independent working with both parties.”
I should disclose at this point that, in a former life, Weld Publisher Mark Kelly managed Todd’s 2006 campaign. “And she was such a good representative that she didn’t have any opposition the second time,” he says. During that campaign, Kelly recalls, he had to repeatedly remind Todd, “You can be Gandhi after the election.” Since being in office, Todd says, she has tried to nurture working relationships with her colleagues in the Legislature, especially those who disagree with her, but partisan politics makes that harder than it had to be.
“I’ve devoted my last year and the years to come to listening to people who don’t agree with me and figuring out why they have that opinion. Let’s face it, each of us has a different life experience,” she said. “I’m a minority of a minority, but as a gay person it is important that I have conversations with people so that they understand that I’m more than just a gay elected officials. That’s not the only issue on my plate and in fact it’s not the most important on my plate.”
Listening to Todd last week, I couldn’t help but remember another up-and-coming Democrat I talked to after the 2006 elections. “Voters want ideas, not ideology,” then-Rep. Artur Davis said.
Davis was supposed to be a leader for second-generation black elected officials, and at the time of that interview five years ago, he was a darling of the Beltway class. Today, things have changed dramatically, as Politico explored last week. In private practice as a K-street lawyer, Davis is in political exile. Occasionally, he intrudes again into Alabama politics — with an op-ed commending Republicans for Voter ID, or a blurb in a Beltway newspaper chiding the shallowness of Occupy Wall Street protests. But when he does resurface, the blowback has shown just how far outside the Democratic Party he is. Even Jere Beasley, the manager of Davis’ failed gubernatorial campaign, wouldn’t defend him to Politico.
In the meantime, many believe Davis is endearing himself to the GOP, even donating money to Republican candidates in other states.
“I think that it really says a lot about where Artur Davis’s heart is,” Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy told Politico. “What he’s doing is losing any credibility he’s had in the state Democratic Party. He’s a disappointment.”
But any skeptical observer of Alabama politics could say the same of the Democratic party itself: What is left of its credibility? It’s a disappointment. Its remnants are like a plantation in the post-Civil War South — a few white bosses with little power surrounded by a lot of confused blacks with nowhere else to go. Today, Alabama is not a two-party state or even a one-party state. After a 30-year political shift, Alabama is country club state, with all its white conservatives in the party with power, and its blacks segregated to a nominal, vestigial entity, now wholly subordinated by the GOP.
If Davis is planning to defect to the Republican ranks, it isn’t because he’s dumb. If he can integrate the country club, more power to him.
Alabama needs a political counter balance to the GOP, but at least for the moment, the Alabama Democratic Party isn’t it. When opponents of HB56 rallied in Birmingham two weeks ago, a few local legislators turned out, as did Davis’ successor, Terri Sewell. But many of the Dems there — like the Latinos they meant to protect — had to be imported from other states.
Once in Alabama, voter’s might have elected a yellow dog before a Republican, but for Democrats today, that party’s over.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.