As the son of a sharecropper living near the tiny Arkansas town of Parkdale, young Danny Davis spent long hours in the cotton fields. But unlike most of the poor kids hacking weeds with a hoe in the hot sun, “I’d read everything I could get my hands on in my spare time,” Davis recalled. “I’d have a piece of newspaper in my back pocket. When we’d get to the end of the row there might be a shade tree, and we’d take a minute to get a drink of water. I’d pull my little piece of paper out and read.”
Reading opened up a world beyond rural Arkansas, where a few white families owned most of the land, the stores, and the government. It started him asking a lot of questions. “I’ve always been interested in trying to understand why there were so many differences in the world,” Davis said recently, “why some people are rich and others poor, some people are sick and others healthy. Why did we do all the work and somebody else got all the money?”
His father, who firmly but quietly resisted the abuse poor, rural blacks commonly suffered back in the 40s and 50s when Davis was young, responded, “It looks as though that’s the way things are.” Is that fair? Danny asked. “Things aren’t always fair,” his father told him, “but we have to keep trying.” It was a variation on one of his father’s favorite maxims, a mix of hope and quiet resolve: “Pray for a good harvest, but keep on hoeing.”
For a quarter century in Chicago, Davis has been hoeing a remarkably straight row, sticking to a vision of people overcoming their differences, especially of race and ethnicity, and working together to eradicate the unfairness that troubled him as a child. He’s still praying for the harvest.
After three terms as an alderman from the city’s far west side Austin neighborhood, Davis, elected a Cook County commissioner last November, is now running for mayor. If the odds seem long against a well-financed, entrenched incumbent, they don’t seem to bother Davis. For this philosopher from the cotton fields, whose ideas have been refined through years of teaching, organizing, politicking, administering, and studying (history and psychology, before he got a PhD in public administration), the object of politics is not simply winning an election. It is the persistent “struggle,” to use a favorite concept of one of Davis’s most-quoted inspirations, abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
At a time of growing cynicism about politics, when America’s poor are either largely forgotten or feared and loathed, Davis evinces a deep faith in the possibilities of grass-roots democracy. He ardently believes that the poor and socially outcast can, with help and inspiration, transform themselves and become creative citizens. He’s seen it, not only in himself but in students, employees, and constituents with whom he’s worked.
With equal conviction, he shares the liberal/progressive belief that government must help the disadvantaged. Unlike many liberals, he criticizes some of the inner-city poor for their self-destructive and antisocial values. Instead of sharing middle-class hopes and values, he tells audiences, too many poor urban blacks grow up thinking that people who work hard at their jobs are the oddities. But unlike conservatives, he blames pervasive, continuing economic deprivation and social isolation for creating this tragic ethic of personal and social irresponsibility.
Nobody who knows Davis well questions his integrity, his humane values, or his personal commitment. He is one of a handful of political leaders in the tradition of Harold Washington who skillfully, if not flawlessly, juggle frequently discordant roles–as forceful advocates of both coalition politics and black aspirations. Few local politicians can approach Davis as an orator: if the mayoral election were decided–as it will not be–solely on the ability to speak well and think on one’s feet, he would win in a landslide.
But people who otherwise admire Davis question his skills as an electoral politician. They doubt his ability to translate lofty ideals into concrete action and policy, and they wonder at the catholic range of his alliances. Some of the qualities for which he’s faulted stem from the same roots as his strengths–from his refreshingly naive faith in people’s ability to act in common and in the legitimacy of popular decision making. These roots are sunk in the Arkansas soil.
With ten children and less than 50 acres of sharecropped cotton, the household of Hezekiah D. Davis–known as H.D. or “Dee”–was always materially pinched. There was no electricity in their home until 1951, when Danny–as he’s been known since he was a child, though he was actually named after his father–was ten years old. But a generosity of spirit and community made childhood a time of magic. Danny remembers receiving an allowance of six cents a week: one penny went into the Sunday school collection at Parkdale’s Methodist church, as much a social center as a religious refuge, and the other nickel went into the church collection plate. At the church, overseen by flamboyant preachers who loomed large in the community, Davis learned black history and “freedom songs,” or spirituals.
