Jack Davis, a wealthy Republican-turned-Democrat, is angry about President Bush’s stance on trade.
Now, he wants to take that anger out on Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.).
Davis is waging a long-shot Democratic bid to wrest the Western New York 26th Congressional district seat from Reynolds, the powerful chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. And for a short period, he had controversial Republican consultant Roger Stone guiding him.
Davis probably won’t win against a Goliath like Reynolds, but he has attracted some attention from political insiders and may force Reynolds to spend more time ensuring his own re-election than the Congressman had otherwise planned.
“The district’s tough,” conceded Evan Stavisky, an Empire State Democratic consultant. “It’s a fascinating race because of the dynamics there.”
Davis’ sudden transformation — he has contributed thousands of dollars in the past few cycles to his opponent and only registered as a Democrat in January — has raised eyebrows among some Democrats concerned about the depth of his commitment to the party and his motivations for running.
“He basically has a grudge with the Bush administration on trade issues,” said one member of the Erie County Democratic Executive Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Davis’ rift with the administration dates back to a Republican fundraiser headlined by Vice President Cheney that Davis attended late last year, said campaign manager William Pauly.
According to Pauly, Davis was “rebuffed personally by Mr. Cheney” while attempting to express concerns to the vice president that the administration’s free trade policies were hurting American jobs.
Davis, who records show donated $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04 in December 2003, owns a factory in Akron, N.Y., that manufactures heating elements and employs 75 people.
“He’s really outraged with the outsourcing of American jobs and the reluctance of Congress to do anything about it,” said Leonard Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. “He’s had to lay people off because of it.”
Davis’ one-issue campaign could resonate in Western New York, where the economy is sluggish and unemployment is high. The 26th district gave Bush just 51 percent of the vote in 2000.
But according to the Erie County Democratic Executive Committee member, Davis initially alienated “a number of” Democrats when he sought the advice of political consultant Stone, who has worked for everyone from Ronald Reagan to Al Sharpton.
The Buffalo News reported several weeks ago that Davis was considering Stone to run his campaign.
The Davis campaign refused to comment on any aspect of Stone’s role, however. And last week, Stone said he had in recent days “severed [his] communications with the Davis campaign” due to concerns over the outcome of the presidential election.
“I think it’s increasingly important to have a Republican Congress because it’s looking to me that the presidential election is becoming more competitive,” he said. “The idea of John Kerry as president I find very scary.”
“I gave [Davis] some advice,” added Stone, declining to comment on whether or how much he had been paid for his services. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Davis’ hires reflect his politically complicated profile. After all, his campaign manager Pauly is a former Erie County GOP legislator who remains a registered Republican. His only other hire to date, Director of Research and Field Organization Amanda Matyjas, is a former volunteer for ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s Democratic presidential campaign.
Still, despite Davis’ lack of party credentials, several Democrats see a silver lining in his deep pockets — he has pledged to spend $500,000 of his own money on the race — as well as his moderate stances and economic populism.
“This is a pretty Republican district,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed, explaining why national Democrats were unconcerned about Davis’ less-than-lengthy history with the party.
“This is a guy who could win,” gushed Lenihan, the Erie Democratic chairman, adding that Davis’ “resources and credibility” on the jobs issue make him an appealing candidate. All seven Democratic county parties in the district have already endorsed him, Lenihan added.
The Buffalo area council of the AFL-CIO recommended that the New York State AFL-CIO endorse Davis, a move Pauly said was tantamount to receiving the state organization’s nod. Davis has also received the Working Family Party’s endorsement, meaning he will appear on the November ballot on that party’s line in addition to the Democratic line.
But one endorsement Davis is unlikely to secure is that of the Independence Party of New York, the third largest in the state, which is expected to endorse Reynolds once he succeeds in collecting signatures from the minimum 5 percent of enrolled Independence Party voters required to get on the ballot. The IP nod is considered particularly valuable to Davis given the 55,000 Republican overlay in the district, said Joe Illuzi, publisher of the PoliticsWNY.com Web site.
“In order for Jack to make up the difference, he needs the endorsement,” he said.
Donald Porto, chairman of the Monroe County Independence Party and vice chair of the state IP, said the party plans to give its ballot line to Reynolds.
Still, the Davis campaign hopes to force a primary for the Independence Party nod, by obtaining the necessary petition signatures. Accordingly, Davis has already “mailed 2,300 pieces to every Independence Party house in Monroe County,” said Pauly. “We think the rank and file ought to have a voice in this thing.”
For its part, Reynolds’ campaign said the three-term Congressman has no intention of taking the seat for granted.
“He runs as if he’s the underdog,” said Reynolds’ chief of staff Mike Brady. “We expect to have an opponent every two years.”
According to financial reports, Reynolds had a whopping $2.3 million on hand through March 31 compared to Davis’ $106,000, nearly all of which was in the form of a personal loan.
“Tommy would lose all four limbs before he loses to this guy,” quipped one Western New York political operative.