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An Alabama Primary That Went Global | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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An Alabama Primary That Went Global

It is not often that a Democratic primary for a US House seat representing rural Alabama is big news in the United States -- let alone abroad. But the defeat of US Rep. Earl Hilliard, D-Alabama, in Tuesday's primary election runoff made headlines around the world. While voters in Selma and Tuscaloosa may have thought they were simply choosing between an aging veteran of the civil rights movement and an energetic challenger born the same year that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, analysts around the world were reading the results for signals about the character and scope of the debate over US policy regarding the Middle East.

"Mideast Was Issue In Democratic Race," read the Washington Post headline. "Mideast Fires Up Alabama Runoff," declared the Washington Times. "Mideast Conflict Comes To 'Bama," reported CBS. A National Review editor went so far as to declare the primary contest "a sideline skirmish in the war on terror." Overseas, Al-Jazeera's website described "The Middle East Conflict in Alabama's Seventh." The mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz thought enough of the story of Hilliard's defeat to publish an analysis that cited the result as one explanation for why President Bush's recent stances regarding the Middle East peace process have been so sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"To understand the political background to Bush's speech, it's worth taking a look at the Web site of the US Federal Election Commission," noted an analysis by Akiva Eldar for Ha'aretz. "Look for contributors to Artur Davis, a black lawyer who won the Democratic primaries in the 7th Congressional District in Alabama on the day of the speech. Davis beat his rival, the 60-year-old, five-term Earl Hilliard, who is also black, by a 56-44 percent vote. Here are some of the names from the first pages of the list of his contributors: there were 10 Cohens from New York and New Jersey, but before one gets to the Cohens, there were Abrams, Ackerman, Adler, Amir, Asher, Baruch, Basok, Berger, Berman, Bergman, Bernstein and Blumenthal. All from the east coast, Chicago and Los Angeles. It's highly unlikely any of them have ever visited Alabama, let alone the 7th Congressional District.

"What do the Adlers and Bergmans have to do with an unknown lawyer running for a Congressional seat from Alabama. Why should Jews from all over the United States send hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign coffers, which reached $781,000 - compared to the $85,000 he had in his coffers the last time he ran, and lost? The answer can be found in the AIPAC index of pro-Israel congressmen. Hilliard, who once visited Libya, is paying (with) his Congressional seat for a number of votes the Jewish lobbyists didn't like. The most recent vote was when he did not vote with the overwhelming majority of congressmen who passed a resolution in support of Israel's war on terrorism. A little while later, his opponent, Davis, discovered that a shower of checks was pouring into his campaign chest. Most of the signatures on the checks had Jewish names. The message was clear -this is what happens to politicians who upset Israel's friends."

There is always a danger when analysts attempt to read political tea leaves from afar. But, in the case of the Hilliard-Davis runoff, it is fair to say that this remarkable race cast some doubt on Tip O'Neil's "all-politics-is-local" mantra. The twist is that the infusion of out-of-district money into Davis' campaign was not merely motivated by Mideast politics.

Let's start be recognizing that there is no question that Arthur Davis, the Harvard-educated lawyer whose 2000 primary challenge to Hilliard was a fund-raising and vote-getting failure, benefited tremendously from 2002's changed -- and charged -- debate over the US role in the Mideast.

Hilliard has long argued for a shift in US foreign policy that would make this country more friendly to the Arab world in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. In May, the congressman cast one of 21 votes opposing a House resolution expressing solidarity with Israel. Citing Hilliard's history of support for Palestinians, Davis went on the attack -- portraying the five-term congressman's vote on the Israel resolution, various other votes and a 1987 visit by Hilliard to Libya as evidence that the incumbent was "out of step" with the Bush administration's "war on terrorism." The issue does not appear to have had much traction in rural Alabama, where voters are occupied with the loss of family farms, crumbling schools and health care affordability. But it went over well on the out-of-state fund-raising circuit.

As he geared up for his challenge to Hilliard, Davis visited pro-Israel donors around the country with the message that their contributions could help him dispatch a critic of Israel from Congress. Davis even traveled to Washington to attend this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention. By May 10, the Forward newspaper was reporting that, "The Democratic primary in Alabama's Seventh Congressional district is being closely watched by Israel's supporters, who view it as a chance to unseat an incumbent with ties to Arab countries and a spotty record of support for the Jewish state."