But the center of Davis’s education was not the church, nor the one-room, eight-grade schoolhouse where Miss Beadie King presided during the five months of school that black sharecropper children sandwiched in winter and midsummer between the months of field work. Rather it was Davis’s home.
“My parents put a real premium on education,” he said recently, relaxing in his Spartan campaign office in a south Loop office building. Although his father finished only fourth grade and his mother the eighth, they imparted “a notion that education was a way out of your present condition. I remember learning to read at an early age and liking it.”
Davis did yard work on Saturdays for a man who had married into the white family that owned the local cotton gin and general store, and much of the land. This man passed along to Davis the past week’s copies of the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette. At the home of an aunt who lived in “the quarters” in town, he read copies of the Pittsburgh Courier and Grit. At night, by coal oil lamp, Davis read over and over a gift copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“Reading kept me from being bored,” he said, the words carefully enunciated in his characteristic deep rumble of a voice. “After you get a little whiff of another world, out there where there isn’t any of that, you can have experiences by reading. It kept me from being lonely, from experiencing anxiety. There were times when my biggest problem was finding something to read. One summer I just couldn’t find anything. I just read the Bible. Every day when we came home from the field we’d take a little rest at lunchtime and I’d see how many chapters I could read before time to go back.
“At night after doing chores and taking a bath, I’d read some more chapters: so-and-so was begetting so-and-so who begot so-and-so. I was trying to figure out what that ‘begot’ meant. Then I read, ‘God gave his begotten Son.’ Now we’d figured out ‘begot’ meant something else, but when we got to that we didn’t figure God did what begetting was. So that became another problem.”
Even among his nine siblings, most of whom eventually went to college, Davis stood out as a reader. “People used to laugh at me as a kid because I did read,” he said. “My mama said, ‘Let ’em laugh, because later on they’ll be crying.'”
As a boy, though it’s hard to believe now, Davis was a “tie-tonguer,” or stutterer. Children were expected to recite speeches at school and Sunday school programs, and Davis was determined not to be left out. “My mother helped me by admonishing me to slow down,” he said. “People wonder why I speak as slowly as I do. She would tell me, ‘Slow down. I ain’t going nowhere.’ I discovered if I slowed down I could get my words out and people could understand and I could understand myself.” As he got better, he joined his brothers and sisters at “playing preacher,” delivering sermons from a stump pulpit.
From his mother he learned the value of sharing and conciliation, from his father a feeling for the honor and reward in resisting oppression, from the church a sense of hope.
Whenever his mother, Mazzie Davis, bought chewing gum or a bottle of pop, everybody got one small share. When the family slaughtered an animal, she made sure all the neighbors got something. When neighbor kids came around, they could eat and stay the night. After her funeral, as the family gathered around, it turned out that each member of the family was convinced that he or she had been the favorite. “My mother was one of the best social workers without going to social work school,” Davis said. “She understood the principle of group involvement.”
Davis recalled, “My father ‘never took no stuff,’ or backed down. He was just a normal, regular, pleasant man, not bodacious, not loud, but he just didn’t take no stuff. If someone violated him, then he got tough.” Once H.D. Davis took his year’s crop of cotton to town to sell to the local landlord’s son, who operated the cotton gin/general store. “Dee,” the man said, “you have made $400. What are you going to do with all that money?” As Davis recounts the story, “My father said, ‘I know you went to school for figuring and of course I’ve never been to school for figuring, but I can figure a little bit, and Mazzie can figure better than I. And the way we figure it, we got more than $400 coming.'” The store owner put his pistol on the counter for a while, then eventually said he had to go home. But H.D. refused to leave and was locked in the store overnight.
