Always comfortable in the background,
Jim Davis is earnest and detailed, if not very flashy.
By ALEX LEARY
Published July 29, 2006
The congresswoman from South Florida trembled at the lectern, her defiant words carried on national television on Palm Sunday.
“Where will we stop if we allow this to go forward?” she asked. “Today it’ll be Terri Schiavo; tomorrow it’ll be my brother ...”
Slowly, the camera pulled back. A thin, gray-haired man stood in the rear of the conference room, head cocked to the side, eyes squinting.He stepped forward. It was a dramatic moment. Jim Davis had something to say.
But before he could speak, the moment disappeared. Another congressman beat him to the microphone. Davis retreated and, like a proud father, patted Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the back.
That scene, captured on C-SPAN as Schiavo’s right-to-die saga concluded last year, exemplifies Davis’ 17 years in politics.
Over a career that has stretched from Tallahassee to Washington, Davis has been intimately involved in some of the biggest and most complicated issues of the day, from oil drilling to class-size reduction to limiting the influence of lobbyists.
Yet his low-key, studious personality — all the more emphasized by patrician looks — means Davis has often gone unnoticed. He is comfortable as the wonk, toiling in the background to shape policy, sometimes, as with class size, well before it becomes a popular issue.
“I turned down Larry King three times after Schiavo,” Davis said on a recent Monday, gobbling down a blueberry muffin after stepping off an 8 a.m. flight into Tallahassee. “I didn’t see the purpose. I did my job. I organized the press conference. I helped organize the debate.”
Now Davis, 48, has firmly placed himself in the spotlight as one of two main Democratic candidates for governor.
He is a typical Democrat in many ways; staunchly supportive of public schools and health care, strong on the environment. He was an early advocate of mandatory recycling and energy conservation and has supported his share of taxes.
But he also has shown a tendency to veer from his party’s traditional stances. While in Tallahassee, he voted in favor of a bill that, had it not been vetoed by Gov. Lawton Chiles, would have permitted student-led school prayer.
In Washington, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the American flag and favored a ban on partial-birth abortions.
As a member of an energy and commerce subcommittee, he helped write the law cracking down on broadcasters after the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. Davis once voted against gay adoption, though he now says he has changed his mind.
After serving as a state representative from Tampa for eight years, the final two as majority leader, Davis launched an improbable bid for Congress in 1996 when Sam Gibbons retired. Davis faced a primary crowd of better-known Democrats, including former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. The race got ugly.
Davis hit first, blaming Freedman for the shooting deaths of two police officers in 1995 because of a policy forbidding them from carrying shotguns in the front of their cruisers. Freedman blasted Davis for voting years earlier against a restitution package for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, convicts who had been pardoned for a 1963 murder of two service station attendants.
Davis won a runoff, then defeated Republican Mark Sharpe. Davis was named president of the freshman class in Congress and joined a group of centrists named the New Democrat Coalition that worked with President Bill Clinton to forge consensus with Republicans.
As a member of the minority party in the House of Representatives, Davis has had little of the freedom he enjoyed in the Florida Legislature. Without Republican support, bills go nowhere, so he tends to not file many. In an odd way, the partisan landscape has played to Davis’ strength by forcing him to do much of his work out of sight, in committee and through the amendment process.
In 2001, for instance, after trying for three years to push a bill to provide grants up to $5,000 to encourage mid-career people to become teachers, he was forced to slip the program into an appropriations bill packed with pet projects. Davis, who publicly abhorred such tactics in the past, threw up his hands. “If I were in control of this place, and it ran the way it was supposed to run, this is not the way I would do it,” he said at the time. “But I am not going to sit back and watch this (teacher shortage) get worse.”
In March 1999, Clinton gave Davis one of his earliest legislative victories by signing into law a bill barring nursing homes from evicting Medicaid patients to make room for those with more profitable insurance. The issue arose after a retired mail carrier in Tampa complained to Davis and other lawmakers about the treatment of his mother. Today, on the stump, Davis invokes the law as an example of his ability to work with Republicans — Rep. Mike Bilirakis of Palm Harbor was a co-sponsor — and a philosophy of listening directly to constituents.
In 2001, Davis again formed a cross-party alliance, this time to oppose oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He and former Rep. Joe Scarborough of Pensacola, now a conservative commentator, won a House vote derailing President Bush’s plans for the offshore oil and natural gas reserves.
“Congressman Davis was the architect of that victory,” said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. “He’s the one who drafted amendments, held town hall meetings, picked up the phone and lobbied other congressmen.”
