Congressman Danny Davis serves in Washington, but knows the action is in Chicago.
Congressman Danny Davis serves in Washington, but knows the action is in Chicago. Credit: Andrea Bauer

Danny Davis is late and no one can find him. “It’s going straight to voice mail,” his scheduler says as she hangs up the phone after her latest attempt. This is not good news. A half dozen people have been waiting in his west-side congressional office for half an hour.

Eventually a staffer arrives with word that the congressman has been seen—reportedly across the street at Wallace’s Catfish Corner, the legendary soul food establishment named for proprietor Wallace Davis Jr. (no relation), a former alderman whose electoral career ended in a federal bribery conviction and nearly three years in prison.

As it happens, the reason I’m here is to talk with the congressman about ex-offenders. Davis has become a leading advocate of support programs, and for good reason—his district has one of the highest concentrations of ex-offenders in the nation.

A few minutes later Davis arrives, offering handshakes and greetings in his magnificent baritone that makes “How you doing?” sound like a definitive insight into the human condition. He waves me into his own office, which is buried in memos, notebooks, files, and other stacks of paper. Davis finds room to put his feet on his desk, takes a chug from a giant bottle of pink lemonade, and, without prompting, begins sharing his thoughts on Rahm Emanuel.

The long and the short: he calls himself a fan, but he’s not always convincing. “You know, I don’t think we’re going to see the Sears Tower fall into the lake or anything.”

Davis has served in Washington for 15 years, but he’s never made a secret of the fact that he feels the action is in Chicago, where he’s been an activist, alderman, county commissioner, and frequent almost-candidate. He dropped his own bid for mayor almost as soon as he’d launched it in late 2010.

“Part of the problem with Chicago politics has been the fact that we don’t have term limits for chief executive officers, and that mayors became all encompassing and overarching,” he says. “Obviously there are things that Rahm feels could have been and should have been done differently now that he’s mayor, but nobody was ever going to suggest a lot of that when Richie was mayor.”

He turns to the question of ex-offenders. Davis is practiced at reciting why it’s important to help them find jobs: without support, two-thirds will be incarcerated again within three years, he points out. And what makes more sense: paying $20,000 to $40,000 annually to lock someone up or training him to get back to work so he can pay taxes?

Yet there’s always resistance. Davis and some congressional colleagues recently won a fight to restore up to $70 million for reentry programs after the funds were nearly cut. “There are still people who maintain that we’re being soft on crime when we deal strictly with reentry issues,” he says.

In fact, Davis himself becomes cautious when asked about reforming drug laws—the primary cause of the revolving prison doors. He says he’s open to lessening penalties for pot possession, but not legalization. “I see people who are alcoholics lined up at the liquor store at 8:30 in the morning,” he says. “I’m afraid we’d have people lined up at the marijuana place the same way.”

I note that even now we could probably buy weed on the street within two blocks of where we’re sitting.

He concedes the point. “I never will forget one Sunday afternoon, I was driving someplace, and some guys were on the street hollering, ‘We got the rocks! We got the blow!‘ And so one guy who was doing it, he looked up and said, ‘Hey man, be cool—that’s Danny Davis.’ And [the other guy] said, ‘I don’t give a fuck who it is. If he’s got some money, I got whatever he wants.'”