The landlord, a Mr. Gregory, showed up the next morning. “My father was determined he was going to get something close to what he called justice, or whatever the consequences were, so be it,” Davis said. H.D. explained that he knew the price of cotton, how many bales he had, and the one-fourth share he owed the landlord. Mr. Gregory retreated to the back room then returned with $1,600, record earnings for the Davis household even if slightly less than H.D. Davis had coming.
“What I learned from those experiences,” Davis said, “is that when you pursue something you may not get exactly what you’re looking for, but oftentimes you get more than you had. I’ve always remembered that. I suspect those experiences undergird my understanding of advocacy.”
From the church Davis got a sense of hope, a down-to-earth conviction, reinforced by his parents, that “if you go to school, get your lessons, pray, be good, ask the Lord to help you, you ain’t gonna have to chop cotton all your life. You always functioned with the knowledge and assurance that things were going to be better. It was just a matter of when–would it come soon enough?”
From an early age, Davis was troubled by the varied manifestations of inequality between blacks and whites. He saw how the neighboring white sharecropper’s son, David, would play with him and stay at his house, but “when you went into town, [the whites] went into their part of town, we went into ours. They went in the front of the drugstore, we went in the back.”
On his 16th birthday in 1957, with $20 in his pocket and a $50-a-semester scholarship, Danny Davis entered Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College, an all-black school in Pine Bluff. “I declared myself grown,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m away from home, I’ve got to make my own way.’ I was shaky but I was excited, and I was perplexed. But I knew the alternative. It was cotton-picking time.”
The civil rights movement was picking up steam, “but we didn’t see how it would take place where we were,” Davis said. Then Little Rock erupted as the national focus of school desegregation. “We felt good, excited, useful,” said Davis, remembering the meetings and marches during college. “Change was on the horizon and we were part of it. Equality was coming. Justice was on the way.”
When he graduated from Arkansas AM&N, Davis was broke. He moved to Chicago to live with two sisters and earn some money. After a stint in the post office, he began teaching school at the Magellan Educational and Vocational Guidance Center on the west side, a special school for overage, underachieving students. He had deliberately chosen to work with these difficult students, and to move to Lawndale, then a densely populated neighborhood chock-full of social problems. Not the least of those problems were the well-organized rival gangs–Vice Lords, Egyptian Cobras, Roman Saints, Imperial Chaplains–that would literally take over the streets at times.
“I just wanted to help,” Davis said. “I wanted to change things a little bit. I saw poverty and deprivation from a different vantage point. In the south where I grew up it was a different kind of poverty. In the south you may have been poor, but you had food. If you didn’t, someone gave you some. I’d never seen anything quite like what I saw here, so many people who appeared to be helpless, hopeless–and then the violence, the anger. It intrigued me. It fascinated me. I decided that’s where I could have some impact.”
While working at Magellan, where he was as much a counselor as a teacher, he took graduate courses in psychology at Chicago State and Roosevelt. Now he can tick off success stories–such as the onetime dropout who will soon get his PhD–that reinforce his belief that even the most “culturally disadvantaged” can be saved.
Vera Garner, a fellow teacher at Magellan, found Danny “charming.” They’d talk during early-morning free periods and sometimes he’d recite poetry to her. Teachers at Magellan didn’t dress up; one day after he’d stopped working there, Davis dropped by the school looking dapper in the suit his new job required and ran into Vera. She happened to be holding her paycheck. “Vera, I’d like to have that check,” Davis joked. “Here, dear,” she said, impressed by the figure he cut, and handed it to him. Later that day he returned the check and made a date to go hear jazz. Seven months later they got married.
Vera admired Danny’s ability to embrace students that other teachers wanted to strangle. “You’d put them out of your room [for misbehavior],” she said, “and he would take them downstairs and talk with them. I was impressed with the way he was able to sit and work through problems with those students.”
