by Glynn Wilson
Artur Davis, the soft-spoken and little-known Congressman who represents much of the area from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, was in town this weekend while Congress takes a break from the August heat in Washington, D.C.
Dressed casually in gray slacks and a blue buttoned-down shirt, Davis showed up to shake some hands at the Birmingham Young Democrats’ cookout in George Ward Park on Southside.
I was able to catch up with him for a few minutes to press my concerns about the threat to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable” searches and seizures, and to finally get some answers to questions his press staff seem incapable of responding to — electronically or otherwise.
In northeastern Jefferson County, where a concern for the Second Amendment’s protections for gun ownership are paramount politically, very few people have ever even heard of Davis. An unscientific survey of average working people in Clay, Pinson, Center Point, Trussville, and Roebuck shows that he has almost no name recognition in this part of the world.
And since the newspapers and television news stations and radio talk shows in Alabama spend almost no time covering such “trivial” things as the threat to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from the Bush administration’s illegal spying operations over the past seven years, the average construction worker here doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about that either.
But among active Democrats who were in attendance at the cookout, there is an awareness that Davis — along with Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president to run against Republican John McCain — voted for the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which included a provision exempting telecommunications companies such as ATnT from lawsuits for their admitted role in illegally spying on Americans since 9/11.
The main reason Davis supported the bill, he said, was political.
Since Davis endorsed Obama early on, and since President George W. Bush threatened to veto any FISA bill that did not contain telecom immunity, the moderate Democrats who hold sway in both houses of Congress did not want to give McCain ammunition in the last three months of the presidential election race by allowing the spying law to expire in August.
McCain could have used that as evidence that the Democrats are “weak on terror,” Davis said — as if he wasn’t going to run ads saying that very thing anyway. He has already.
In his defense, Davis did offer a legal answer to the question as well.
Davis is a Harvard-educated lawyer who interned at the Southern Poverty Law Center and clerked for U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson — the federal judge who ordered Judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments Monument out of the State Supreme Court building in Montgomery and one of my personal heroes. He also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney before running for Congress, unlike Alabama’s current attorney general Troy King, who had never tried a case in court.
Standing in the George Ward Park pavilion with the aroma of barbecued chicken in the air, Davis made the case that the new FISA bill was an improvement over the old one.
Under the old law, passed in 1978 in response to President Nixon’s abuse of federal resources to spy on opposing political activist groups, there was no provision for protecting American citizens abroad, Davis said. The new law extends those rights overseas beyond the nation’s physical borders “for the first time,” he said. It was a compromise the Democrats would never have gotten out of the Bush administration just a few months ago, he claims.
The new law also strengthens monitoring of the federal government’s spying by the so-called FISA court, he said, although critics have said the court is nothing more than a “rubber stamp” for the executive branch, no matter who is in power.
The new bill also changes the language for obtaining warrants to spy on Americans from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion,” he said, although in a country run by an Imperial President who thinks he is a king who derives his power from God and is not beholden to the law, that improvement seems hardly enough to stop the abuses.
Which brings us to the last issue, where Davis makes a good point.
Whether the law is enforced in a way that protects civil liberties “rests on the integrity of the executive,” Davis said.
So he is hoping one of the questioners at this year’s presidential debates makes sure to ask Senator John McCain the question: “Can we count on you to be responsible in enforcing the FISA law?”
Or, in other words, will you abuse the power of the presidency to spy on political opponents, like Nixon and Bush? We might also add: Will you also politicize the Justice Department to jail your enemies?
Whether Davis’s answer will assuage the critics on the left in the Democratic Party is questionable.
According to Ben Mazzara, the local organizer for the Greater Birmingham Democracy for America chapter, a group set up by Howard Dean to help register new voters, Davis’s position is much like a lot of the Democrats in Congress now, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They have so far refused to bring articles of impeachment against Bush-Cheney or to hold Karl Rove in “inherent contempt” for his role in the political prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman.
“They have placed winning elections above the Constitution,” Mazzara said at the cookout.
He said that may pale in comparison to how Bush and the Republicans have “eviscerated” the Constitution. But it certainly contributes to the low public approval ratings of this Congress and may cause problems after the election, he said, even if Obama wins.
According to Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert who often appears on MSNBC to talk about these issues, history and the country may not judge the Democrats kindly. Check out this exchange on Keith Olbermann’s show:
TURLEY: … the most remarkable if not bizarre aspect of all of this [is] that President Bush’s allies in the last seven years have been the Democratic leadership and the Democratic members that have repeatedly stepped in to protect him, not just from impeachment, but serious investigation. And it’s part of a very cynical political strategy. It has succeeded.
The Democrats know that they can retain the Congress if they just let this guy (Bush), you know, sort of ripen on the vine. And that they are afraid that there could be a backlash if they try to impeach. But of course, that’s literally all politics and no principle. They took an oath in the House of Representatives. And the most important thing they have to do as House members is to stand firm in the face of presidential crimes.
And I think history will be very, very severe, not just for Speaker Pelosi, but all of the Democrats, of how they could let this come to pass where they stood silent and did nothing in the face of such compelling criminal record.
We will see if that prediction comes true, along with another one we made awhile back when covering the issue at the time: Will the issue come back to haunt Davis if he decides to run for governor of Alabama in 2010?
According to Richard Cohen, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Davis is a fine lawyer with a promising future in politics.
“Two things were obvious about Artur from day one here,” Cohen said. “He was going to be a gifted lawyer and was destined for great things in politics.”
But according to William Crain, a regular commentor on one of the largest and most influential e-mail lists in Alabama, “Davis is DLC (Democratic Leadership Council).”
If you want to examine the nefarious ways and means of the DLC, he said, read this article and others like it on the site.
The key quote from Davis, which makes a lot of sense from a practical political point of view, goes like this.
“If you don’t win, you don’t get to do anything,” he says. “If you don’t figure out a way to translate your message into at least 51 percent of the vote, then you will not do very well.”
True, but is it possible to win elections and remain true to the Constitution at the same time? Some people think so. It just takes work to educate the people and the press.
“The reason that there is much dissention in the Democratic Party ranks today is caused by the leaders of the DLC, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Al Frome, Rahm Emmanuel (and others),” Crain said. “If you don’t like Neo-Conservatives you will certainly not like Neo-Liberals. And the DLC is Neo-Liberal. You don’t want a Neo-Liberal for governor.”
To learn more about Davis’s background and to read about some of the controversies on the sources of his campaign funding, check out this SourceWatch page, which shows he takes a lot of money from New Yorkers. You can also check out this page from OpenSecrets.org, which shows that Davis takes a lot of money from corporations such as Southern Company, one of the worst polluters in the American South.
© 2008 – 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.