Jim Davis: Family footsteps, then a turn into politics

He's "slow, steady, not flashy," but ready with a cheesy pun. He chose public service over the law.

Published August 26, 2006

Summer 1972: While his friends in Tampa are riding skateboards and chasing girls, Jim Davis walks the marble floors of the U.S. Supreme Court. His grandfather introduces them by name: Chief Justice Burger, Justice White ...

Davis wears a jacket and tie, but the teenager shows through. During lunch with retired Justice Tom Clark, he spills gravy all over the tablecloth. The old man laughs.

Back home, his parents' 16-year marriage was coming apart. They separated in August, and divorced three months later. Even today, Davis will say little about it.

What few memories he shares seem almost too scripted, too self-aware for a boy of 14. He describes stepping outside his family's house and staring back at it, wondering what would happen next. He recalls sitting on his bed, thinking he could act out, rebel, become a bad kid.

Or he could become something else, something recognizable in him today: diligent, serious, optimistic.

Even without the memories Davis declines to share, his recollections of that summer reveal much of what has motivated him as a student, lawyer, parent and politician in the 34 years since.

"I went up to Washington as a young man without a great deal of focus or ambition," Davis said. "I came back determined to do something with myself."

If that visit and his grandfather's expectations provided a spark - the following year, as a sophomore at Jesuit High School, Davis made the honor roll - the divorce forced him to mature rapidly, in ways beyond changing his 2-year-old sister's diapers.

The low key persona and boyish appearance have made Davis a target, too. He is rejected by many as bland and uninspiring, too wimpy to govern. He is the guy with the cuff of his khakis caught in his hiking boots, the one cocking his head to his side when listening to others, his prominent ears all the more visible, face squinting as if hanging on every syllable.

"His aces are his faults," said Tom Scarritt, who helped run Davis' successful first campaign for the state House in 1988. "He's slow, steady, not flashy and sticks to the message. But he's completely comfortable with who he is. He doesn't shy away from the Boy Scout image because what you see is what you get."

What you get is a man who in 17 years of politics has fastidiously avoided the drinking scene that lubricates the give and take of the profession. A man who would fly home after a day in the Legislature, spend a few hours with his family and take the red-eye back to Tallahassee. A man who jogs religiously yet will put down an Arby's Beef 'n Cheddar.

A man whose idea of a joke is to call his sister, who works with endangered species, and ask if a fish should be cooked "well done or rare." A man who asked his wife to marry him while waiting for the tram at Tampa International Airport at 5 a.m.

"Jim has a spoiler on his Taurus," Scarritt said. "That's about as wild as he gets."

* * *

He was born in Tampa on Oct. 11, 1957, the first of three children of James Oscar Davis Jr. and Cody Fowler Davis. His dad, a World War II Army Air Forces veteran, met his wife after moving to Florida from Alabama, where he was a judge. He went to work at the law firm founded by his wife's father, also named Cody Fowler.

Mr. Fowler had been president of the American Bar Association and was appointed by Gov. LeRoy Collins to a state committee on biracial relations. He also worked to combat crime.

To his grandchildren, he was "Big Cody," and as the name implies, he was a towering figure in their lives, particularly after Davis' parents divorced in 1972.

"I loved my dad and I was very close to him," Davis said. (His father died in 1995, at age 71, after suffering a heart attack while driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge. His mother, who still lives in Tampa, does not give interviews to reporters.)

Davis will say his father was not a "hands-on" parent, something that colors his dealings with his own children, which can politely be described as hands-on. Whether on the campaign trail or in Washington, Davis is in constant contact with his teenage boys, Peter and William, who attend public school in Tampa.

"One of the most difficult parts of my work is being away from the family," Davis said. "Those are my loneliest times, particularly in the evening."

With his sons, Davis can appear both strict and unfailingly dedicated. That aptly described his grandfather, too.

Big Cody taught Davis and his younger brother, also named Cody, about personal responsibility, doing well in school and the importance of community service.

"He talked candidly about what he accomplished. It was expected you'd work hard, you'd make good grades and you'd give back. I think that's what lead Jim to get into politics - giving back," said Cody Davis, 46, a Tampa lawyer and author.

Davis volunteered at Jesuit, an all-male Catholic school, and was on the student patrol. He was more serious than most students, friends say, though not obsessively so. He played guitar briefly and listened to popular music: The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John. Socially, he was part of the in-crowd, made up of students from more affluent backgrounds, though friends say Davis was comfortable in various circles.

"He was just a normal, fun-loving, nice guy," said classmate Pat Halpin, now a lawyer in St. Petersburg. "He wasn't as rambunctious or crazy as a lot of the guys, but I wouldn't describe him as quiet."

Davis played on the tennis team but was overshadowed by his brother, a high school All-American and Division I college prospect. Their mother, who sold real estate, drove them to state tournaments in their Ford Country Squire station wagon. At night, the boys would play pingpong on the porch. The loser had to feed the dog, a German shepherd mix named Lady.

During his junior year, two years after his parents divorced, Davis' mother had a stroke. The brothers became increasingly reliant on their grandfather and each other and took on more responsibility looking after their little sister, Kimberly, who is 12 years younger than Davis.

"By the book," Cody Davis says with a laugh, "all three of us should be screwed up. But we turned out okay."