When Martin Luther King brought his fair-housing campaign to Chicago in 1966, Davis joined in. He thought seriously of leaving Magellan to work for King full-time. But the riots after King’s death in 1968 turned out to be the experience that pushed Davis into politics and public life.
Davis and other teachers tried to keep their students from joining in the riots, which he recalled a couple of years ago as a mixture of inchoate anger and “frenzied holiday.” He said, “Most of the kids felt good about having participated, even though they didn’t know what it meant.” For many, the experience simply “sharpened their awareness of the differences that existed between them and other people.” For others, “I think it produced a new level and new breed of activism.”
Davis decided he could have more impact on the problems that troubled him by joining the burgeoning network of antipoverty programs that were being spawned by the Great Society and by local civil rights and community organizers. In 1968 he left Magellan to become executive director of the Greater Lawndale Conservation Commission. In ’69 he became director of training at the Martin Luther King Community Health Center. From ’71 to ’79 he was executive director of the West Side Health Planning Commission.
Once again he could see people change their lives dramatically with just a little inspiration and support. As ready as Davis was to confront the establishment and demand change, he also believed deeply in an ethic of self-improvement.
Gradually Davis got involved in west-side electoral politics, then dominated by old, heavy-handed white machine bosses such as Ed Quigley and Bernie Neistein who didn’t even live in the neighborhood. When Otis Collins, a black state representative, showed some spunk and introduced legislation to stop insurance companies from redlining neighborhoods, the machine dumped him. Davis began working with Collins, and he joined other campaigns of the new west-side independent political movement.
The far west side had turned into a cesspool of machine politics–corrupt, violent, unrepresentative, and populated by frightened or fawning black puppets. Davis joined a committee searching for a candidate to oppose Alderman Leroy Cross in 1979. When they couldn’t find someone, Davis decided to move into the 29th Ward and run. Richard Barnett, the driving force behind all west-side independent politics, supported him. Soon after he agreed to run, Davis turned down a $50,000-a-year job in Detroit in health planning administration, a field in which he had gained some national prominence.
“That was one of the best campaigns you’d ever see,” Barnett recalls. “Dan had about 400 volunteers. The first thing I told people was that we had no money and no jobs, but if you want change, work for Danny.” Davis forced Cross into a runoff in the primary, while Jane Byrne won the mayoral nomination in an upset. Protected by an army of poll watchers, he triumphed in the general election.
“I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” Davis said. “People had really demonstrated their ability to make public policy decisions. They had repudiated the machine.” Equally important, says Barnett, Davis “showed you could beat the machine and keep your independence. He showed you could represent people in political office and you don’t have to sell them out . . . that you could still get service without making a deal with the machine.” Election judges who had tried to steal the election from Davis discovered that he was willing even so to write the aldermanic letters they needed to get summer jobs from the city.
Austin was in the throes of racial change, and several community groups were organizing to preserve the neighborhood’s housing, businesses, and lower-middle-class character. Davis, rather than seeing such groups as rivals or enemies, as machine aldermen typically had, embraced them and worked with them. He formed his own Peoples’ Assembly, which served as both an advisory body and a training ground for neighborhood leaders. Yet for all his political organizing, 23.8 percent of the 29th Ward’s potential voters were not registered in 1989, according to an Urban League study. The ward ranked 20th worst of the city’s 50 wards in the percentage of unregistered voters, roughly in the middle rank of the city’s largely black wards.
Stopping by a west-side church basement to share ham hocks and green beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread dressing, and neck bones with the 15th District Police Auxiliary, Davis tells these constituents, “The thing I’m proudest of in my public career is that 12 years ago, when I became alderman, the pundits and urbanologists predicted that Austin would be the next slum in Chicago, the next Lawndale, the next East Garfield Park. There were lots of buildings in disrepair in the south end of the ward, and gangs were hanging around. The first carnival people tried to have after I was elected the gangs broke up. Yet instead of becoming a slum, Austin has retained much of its viability because of institutions and people who make them happen, everything from Boy Scouts to protest organizations. That’s what has kept this neighborhood strong, decent, viable–organizations like yours.”
