In a race that could have repercussions for strained black-Jewish relations, U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard is claiming that out-of-state Jewish money bought his defeat in Alabama’s Seventh District primary.
Political observers however, say Hilliard, a five-term congressman, was voted out because he was ineffective.
Attorney Artur Davis defeated Hilliard, 56 percent to 44 percent, in the Democratic primary runoff June 25. There is only token Libertarian opposition in the predominantly black district, so winning the primary virtually assures Davis, 34, of the seat.
In 2000, Hilliard trounced political newcomer Davis by 24 points. This time around, Davis had the money to give Hilliard his first serious challenge since he was elected to Congress in 1992.
The race drew national attention because of Hilliard’s outspoken views on the Middle East, exemplified by his controversial trip to Libya in 1997. Hilliard also was among a handful of House of Representatives members to vote against a May resolution supporting Israel’s fight against terror.
Hilliard advocates a Palestinian state, but insists that he is not anti-Israel. He seeks a “more balanced” approach to Middle East diplomacy, he says.
Hilliard also introduced a controversial bill that would require the establishment of diplomatic relations with any regime the United States has punished unilaterally — such as Cuba — but not with regimes punished by the rest of the world.
Last year, the House of Representatives’ Ethics Committee reprimanded Hilliard for irregularities in his handling of campaign funds. In previous campaigns where he had little or no opposition, Hilliard spent much of his money on “polling” and donations to political groups, and did little actual campaigning.
Hilliard had never lost a race in his 28-year political career. But the rush of support this time for Davis — who raised less than $90,000 in his 2000 race — seemed to blindside Hilliard.
Local Jewish activists, impressed by the Harvard-educated Davis in 2000, felt he could win if his message could get out. They encouraged friends to support him.
In all, Davis raised about $900,000, including almost $800,000 in individual donations — the vast majority of which came from Jews across the country, especially in New York.
Hilliard raised about $600,000, with less than one-third coming from individuals. Reports to the Federal Election Commission leading up to the runoff showed that 28 of 35 individual donors to Hilliard were out-of-state Muslims.
Davis visited the April annual meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee to meet several donors and thank his Alabama supporters.
Shortly thereafter, a flier surfaced in Alabama entitled “Artur Davis and the Jews: Bad for Black Belt.” Though it was signed with shortened versions of the names of two Hilliard associates, Hilliard disavowed the flier and implied that Davis wrote it himself to scare Jewish donors into giving him more money.
Davis dismissed the accusation as nonsense.
The large number of out-of-state Jewish donors to Davis also alarmed the pro-Arab community, which mobilized to support Hilliard in what it depicted as a test of strength against the “Israel lobby.”
A Web site, votehilliard.org, was established on May 20 by Ahmed Bouzid of Palestine Media Watch. The site urged said Hilliard was “under an AIPAC attack,” while “his only crime is standing up for Palestinian rights.”
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, devoted his May 27 column to the race.
Davis narrowly lost to Hilliard in the June 4 primary, but won enough votes in the three-man race to force a runoff. Hilliard launched a new series of attacks on Davis’ out-of-state support, including a commercial morphing a cigar-smoking white New Yorker into Davis’ face.
Waters claimed the effort to unseat Hilliard was a swipe at the entire Congressional Black Caucus — though Davis also is black.
“No one special interest group should be able to take any of us out,” she said.
Hilliard supporters also tried to call into question Davis’ allegiance to black voters. Many speakers and the anti- Davis flyer noted Davis’ past as a federal prosecutor.
Davis’ “only work experience was putting black folks in jail and now he tells us that Jews are our best friend,” the flyer said. “This man is very, very, very dangerous.”
The Birmingham Times, the Southeast’s largest black weekly, wrote: “The bottom line is that Mr. Davis sold out America by signing a decree of intent to support Israel, according to Congressman Hilliard. This comes very close to implying treason.”
Hilliard believes Jewish groups now will set their sights on the outspokenly anti-Israel McKinney, and said his loss will increase tensions between blacks and Jews.
He predicted unspecified “retribution” for Jewish involvement in campaigns in heavily black areas.
Not everyone shared the dire appraisal of the situation.
Davis, in fact, portrayed his victory as a harbinger of better relations between blacks and Jews.
He sounded a unifying note at his victory party, saying the margin of victory shows “racial division and religious bigotry have no place in the Seventh District,” and that voters rejected those tactics.
Noting the parade of campaigners for Hilliard that came through the state that week, he added, “Anyone who comes into this city to divide us is going to be sent back home.”
The district includes Selma and parts of Birmingham and Montgomery, major battlegrounds of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The district also includes the poorest rural areas in the state.
Much of the national attention in the race focused on the Middle East, but Davis said the race actually was about health care, education and economic opportunity in a region gripped by poverty.
He said Jewish donors never asked about how he would vote on specific issues, only about his philosophy and if he is willing to work for better relations between blacks and Jews.
Davis noted that the Jewish community traditionally has been very active in the Democratic party and in supporting the Civil Rights Movement. He also said he had to expand his fundraising base outside the district because donors who supported him against Hilliard in 2000 reported suffering “repercussions.”
Political observers say the race shows the continuing “maturation” of the black electorate in Alabama, which has voted out many long-time officials backed by major organizations in the last two years.
Rather than voting based on pure sentiment — for example, supporting Hilliard because he was the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction — they look for representatives who can bring results and improvements in their lives, the observers said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.