Davis: Fighting for the ‘Next Person’

Fourth-generation Floridian Jim Davis wants to be known as a man of the people. JIM DAVIS, DEMOCRATFighting for the ‘Next Person’

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Jim Davis wants to be known as a man of the people; his track record as both a state representative and a U.S. congressman speaks for itself, he says.
There’s a touch of Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” about this soft-spoken and yet impassioned Democrat. “I think you treat people with respect,” he said, “and you treat people the same. It doesn’t make any difference – gender, race, income, or when you came to Florida. That’s my values.”

Davis, a fourth-generation Floridian, learned those values at the feet of a man who he still calls one of his greatest role models – his grandfather, Cody Fowler, a civil rights activist and lawyer who fought against corruption in Tampa in the 1950s. Davis never anticipated a career in politics, he said, and instead followed his grandfather’s footsteps into the legal profession.

It was while working as the attorney for the Metropolitan Ministries Homeless Shelter in Tampa that Davis discovered a passion for public service. At about the same time, he also met his wife, Peggy, who was a graduate student in Boston at the time.

Jim and Peggy Davis settled in Tampa, where Jim Davis was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1988 and served as House majority leader throughout much of the 1990s. His plan of action was simple, he said: “You listen to people, you learn, and then you do what you can to make the community, the state or sometimes the country a better place.”

“You listen to people, you learn, and then you do what you can to make the community, the state or sometimes the country a better place.”

He took many of his cues from then-U.S. Sen. (and former Florida governor) Bob Graham, a role model who has become an integral part of his recent campaign. “The more I get to know Bob and the way Bob relates to people and serves the state,” he said, “the more I admire what he has done.”

A self-described “hands-on father” of two teenage boys – Peter, 16, and William, 14 – Davis has been particularly sensitive to issues faced by other parents. In 1995, he was approached by a constituent who asked him to do something about class sizes in his daughters’ schools. The result of that conversation was “a $100-million program to help reduce class size. It was really making a difference. Then the governor and the Legislature abolished it.” The issue is alive once again, and now has a place in the Florida Constitution; nevertheless, Davis remains outspoken in his call for the Legislature to fund class-size reduction.

In 1996, Davis was elected to Congress and continued to take his cues from the calls of his constituents. In 1998, he was contacted by a retired letter carrier, Nelson Mongiovi, who detailed how his mother was thrown out of a nursing home because she relied on Medicaid to pay her bill.

“And so I got together with Republicans and Democrats and wrote a bill,” Davis said, “and about a year later, President Clinton signed the law that says your mom and my mom and his mom can’t be thrown out of a nursing home at the end of their life for falling back on Medicaid ­– which happens to thousands of Floridians today and millions of Americans.”

Davis said he was particularly moved by the words Clinton said to Mongiovi on the day that the bill became law. “He told him, ‘It’s been my experience that what makes the world a better place is when people aren’t just fighting to take care of themselves and their families, but they’re fighting for the next person.’”

Together with Graham, Davis helped author a bill to make it easier for retirees to choose a second career in teaching. With loan forgiveness as an incentive, the bill encourages potential teachers to serve in schools with real shortages. Time in Washington has taught Davis one very practical lesson, though: “Everything moves so slowly. That bill took three years – that’s too long.”

Still, Davis is a believer in the democratic process and expects the next great idea to come from a phone call or a letter from one of his fellow Floridians. Believing in the basic integrity of people is as refreshing as it unusual in today’s political climate. Davis has made “keeping promises” to his constituents the central focus of his campaign for Florida governor.

Among his promises: less expensive prescription drugs for seniors, more affordable health insurance for small businesses, devoting $2 billion from the state surplus to school construction, and investing part of the surplus in a new “Teacher Endowment Fund” to boost teacher salaries and help fill the teacher shortage. In addition, more than 500,000 children in Florida are uninsured, despite the implementation of Florida KidCare; Davis has promised to cut red tape and make enrolling in Florida KidCare easier.

Davis has won 12 elections – and received 87 percent of the vote in his last election to Congress. Nevertheless, he said, “I got into this (gubernatorial) race when few people besides my wife and Bob Graham thought it could be done.” Recent polls place him neck-and-neck with Republican front-runner Charlie Crist and with a lead of 41 percent to 19 percent over his closest Democratic opponent, state Sen. Rod Smith.

But Davis doesn’t spend his days poring over polls and calculating the odds. He has a job to do. For now, Mr. Davis has to go to Washington. – Amanda Finch Broadfoot
 

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