Serious problems persist. But Austin would be far worse if not for the neighborhood groups fighting crime and rehabbing housing. Community organization leaders in the Northeast Austin and South Austin community councils praise Davis as accessible, a catalyst and unifier, more a facilitator than an initiator. When community groups clash, rather than impose his will he expresses his opinion and tries to help the groups work out the dispute. He’s also worked smoothly with the white minority still in Austin.
“Whatever we’ve needed,” says Juanita Rutes, president of PRIDE, a ten-year-old housing rehab organization, “he’s worked hard to see we got it. There were a couple of times he came to our rescue. He never tried to hold us back. He was as active as he could be in relation to the shakers and makers in City Council without losing his soul to the devil.”
As a legislator, Davis has been moderately productive: he claims a leading role in passing laws to ban leaded gas (a landmark public health move), to make the city disengage economically from South Africa, to limit smoking in public places (yet Davis continues to smoke the occasional cigarette), to establish tenants’ rights (former alderman David Orr’s crusade), and to mandate the disclosure of aldermanic interests in zoning cases. A consistent supporter of good-government measures, he has been less the inside operator who can line up votes than the conscience of the council, mellifluously expounding higher principles. More than any other member of the council, he has identified with liberal national and international issues–such as peace in Central America, arms reduction, and the abolition of apartheid–and with the cause of labor. He not only speaks to union gatherings but shows up on picket lines.
Now, when Davis opposes the gulf war–he allowed peace groups to rally in his office before boarding buses to the January 26 peace march in Washington–he’s expressing long-standing principles. National priorities affect local possibilities. As he told an auditorium of students, faculty, and community people at the Ulysses S. Grant School, located in the west-side Rockwell Gardens public housing complex, “A disproportionate number of African-Americans are in the desert to defend oil. When they come back, they’ll be unemployed and can’t afford the oil for a car they’ve never been able to buy.”
From the outset of his political career, Davis’s vision and ambitions stretched beyond the 29th Ward. He was a key figure in one of the most important transformations of Chicago politics in the 80s, the creation of a “progressive” multiracial, independent political coalition. With leaders like Rudy Lozano, Jesus Garcia, and Juan Soliz (then part of the young progressive movement), Davis helped form the Black-Hispanic Coalition in 1979. A couple of years later, he was approached by lakefront whites who wanted to take the independent movement out of its own ghetto. They wanted to forge alliances with blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and to tackle economic issues as well as good-government reform. Davis quickly agreed and became cochair of Pro-CAN (the Progressive Chicago Area Network), a small but critical group of “political guerrillas” who brought technical expertise and a little money to fledgling insurgent campaigns around the city.
“Danny was the guy who gave Pro-CAN legitimacy in the black community,” recalls Ron Stevens, a former Pro-CAN cochair and lakefront political organizer. “He was very faithful. He was a good idea person in terms of philosophy and vision. From 1981 to the late 80s he was the guy out there building coalitions across racial lines. Everybody liked Danny; even the regulars seemed to like him. It would really astonish me if I found Danny involved in something even remotely corrupt, and you can’t say that about many politicians in Chicago. He had an instinctive sense of issues that were not even natural to his constituency, like environmental issues, and those sprang from a genuine sense of values inside the guy.”
Davis was a core Washington supporter, but he and the late mayor had political differences: Davis supported journalist-organizer Lu Palmer against union leader Charles Hayes, Washington’s choice to take over Washington’s vacated First Congressional District seat in 1983. He pressured Washington to appoint more west-siders, historically seen as poorer, more backward, and more recently arrived than Washington’s own south-side black constituents. Davis was also disappointed at Washington’s tardy support for his own 1984 challenge to U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins, the Seventh Congressional District incumbent who had supported Byrne against Washington in 1983. Vera Davis recalls Danny’s defeat in that election as one of the few times he ever seemed discouraged.