When Hilliard and Davis essentially tied in an early June primary, which forced the runoff, Arab-American groups began to raise money for the incumbent. But Davis had already emerged as the rare challenger with a financial advantage over a sitting member of the House. (The latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics show that Davis raised $879,368 to Hilliard's $516,658.)

With Hilliard's defeat came broad speculation that pro-Israel donors would find in Hilliard's defeat an encouragement to target their contributions to defeat Congressional Black Caucus members who have been critical of Israel. Seventeen members of the Black Caucus failed to vote for the "Solidarity with Israel" resolution in the House. Among the "no" voters was US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia., who faces an August primary challenge from a retired judge who has been busily raising funds from contributors who object to McKinney's frequent criticism of US policy in the Mideast.

The Hilliard defeat and the upcoming challenge to McKinney have raised concerns among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Arab-American community. Black Caucus members have already engaged in intense closed-door meetings with House Democratic leaders, Jewish Democrats in the House and AIPAC officials. "The fear is that this is not just about Earl Hilliard," says James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute. "The fear is that this is about an effort to take out African-American members who have tried to adopt a balanced stance on these issues."

The tension resulting from the Hilliard defeat is real enough.But the full reality of what happened is more complex.

Hilliard was defeated by outside money. But it was not just "pro-Israel" or "Jewish" money that took him down. And it was not just spending by an opponent that led to the congressman's first defeat in a political career that stretched back to the mid-1970s.

To understand the full story of what happened to Hilliard, it is important to begin with the recognition that his stance on Mideast issues is a much bigger issue outside than inside Alabama. A far bigger issue at home was the reprimand Hilliard received in 2001 from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for alleged campaign finance abuses. Even supporters of the incumbent acknowledge that the incumbent went into the 2002 race looking more vulnerable than in the past. "Hilliard's troubles had to do with perceptions about his performance in office," explains David Bositis, the senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who is one of the country's ablest analyst of African-American politics. "Nobody was voting on the Middle East in Selma, Alabama."

But what about the money Davis raised from pro-Israel donors? "It certainly helped Davis to mount his campaign at the start. For a challenger, getting money early is hard -- and Davis had that," says Bositis. "In general, however, you have to remember that Davis was not just attractive to people who didn't like Hilliard's stance on the Mideast. He was more attractive to business people than Hilliard. For a lot of business interests, the issue is whether a candidate they like has a credible chance of winning. When Davis started to look strong, the money started flowing. It wasn't just the Jewish money. As the race started turning, the money began to flow in -- and a lot of it was business money coming from individuals and groups with no interest in Israel."

Industry groups, such as the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, inked checks to Davis, as did big corporations, such as Viacom.

Why did business like Davis?

Bernadette Budde, a senior vice president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, was blunt. Business was not pleased with Hilliard's vote to protect the rights of workers, farmers and the environment in a rapidly globalizing economy.

Hilliard, one of the most progressive members of the House, has been a consistent critic of corporate excesses and a solid vote against free trade agreements that harm workers, farmers and the environment in the US and abroad. In the current fight over granting the White House permission to put negotiation of a sweeping Free Trade Agreement of the Americas on a "Fast Track" schedule that limits congressional input, Hilliard has been a solid "no" vote. That makes sense, as free trade agreements have done dramatic damage to the economic prospects of rural areas and mid-sized manufacturing districts like those of Alabama's Seventh District.

Davis, on the other hand, indicated during the campaign that he would be willing to support granting the Bush White House greater freedom to negotiate trade deals. That's what Budde wanted to hear. So her group inked a check for $1,000 to Davis' campaign -- and urged other business donors to do the same.

Notably, McKinney has also been one of the House's most consistent foes of the Bush administration's free-trade agenda. As her August primary nears, it is a safe bet that most media reports will try to spin her race as another "sideline skirmish in the war on terror." Rarer, no doubt, will be the reports of the "stealth campaign" of business interests seeking to buy a Congress that backs the corporate free trade agenda no matter what the cost to their home districts.

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