But Davis has not always displayed such flexibility. With gas prices soaring and the Middle East increasingly unstable, offshore drilling has resurfaced with gusto this year. Support has never been greater for the idea of expanding gulf drilling to the waters off Florida.
Only two days before a House vote, Davis and others refused to budge to the changing political reality. The House voted in late June to allow rigs as close as 50 miles offshore. Davis’ intransigence was seen by some as aimed at scoring points in his bid for governor while hurting the Florida delegation’s chances for negotiating a better deal.
“He played no active role in the negotiations,” said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. “Anything we could have done to bring on more Democrats would have given us additional leverage to create a better deal for Florida.”
Davis’ higher aspirations also were called into question during his July 2005 vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He had long been an advocate of free trade, so the move seemed to some a political calculation to secure union support. Davis declared he was running for governor in February of that year.
Davis said it was a difficult decision, but he feared CAFTA countries would not be accountable for enforcement of labor and environmental laws. In an interview this month, he acknowledged the legislation has some benefits for Florida, which exports billions to CAFTA countries, but said he stands by his vote. The vote drew praise from the Florida AFL-CIO, but Davis did not get its endorsement this year (nor did his opponent state Sen. Rod Smith. The union let local chapters make their own call).
Today, Davis’ stump speech reflects his personality — earnest and detailed, seldom flashy. With one exception: Terri Schiavo. It is one of his most aggressive talking points; at times, he seems swept up in his own fervor, boldly declaring his actions the “beginning of the end of the Bush administration’s stranglehold on our freedom.”
He was campaigning in Pasco County the day before Palm Sunday last year when he got a message about the impending House vote to intervene in the case. “And I got on the plane the next morning and I went to Washington.’’ He says he was advised by party colleagues to steer clear of the matter, which had Christian conservatives up in arms.
But Davis and other Democrats persisted and got the Republican leadership to hold a debate at 9 p.m. instead of midnight. “I was amazed,” Wasserman Shultz said. “He had already declared for governor and there had been no polling on the issue. The path of least resistance for him would have been to stay home.”
Davis entered politics in a crowd. Just like his congressional run years later, his first crack at a state House seat in 1988 came amid a crowded field of candidates. He was a 30-year-old lawyer, determined to follow the public service of his grandfather, Cody Fowler.
Surprising almost everyone but himself, Davis won state House District 64 on a diet of relentless door-to-door politics and fundraising.
As a state House member, he emerged as a leader on environmental and education issues, known for meticulous preparation. In 1990, he won the Allen Morris Award as most promising first-term member. “He was about as close to an intellectual as you could be,” said former state Rep. Carl Carpenter of Plant City, who sat next to Davis.
His focus on the arcane came out on complex issues such as energy. In 1992, Davis got hold of an insider report on how many power plants were needed to meet the state’s growing demands. So he drafted a bill calling on utilities to offer more conservation measures, offsetting the need for plants. The bill died, but Davis had modest success in getting the Public Service Commission to pass a rule mandating more conservation.
In 1995, incoming House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace tapped Davis majority leader. It came at a trying time for the Democratic Party because Republicans had begun their ascent. Davis himself barely won re-election against an unknown challenger. Still, the year provided Davis with what he considers one of the biggest accomplishments of his career — class-size reduction.
The idea arose after Eric Draper, staff director in the majority office, complained about how crowded his twin daughters’ first-grade class was at a Tallahassee elementary school. “Jim said, 'Let’s do this,’ ” Draper recalled.
The bill was filed by another member, but Draper and others say Davis was crucial. “Unlike a lot of people, he doesn’t stop to think about who’s going to get the credit or the headline,” Draper said.
The plan set aside tens of millions of dollars to build more classrooms, but was scrapped not long after Jeb Bush became governor in 1998. In 2002, however, then-state Sen. Kendrick Meek put class-size reduction at the forefront with a successful constitutional amendment. (In a twist, Meek has endorsed Davis’ opponent, Smith, who initially opposed amending the constitution.)
One of Wallace’s objectives was to change the culture of Tallahassee with a proposal to bar lawmakers from accepting meals from lobbyists valued at more than $25. Davis had the job of rounding up support. “This change is overdue. I think this change is inevitable,” he said during a floor debate in April 1996. “Change is hard, we know that better than anybody. But I think today is the day to make that step and adopt this change.”
It was one of Davis’ final acts as a state lawmaker, and he went out with a lopsided defeat. In a week, the session was over and he turned his attention to the race for Congress.
Nearly 10 years later, in 2005, Tallahassee lawmakers approved a lobbyist gift ban.