That election led many allies to question Davis’s ability to run an effective campaign. Davis and Richard Barnett stress that Collins enjoyed the advantages of incumbency, more money, and her standing as the only black woman in Congress. But other friends, such as veteran independent organizer Don Rose, say the ’84 campaign showed that Davis “had no grasp of organizing or wide-scale campaigning. A lot of mistakes that occurred in the campaign,” says Rose, “were due to his laissez-faire, overly democratic, overly participatory style.”
Since then, Davis has made electoral missteps that have tarnished his reputation as a major politician. In 1986 he lost again to Collins. After Washington died, he was briefly touted as a potential interim mayor. In 1989 he announced his candidacy for mayor, only to back out in favor of Alderman Tim Evans. Last spring he lost a primary race for county treasurer to Ed Rosewell, the incumbent. Political soulmate David Orr drew black and white support in his own race for county clerk, but whites failed to support Davis in adequate numbers. Finally, Davis was picked last fall to fill the spot on the Democratic county board slate vacated by Circuit Judge R. Eugene Pincham, who jumped to the Harold Washington Party. Davis was then elected a Cook County commissioner.
Davis has been a victim of the breakup of the Washington coalition. There were two critical events, along with many lesser affronts, that tore apart the coalition: the battle between Tim Evans and Eugene Sawyer to succeed Washington after the mayor died in November of 1987, and the spring 1988 controversy over anti-Semitic remarks by Sawyer aide Steve Cokely.
Davis’s attempts after Washington’s death to maintain ties with all factions of the black community–and to present himself as a unity leader above the factions–created some suspicions about his motives. However naively, he seems to have been motivated by his hopes for conciliation. Now he has formally united Sawyer and Evans behind his candidacy, along with most black factions, but a few former Sawyer supporters, ministers, and businessmen are backing Mayor Richard Daley. Not all the wounds have healed.
Hard as it is to put the black community back together, it is even harder to reestablish the black alliance with whites and Hispanics. The coalition was always like a fragile glass bottle, Davis said, but it was easier to make the bottle than it would be now to reassemble it from fragments. Some Hispanics had chafed at what they saw as their second-class status in the coalition even before the public breakup. And the emergence after Washington’s death of a more strident black nationalism than he would have tolerated led many Hispanics and progressive whites to wonder whether there was any coalition left for them. The Cokely controversy left in its wake many political fatalities, including the Pro-CAN alliance Davis had long nurtured.
Despite public tensions, Davis maintains most of his long-standing personal ties with progressive white and Hispanic leaders. For example, on a busy recent Saturday he made a priority of attending the opening of the campaign office of Marcelino Gerena Jr., a long-shot opponent of incumbent alderman Richard Mell in the 33rd Ward, and the annual fund-raiser for 22nd Ward Alderman Jesus Garcia. Yet some of his longtime white and Hispanic progressive allies, such as Garcia, have so far endorsed no one in the mayoral race.
Davis disappointed some white allies in the Cokely affair by not denouncing Cokely and anti-Semitism as unequivocally as they would have liked. No one suspected Davis of harboring any anti-Semitic sentiments, but he exasperated whites with his political style, his attempts to show understanding all around, his efforts to transcend the immediate conflict.
Davis called for Cokely’s dismissal and said that he should never have held public office. But he also defended Cokely’s First Amendment rights. “I know from whence Steve Cokely comes,” Davis said, citing frustration, injustice, police brutality, and hopelessness as the roots of such bigoted sentiments and noting how some people fail to learn how to deal with their frustrations. (He said at the time that he understood what motivated Cokely in the same sense that he also understood what motivated Aldermen Roman Pucinski, Ed Burke, and Burt Natarus.) “Our goal should be to unify rather than to separate . . . to love rather than to hate,” Davis said then. The issue, he said, is not Cokely but making common cause for jobs, housing, schools, health care, dignity, and other universal goals.
