The congressman from a wealthy and influential family lives within surprisingly moderate means.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published July 7, 2006
Jim Davis grew up part of a blue blood, old money South Tampa family.
Fowler Avenue is named after Davis’ great-grandmother. She became Temple Terrace’s first vice mayor in the 1920s.
In the 1940s, Davis’ grandfather formed Fowler White, one of Florida’s top law firms. He later presided over the American Bar Association.
And more recently, Davis’ father was a judge.
Davis himself played tennis and went to private schools, married a Harvard-educated Chicago banker and joined a prestigious Tampa law practice.All of it suggests a life of wealth and luxury, inheritance and affiliations.
But, Davis, a five-term congressman running for governor, lives a surprisingly modest existence, a St. Petersburg Times review of his finances reveals.
In fact, Davis has only one real asset, an unassuming house near his childhood home on Davis Islands. And his congressional salary of $158,706 last year is all that supports his wife, Peggy, and their two teenage sons.
Davis, meanwhile, stays in the extra bedroom of his sister’s cramped Georgetown townhome when he’s in Washington. The Davises have no interest in business or the stock market. No boat. No expensive hobbies. No rental properties or second homes.
The Davises say they are trying to save money for their sons’ college. Peggy Davis may go back to work.
Life is comfortable, but far from extravagant. It’s what they chose, Davis says.
“When I’m not working, I’m spending time with my children,” Davis, 48, said recently. “It’s not like I’m out playing golf with the guys saying, 'Hey Jim, we’re doing this IPO.’
“I just don’t have the time.”
It’s an early Friday morning in St. Petersburg, and Jim Davis is picking at a muffin before a candidate forum. He sits on the edge of a couch, tossing his navy suit jacket over the back.
The jacket is from JoS. A. Bank and probably close to 20 years old, Davis says, laughing. He doesn’t gain weight, so the suit still fits. His wife wishes he would replace it, Davis says.
“Peggy and I are like most Florida families,” Davis says, circling around to his point. “We work hard to make ends meet. We’re saving for our children’s college. And my wealth is my family, my friends and my health — and my home.”
Davis was raised on Davis Islands and worked summers giving tennis lessons there. He attended Jesuit High School; Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts college in Virginia; and the University of Florida law school.
Thanks to the financial support of his grandfather, Cody Fowler, Davis came out of school in 1982 debt free.
But rather than work for his grandfather’s firm, Davis signed on with Tampa’s Carlton Fields.
“I wanted to make it on my own,” said Davis, who stayed until 1988, the year he was elected to the state House.
Davis left Carlton Fields because the firm had clients it lobbied for in Tallahassee, Davis said. His new firm, Bush, Ross of Tampa, did not.
At Bush, Ross, he worked on an hourly rate, mainly on construction and commercial litigation, said Jeff Warren, a partner at Bush, Ross. Davis rarely, if ever, argued in front of a jury, Warren said. He remained there until 1996, when he was elected to Congress. As a member of Congress, Davis is prohibited from practicing law.
Friends like Warren say Davis was a good lawyer, but the work did not make him rich. In his eight years in the state House, when financial disclosures documented his salary, Davis earned more than $100,000 in a year as a lawyer just twice.
And when he joined the state Legislature in 1988, before he owned a home, Davis’ reported net worth was $44,589 and his most prized possession was a 1985 Volkswagen Jetta.
“That car, yeah, that car,” says Davis, looking up like the car was now in heaven. He would still be driving it if he could, but parts became hard to come by, he says.
In 2005, Davis was worth more than $500,000, largely propped up by the value of his home. And now he drives a 2003 Ford Taurus.
“Most of the other (candidates) have built some wealth, have real estate. A couple had money sheltered with other investments. He’s a very Plain Jane,” said Ed Slott, a New York accountant who reviewed each gubernatorial candidate’s tax returns for the Times.
In many ways, Davis’ cars are a metaphor for his financial story, which itself mirrors his style on the campaign trail and the critique often pinned to him.
Jim Davis: steady, reliable, and anything but showy.
“If you’re thinking flashy or glamorous, then go 180 degrees and that’s where you’re going to find Jim,” says Warren, of Bush, Ross.
“He’s a person of moderate tastes,” adds Reece Smith of Carlton, Fields, who was once a roommate of Davis’ father. “Making money is not his ultimate goal.”
Davis has lived in the same three bedroom home on Davis Islands since 1989. It cost $152,500 to buy back then, has tripled in value since, and is now one of the smaller properties in the neighborhood.
The Davises have a $63,000 home equity line mortgage on the property, which is off the water on a snaking street deep into the island.
The house, like it is for most people, is both the family’s largest asset and liability.
And Davis’ congressional salary, $158,706 last year, is the family’s only source of annual income. Peggy stays at home with the couple’s two sons, Peter, 16, and William, 14.
“We made a choice. We’re on a very limited budget as far as vacations, too,” Davis said. “Peggy and I do the very best we can to put our children first. But it’s a balance.”
Davis has treasury securities for his sons between $1,001 and $15,000, according to required federal filings. He will also receive pensions both for his work in the Florida state House and in Congress.
Davis’ Florida state retirement plan is worth between $15,001 and $50,000, according to federal filings. And when he turns 62, Davis is due more than $27,500 a year for his 10 years serving in Congress.
And he is due a possibly significant inheritance from his grandfather Cody Fowler’s estate. The $1.46-million estate was split in equal trusts among Fowler’s three daughters when he died in 1978. Davis, along with his brother and sister, is due to receive part of that trust when his mother, Cody Fowler Davis, dies.
Still, the Davises are thinking that Peggy might return to work. She might have to in order to pay for their sons’ college, Davis said.
“He doesn’t live badly,” said his brother, Cody Davis, while at his second home in the Naples area. “But he’s just not extravagant. Never was.
“Jim works very hard, makes a good living and lives well within it.”
He’s not one to splurge, either. That’s what made the $10,000 in overseas credit card purchases in one day so strange.
The six charges just appeared on Peggy Davis’ credit card Oct. 13.
The card hadn’t been stolen or lost; it was in Peggy’s wallet the whole time. Yet, someone, somehow ran up a $10,000 tab.
The charges were for expensive electronics. In Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve been to Saudi Arabia twice for work, but not for shopping,” said Davis, who documented the fraudulent credit charges as part of his most recent financial disclosure report. “I was stunned. Peggy was stunned.”
Davis has had troubles with mistaken identities in the past. In 2003, Davis was placed on the government’s no-fly list for a while because his name was so common.
And that same year, Davis wrote a letter to his mortgage lender SunTrust Bank, saying there were many people with the name Jim Davis, but there was only one him.
“Peggy had to work feverishly to protect our credit history,” Davis said of the most recent incident. “She immediately jumped on it. Ten-thousand dollars, that’s pretty serious.”
The Davis’s canceled their credit cards and got new ones. They’re just getting everything back to normal.
But, “one thing’s for sure,” says Warren, Davis’ former law colleague, “there’ no way Peggy would have put $10,000 on a credit card.”
Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2273.