Davis played the fatherly role with his sister, sitting her down in the family's Florida room to go over her report card. Kimberly Davis, whom the boys called "Stu," went on to Dartmouth College and Duke. She now works for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

"Jim," she said, "was always the responsible older brother."

She recalls a piece of advice he gave her long ago: "You don't have to like everything about everybody, but you need to find something to like about everybody."

Echoing his close friends, Kim Davis said her brother has a keen sense of humor, quick with a pun, unapologetic for its cheesiness.

He can be exacting. Years ago Kim worked as a receptionist in Scarritt's law firm and one afternoon, he caught her napping. Scarritt concocted a gag memo that an important client had called but could not reach anyone and was on the losing side of an emergency injunction. Angry, the client was suing the firm. As the memo went, senior partners said they would interview staff to find the culprit. When it hit Kim's desk, Scarritt said, "She turned the whitest shade I've ever seen anyone turn."

A few years went by and Scarritt applied for a federal judgeship. His secretary called him one day to say he was to report to MacDill Air Force Base for a physical.

"We spent a frantic Friday trying to call MacDill. Where do I report? What were they going to check?"

Scarritt sweated it out over the weekend.

Then, Davis called. "It's indicative of his sense of humor," Scarritt said. "He's patient."

* * *

After graduating from high school in 1975, Davis headed to Washington and Lee University in Virginia, which was all male at the time.

"Leaving Florida appealed to me," he said. "I wanted to get out and meet other people and see other places."

They dressed differently, too. Before leaving, Davis stopped by the Army Navy store for khaki pants. He fit in at W&L, earning a spot on the tennis team and joining Phi Kappa Sigma, the preppy frat on campus. Davis attended social events, often with a date, and would have a beer from time to time. But "he was very serious about studying," said Matt Valaes, a friend from Jesuit and from college. "He really took advantage of being in a small university."

It was at W&L where Davis got his first taste of politics when he was elected to the student-run Executive Committee, which oversaw serious student infractions.

"He didn't give an inch," said John Evans, an English professor who befriended Davis and remains close.

Davis also served on the interfraternity council. Evans said Davis had an uncommon maturity, yet was witty and charming.

"I'm puzzled by the people saying they don't see him as charismatic," Evans said. "In a low-key way, I find him extremely charismatic."

Davis played tennis for one year then stopped. His brother, who had a serious bout with melanoma entering his senior year of high school, joined him in Virginia but then transferred to Vanderbilt to play more competitively.

Jogging became Davis' new passion, taking off for jaunts in the Shenandoah Valley. He still runs a few times a week, whether through the streets of Washington, where he stays with his sister while doing congressional work, or along Bayshore Boulevard with a group of lawyer friends.

"He likes to find out what's going on with lawyers, cases, the bar," Scarritt said. Davis also talks about current issues facing Congress, most recently immigration law. "We're sort of his sounding board for local views."

In September 1978, just as Davis began his senior year at W&L, his grandfather died. Big Cody was 85.

It hit hard, but Davis said it also forced him to strike out on his own.

"It was time for me to start making my own decisions."

He enrolled in law school at the University of Florida (after getting turned down at University of Virginia and wait-listed at Duke) and found it far more challenging than undergraduate work. Valaes, who roomed with Davis at UF, said his Sunday routine was to get up at 7 a.m., go for a run, then study until 11 p.m.

"I sensed he felt pressure to become a lawyer," Valaes said. "It was at that time I first sensed maybe he would do something different in life, that maybe it (the law) was not his calling."

* * *

For a while, though, it was. In 1982, Davis joined Carlton Fields law firm in Tampa. Davis did commercial litigation. He also did a fair amount of pro bono work on behalf of the poor. While many of his peers were buying their first BMWs, Davis drove a Volkswagen, which was littered with newspapers. Stacks of papers and magazines filled his modest apartment.

"It was a little like living with a professor," said Mike Airheart, a college friend who stayed with Davis for a few weeks when he first moved to Tampa for a banking job. Davis could afford to be a little sloppy; his girlfriend was 1,100 miles away in Chicago.

Peggy Bessent, who went to Plant High School, knew Cody Davis and he set her up with his brother. They began dating long distance, first while she was at graduate school at Harvard then at her first job in Illinois. He proposed early one morning at Tampa International Airport.

"He just pulled the ring out of his pocket. I didn't know what to do," she said. She went back to Chicago and put the ring in a dresser drawer, not wanting to jeopardize her job.

Before she said yes, Peggy asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "He said maybe something in politics, but it was just in passing," she said. They were married on Davis' birthday in 1986 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Tampa.

Davis' interest in politics was cemented two years later when he ran for an open state House seat. His had been influenced by volunteer work at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, where gaps in the state health and child care system were openly on display.

"His grandfather had a lot to do with it, too," Peggy Davis said.

Now, nearly two decades later, Davis is in the most important race of his career. Friends ask why he would give up near-certain longevity in Congress. Davis falls back on the lessons of Big Cody: respect, compassion - giving back.

"He's very principled," Airheart said. "He doesn't stray. He just doesn't stray."

*   *   * 

BORN: Oct. 11, 1957, in Tampa.

Family: Married with two children. He's the oldest of three children from an old Florida family with deep ties to the legal community.