Davis’s current campaign slogan is “Embracing all Chicago.” But in trying to do so, in trying to overcome those differences among peoples that have perplexed and troubled him since childhood, Davis risks being misunderstood even as he tries to promote understanding.
Before the 1989 election, for example, Davis was the only contender who appeared before a black community plebiscite organized by Lu Palmer to pick a mayoral candidate. Being there seemed odd for him; and indeed, he said he would have preferred that a plebiscite “be open to whites, Hispanics, Asians–anybody who wanted to participate.” His goal, he said at the time, was to come up with a single “progressive” alternative to Daley, not necessarily a black alternative. “But if a huge segment of the black community goes through with its way of trying to arrive at a candidate, I’m not going to reject that.”
Since then, he has tried to maintain friendly ties with coalition-minded blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites, including Jews who were hurt personally by the Cokely affair. But he has also remained close to black nationalists, even maintaining what one observer called “mutually respectful” relations with the Nation of Islam, which has little interest in coalition politics. He remains a loyal Democrat and a party committeeman (who supported last year’s state and county tickets), but he sympathetically views the Harold Washington Party as a “very significant” development that “gives people a feeling of charting their destiny” and as a vehicle that he “may see as a viable political option” for himself someday. Ron Stevens of Pro-CAN argued that unlike Washington, who was cynical about the motives of politicians, “Danny is an idealist who really does believe you can reach people with persuasion, with good arguments and good values, and he’s very good at it.”
At times Davis’s inclusiveness may seem indecisive or politically mushy, but he sees it differently. “I find myself searching for the common ground a great deal of the time, because the coalition is important,” he said in a conversation in 1988. “Some people might seek the high ground, but that might not be the common ground. Or some might settle for low ground, and that might not be the common ground. The common ground in many instances has to do with recognition of the history, tradition, peculiarities, and needs, the hopes, aspirations, and drives of various elements of a potential coalition. In order to be a group, sometimes you don’t get your own way, sometimes you give up an inch to gain a mile, you stop looking at trees and see the forest.”
Davis has been criticized by various factions in the African-American community for supporting gay rights, for working with the Democratic Party, for being “too fair” (that is, not exclusively concerned with black needs), and for working with whites at all. He estimates that no more than a fifth of either blacks or whites are fully committed to his progressive agenda.
It isn’t easy to find common ground politically in Chicago. Davis has created political problems for himself by trying hard to do so.
Even in the midst of a busy day of campaigning, Danny Davis seems relaxed, like someone sauntering rather than running for office. He takes time to listen and make small talk with people on the street and in church basements. He spends as much time expounding on the virtues of democracy and the nature of politics as criticizing Mayor Daley’s record. Wherever he goes, he is greeted with affection and respect. But there’s rarely the highly charged atmosphere that surrounds a charismatic figure. Davis scoffs at “great man” views of politics; his self-effacing faith is with the people.
His wife Vera says that he can’t sing and is terribly shy. But he punctuates the day with indecipherable snatches of song, and he unhesitatingly wades into crowds, not with glad-handing frenzy but rather a casual familiarity. He sparingly samples the food proffered at nearly every stop, from empanadas to chocolate cake, and at one point alludes to the fate of Harold Washington, who had a hard time saying no to food. As a result, Davis remains trim, if solid. At a benefit dinner sponsored by the noonday prayer ladies, all dressed in red (“the blood of Jesus”) and white (“purity”), at Faith Apostolic Church, he drops the name of a friend who is a member of the church. At a black-tie dinner honoring black creativity at the Museum of Science and Industry, he is equally at ease with the well turned out black bourgeoisie (although if each person at that dinner contributed or raised even a modest thousand dollars for Davis, as most have not, his campaign budget could more than double). Despite his easygoing manner, he is perplexed to hear from friends that some whites find him intimidating. Maybe he should smile more, they say; maybe he’s too serious.
