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Political Play of the Week

Voters send a message in Alabama

Rep. Earl Hilliard, right, lost Alabama's congressional primary runoff to Arthur Davis.
Rep. Earl Hilliard, right, lost Alabama's congressional primary runoff to Arthur Davis.  

By Bill Schneider
CNN Sr. Political Analyst

In 1997, Democratic Congressman Earl Hilliard angered supporters of Israel when he traveled to Libya.

He angered them again this year when he voted against a House resolution that condemned Palestinian suicide bombings.

That had big political consequences for Hilliard last week. The Middle East meets Alabama's Black Belt in the political Play of the Week.

Enter Arthur Davis, a 34-year-old African-American Harvard graduate and Birmingham attorney who lost to Hilliard in 2000.

This time, Davis had his issue. "My opponent, Earl Hilliard, has not been a strong supporter of Israel. I have been a very strong supporter of Israel, and if I am elected, Israel will have a friend."

Is the Middle East that big an issue in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country?

No, but it did enable Davis to raise more money than the incumbent. "We've gotten very strong support from the national Jewish community, and I'm honored to have that support," Davis says.

The money enabled Davis to run tough ads attacking Hilliard's record.

Hilliard's defense? Davis is trying to buy the race with out-of-state money from places like New York.

Eighty-two percent of Davis's individual contributions over $200 did come from out of state. But 68 percent of Hilliard's did too, much of it from Arab-Americans.

Rev. Al Sharpton campaigned for Hilliard in Birmingham.
Rev. Al Sharpton campaigned for Hilliard in Birmingham.  

Hilliard brought in outsiders to campaign for him -- from New York. Like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said, "Everybody that's our color is not our kind. Everybody that's our skinfolk is not our kinfolk."

Last Tuesday, Davis beat Hilliard decisively in the runoff. With no Republican running in November, Davis has effectively been elected.

He saw it as a statement. "Racial division and religious bigotry have no place in the 7th district."

It was also a statement for American Jews: If you oppose Israel, we'll oppose you.

That's political hardball -- and the Play of the Week.

It's rare for an incumbent House member -- especially a five-term incumbent -- to be defeated for re-nomination by his own party.

You can bet that every member of the House took notice when it happened to Congressman Hilliard this week.




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