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Davis: a quiet negotiator

Published October 22, 2006

[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Jim Davis.

Related coverage
Crist: A shrewd leader who favors a pragmatic style

Private lives:
Charlie Crist: A fuzzy line divides personal and political lives
Jim Davis: Family footsteps, then a turn into politics

Public lives:
Crist: Skillfully steering clear of conflict

Davis: Earnest and detailed, if not very flashy

Financial lives:
Crist is a pay-as-you-go kind of guy

Davis lives modestly

From the back of a small bookstore in Tampa, Jim Davis quietly launched a war against the FCAT.

Anne Bartlett, whose 12-year-old son was playing in a chess tournament that summer night in 2001, approached the Democratic congressman and told him she thought the emphasis on the test at her son's school was cramping his writing development. Davis listened, but promised nothing.

A few months later, Bartlett said, she saw a notice in the newspaper. Davis was holding town hall meetings to talk with parents about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"It impressed me tremendously," said Bartlett, 45. "That's the leadership you expect from Jim."

Five years later, Davis is still focusing on the FCAT as he seeks to become Florida's next governor. He says the bookstore tale of how he came to view the test as a flawed approach to public education illustrates his best leadership qualities: industrious, deliberative and eager to hear what people have to say.

But the story also shows the limits of that style. As a result of Davis' effort, the No Child Left Behind Act includes a provision that encourages public schools to use standardized tests as "diagnostic" tools, rather than as yardsticks to measure school performance.

In other words, nothing changed.

After 18 years as a lawmaker, Davis is seeking his first job as a public executive. Part of his challenge is explaining to voters how the skills of a lawmaker who has spent most of his career in the minority will translate to the front-line leadership role of chief executive of America's fourth-largest state.

"You have to be forceful and dynamic to show you are a leader. Jim is often laid-back," said former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lost to Davis in the 1996 Democratic primary for Congress. "Jim's a nice guy but nice guys don't always carry the day."

A product of his time

The GOP was knocking at the heavy doors of the Florida House just as Davis reached the peak of his power. He was named majority leader in 1994 but Democrats held a mere 63-57 advantage.

"I knew the members had confidence in him," then-House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace said. "He was not out every night slapping backs at Clyde's but they respected him."

Given the Democrats' tenuous hold on power, the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of past Democratic leaders would have been disastrous, Wallace said. By contrast, Davis "was a low-key listener and persuasive in his reasoning."

Wallace credits Davis' disarming approach for passage of a rule barring campaign contributions during the 60-day session. Lawmakers saw it as a threat, fearing challengers back home would gain an advantage.

Davis went to work, meeting one-on-one with colleagues, pressing his position but hearing their concerns. The rule passed.

"Part of it is they needed to believe they had been listened to," Wallace said.

As majority leader, Davis was supposed to toe the Democratic line and get others to do the same, but in 1996, he bucked his party over a proposed change to an education funding formula some feared would hurt urban districts. Davis teamed with Rep. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, to draft an alternative, which prevailed.

"It was a courageous move," said Garcia, now a state senator. "The people of Florida benefited by his ability to build a consensus."

Yet, with those accomplishments, and a few others - Davis helped craft the first class size reduction plan - some say he left few footprints.

"There was nothing memorable, and I'm not saying that to his detriment," said Dan Webster, who was Republican leader at the time. "It's just the way it turned out."

A background in Washington

Elected to Congress in 1996, Davis continued working in the background. He rarely gave speeches on the floor or held news conferences. Such showmanship may mean little, but part of accruing political power is being heard, getting noticed.

A new ad in the governor's race plays off his relative invisibility, noting that Davis has only passed three bills during 10 years in Washington. His campaign demanded the ads be removed, calling them inaccurate. In fact, Davis has passed five bills.

Davis counters such arguments with two high-profile issues: oil drilling and Terri Schiavo. He played a significant role in both.

In 2001, Davis pushed for a moratorium on oil drilling off the coast of Florida. To gain support, he targeted lawmakers from coastal districts, including Republican Joe Scarborough of Pensacola, catching them on the floor whenever he could.

"The environmentalists didn't think we could win," said Tricia Barrentine, Davis' congressional aide. "But he had an idea and he got the votes he needed to pass it. Leadership is all about getting done what you believe in."

Or stopping what you don't believe in.

On the Saturday in March 2005 that the Schiavo saga entered the national political stage, Davis was campaigning in Pasco County. He flew to Washington the next morning, angry and determined, he said, to stand up to those who wanted to intervene.

"I have great respect for his political courage. He knew full well this was a controversial issue. He could have chosen to finesse it, not get very involved," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Back in Florida, Attorney General Charlie Crist was mute on the subject - a contrast Davis says shows his leadership ability over his rival's.

"I have always tried to do my homework in making any decisions, learning the facts, listening to both sides," Davis said. "There are times you can develop consensus, but there are sometimes where you have to stand your ground.

"The Schiavo debate was one of those. That was a lot more than the bully pulpit. It wasn't just me saying something, it was me acting."

Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said Davis fought to extend the debate from less than an hour to three hours. Though, when it came time for the news conference, Davis largely deferred to another Florida lawmaker, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

"Leadership is not elbowing others out of the way," Hoyer said. "Leaders say this is where we need to go and encourage others to go that way."

After the primary, new challenges

Now Davis is trying to get voters to go his way on education, property tax reform and insurance. His statewide campaign built around those issues may well be the largest operation Davis has ever run.

Davis chose Daryl Jones, a former state senator and Air Force fighter pilot, to be his running mate. Davis said choosing Jones exemplifies his leadership and ability to make good decisions.

After initial vetting by his friend, Peter Rudy Wallace, Davis held meetings with the lieutenant governor candidates.

"I wasn't looking for somebody that would agree with me on everything, but I've always trusted Daryl," Davis said. "He's a hard worker and I think his life experience was a big asset."

The pick, which carried historical significance because Jones would be Florida's first black lieutenant governor, was widely praised.

Despite that bright spot, the campaign has had its problems, such as not getting yard signs and bumper stickers out to field offices.

But nothing brought more criticism to Davis' deliberative style than his handling of the controversy surrounding a 1990 vote he took in the Florida Legislature.

Davis voted against compensating Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two black men who were wrongfully convicted in the murders of white service station attendants. The issue arose in a televised debate with Davis' primary opponent, Rod Smith, and it lingered for weeks.

Davis suffered through attack mailers and radio ads that weakened his support among African-American voters. As supporters urged him to deal with the matter head-on, perhaps acknowledge a mistake and make amends with voters, Davis promised only to review the case file.

As a result, his tense and dramatic victory over Smith in the Sept. 5 primary was deflated the morning after the results came in. Flush from the win, Davis' campaign invited reporters and TV crews to join him as he made telephone calls around the state to collect congratulations.

But the poorly managed event became a debacle. Most of the numbers Davis dialed went unanswered. And when he got U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings on the telephone, Davis had to sit through a mild tongue lashing, with cameras rolling, as Hastings told Davis he had blown it by not facing up to the Pitts and Lee issue more swiftly.

A few days later, three full weeks after the issue arose in the debate, Davis held an event in Miami with Pitts and Lee where he apologized for his vote from the previous decade. Pitts praised Davis for his "refreshing" approach to politics..

True to form, Davis isn't budging. He said he should have acknowledged the mistake "many many" years ago, but he defends the way he went about it: He ordered and reviewed a copy of the original case report before contacting the men to offer an apology.

"I wasn't going to say I made a mistake unless I really meant it."

Times staff writer Bill Adair contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 22, 2006, 05:23:23]

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