Behind Jim Davis is a practical spouse making sure he looks good
She campaigns, too, for what she cares: a better Florida.
By ALEX LEARY
Published October 21, 2006
New York City!
For a little girl from Florida, simply getting to go on a family trip up north might provide days of I-can't-wait, Is-it-time-yet? anticipation.
But Peggy Bessent, 9, is off to Lakeland Public Library. She returns with a dozen books, sits down and creates two lists, one for primary things to see No. 1, FAO Schwarz, the other for secondary pursuits.
Skip forward about 20 years, to 1988. Her name is Peggy Davis now, but the same exacting mind is at work inside a townhouse in Tampa. The Ivy League-educated city planner has tacked an elaborate street grid to the wall, pinpointing neighborhoods her husband will wear out en route to his first political victory.
Move ahead again to early 2005, as her husband tries out his stump speech before friends in St. Petersburg. The Democratic candidate for governor's timing is awkward, voice passionless.
But today his delivery is forceful and commanding. A major reason for the turnaround: Peggy Davis.
"She's one of his strongest critics," said Peter Rudy Wallace, a family friend and former speaker of the Florida House. "She's always been an equal partner with Jim."
In a way not seen since the first contest for state House, Mrs. Davis, 48, is doing her part to aid her husband's political aspirations, from picking what shirts and tie combos look best on TV to traversing the state for her own appearances dressed in classic business attire, complete with simple pearl earrings.
All the while, she has found time to wait in school parking lots late at night for one of her two sons to return from band competition, keep up a household and regularly walk around the neighborhood with friends, during which she sometimes discusses the challenges of raising teenagers without their father around all the time. On the days the candidate is in town, Mrs. Davis excitedly declares to friends her "boyfriend" is in town.
"She's real. She has a messy house sometimes, busy kids, mouths to feed on the fly," said Jill Randall, a friend since seventh grade. "She never says 'Oh, it's awful, I can't handle it.' She's got a handle on the process."
Born in Jacksonville, Peggy Davis spent a few years in Lakeland before her parents, a civil engineer and reading teacher, moved to Tampa. She went to Plant High but never crossed paths with her future husband, who was at nearby Jesuit High and two grades ahead. She was smart, popular and athletic, playing on the first girl's golf team her senior year. Despite her father's warning that a boy might best her, she ran for student council president and won.
She went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, because "I wanted to see what was out there." She gave up a scholarship at Georgia Tech to attend Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, studying city planning because "I was interested in how people live and making it better."
A blind date, set up by Jim Davis' younger brother Cody, sparked the relationship. They dated for a few years while she worked as a commercial lender at a bank in Chicago, he a lawyer in Tampa. The wedding was held Oct. 12, 1986 - Jim Davis' birthday. "We've never done anything the easy way," he said a few days before they celebrated their 20th anniversary, an event that doubled as a fundraiser for the campaign.
On the days she joins him on the campaign trail, Davis introduces her as "a persuadable voter and very independent."
A registered Republican early on, Peggy Davis said she became a Democrat when her husband entered politics. But she switched to Independent amid the Iraq war debate. "I felt neither side was challenging the decision," she said. Mrs. Davis lets on that she does not always agree with her husband on the issues, but refuses to provide specifics.
In that regard, she is similar to her husband: reserved, serious but pleasant. She will not let reporters or photographers into her home, asking to be interviewed at a nearby coffee shop, where she politely ate a scone. Details about her children are limited, too.
Peter, 16, and William, 14, were both born during special sessions of the Legislature. To raise them, Peggy Davis has largely given up her professional work. "I don't think of it as giving up," she said. "I think of its as reprioritizing."
She has kept involved in the community, serving as PTA president and lending her expertise when residents tried to fight Tampa General Hospital's plan to put a parking garage on a part of Marjorie Park. She has been part of a book club for more than a decade (Currently reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith).
Friends rely on her in helping pick family doctors, plumbers, even paint. "She's always known what the best of something is," Randall said. "She's very detail oriented."
These days, Davis tours around with one of Cody Davis' daughters, stressing the need for change on education, property insurance and other matters. Her own life, she said, gives credibility to those words. "We live in the same house we've always lived in, pay our taxes. You need that to govern and to relate to people. We try to keep it normal."
Normal means her husband, when in town, is charged with doing the boys' laundry and the dishes. On the Monday she was interviewed, the congressman was up at 5:30 a.m. washing cups, forks and spoons.
If sent to the governor's mansion, even the most pedestrian of duties would be taken care of for her husband. And for her.
As first lady of Florida, Peggy Davis would be thrust into the spotlight. She said she does not have a specific cause in mind to champion, only what is appropriate. "I care deeply about this state," she said. "I know we can do better."
Staff writer Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.