Yet that is the essence of the man: he takes the city and especially the lives of its unfortunate very seriously. “He’s concerned about people no one else is concerned about,” his wife says. “He talks about the homeless, and I look around and wonder whether the people listening care about that. But that does not stop him.”
Finally Davis is paying some attention to his own needs, says Vera. Unable to pledge a fraternity in college because he was too poor, he joined Alpha Phi Alpha a few years ago. Typically, through this social club he spends time helping out in nursing homes and aiding needy families. When Davis has time to relax at home, says Vera, he “likes a long hot bath and he likes to sit and read and listen to jazz–and conversation.”
At his home away from home, his warrenlike west-side office, the walls are covered with plaques and children’s thank-you letters, with innumerable pictures of Harold Washington and a few photos of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. This is the environment Davis came to one day to state his case against Daley.
“I think Daley runs a closed government,” Davis said. “Government is cordoned off. I don’t think Daley has any desire to see neighborhood empowerment. It’s important, because as you get empowerment you get all this manpower and womanpower working on problems. The neighborhood groups do as much to meet problems as the city does in many cases. The biggest distinction [between himself and Daley] is that I don’t believe people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic strata must be relegated to lifetimes of misery, poverty, degradation, lack of attention, lack of opportunity and the public address of their needs.
“The city has lost its spirit. It’s almost as if it has lost its will to live. People are drifting back to old habits of being fearful. I find [business] people saying, ‘I’d like to support you, but we’ve got these contracts.’ Or, ‘We’d like to do business with the government.’ They feel scared.”
More specifically, he faults Daley for giving inadequate support–both political and financial–to school reform, affordable housing, and health care. Davis thinks more can be done without raising local taxes; for example, he and other council progressives unsuccessfully pressed for proceeds from real-estate scavenger sales to go for low-income housing. He accuses the mayor of staying “silent on hate crimes” and of tolerating growing police brutality, thus contributing to what Davis describes as worsening relations between races. Despite the mayor’s claims that he has brought peace to the city, Davis says that violent crime and fear of crime are on the rise.
Davis chastises Daley for wanting to level much of southeast Chicago for a new airport, when other sites would bring less disruption. He argues that Daley has no significant program for saving or gaining industrial jobs and that he has failed to challenge Commonwealth Edison aggressively in the current negotiations over renewal of Com Ed’s electric-utility franchise. Echoing a theme of the Washington administration, Davis criticizes Daley for investing disproportionately in public works in the greater Loop area, at the expense of the neighborhoods.
Blacks have lost ground not just in Daley’s top appointments, Davis charges, but also in the city’s moves toward the privatization of city services. In most cases, the city will save little or nothing by subcontracting work to private businesses, Davis says, yet city workers will lose their jobs to lower-paid, nonunion workers. Often, less-qualified workers will be delivering services.
Yet Davis rarely delivers these critiques with the harsh, combative edge that campaigns and press coverage demand. His attacks sound more like reprimands meant to correct an ill-informed, misguided soul. Even sympathetic audiences do not seem fired with anger after they’ve listened to Davis’s vision of the problems of the city and the shortcomings of its mayor. Leaving aside those who believe that Daley has indeed done a fine job, part of the problem may be as Davis said: “I don’t think people expected much [of Daley]. If you didn’t expect much and didn’t get much, you’re satisfied.” National problems of recession and international problems of war clearly divert attention from the city. And with a woefully underfinanced campaign, Davis must battle widespread feelings that Daley is certain to win.
There’s also a mood of resignation reigning in the local body politic about how much anyone can do, especially at the local level. “That’s one of my real problems, exactly,” Davis said fervidly, as he tarried a moment outside a campaign stop, “this notion that you can’t do anything about the problems, and we’re willing to relegate all those people to futures of misery, poverty, and degradation. That bothers me, that disturbs me. I can imagine what our world will become.”
So Davis prays for a better harvest, but he keeps on hoeing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Marc PoKempner.