Western New York businessman Jack Davis (D) may have been defeated last November at the polls by his Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), but he remains a man on a mission.
For the moment, that mission is to save American jobs from being exported abroad, said Davis, owner of a factory that makes heating element parts in Akron, N.Y. To this end, he’s formed a 501(c)(4), the Save American Jobs Association, to advance what was the central focus of his past campaign: opposition to current U.S. trade policy, which he believes is destroying the economy.
But given the fact that Davis has made no secret about his interest in a repeat run for the Empire State’s 26th district seat, the organization is also seen by political observers as a means to advance Davis’ political ambitions.
Spending more than $1.2 million from his own pocket last year, Davis took 44 percent of the vote in the Republican-leaning district.
“As with most cases when a Congressional candidate creates this kind of foundation, it’s a vehicle to get name recognition and hopefully expand their base,” said Joe Illuzzi, who runs a Web site on Western New York politics.
And for someone who declines to say definitively that he is running, Davis is looking and sounding an awful lot like the presumptive Democratic nominee.
In mid-February he met with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who represents an adjoining district, in Washington, D.C., to discuss a possible rematch with Reynolds. He also conferred with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“I said, ‘If I run will you help?,’ and [Emanuel] said, ‘Yes,’” Davis said.
That news does not appear to worry Reynolds, the powerful chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“Congressman Reynolds is focused on serving his district by bringing home job-creating federal funding to the area and working on the issues important to Western New York,” said Chad Scarborough, a spokesman for Reynolds. “We expect to have an opponent every two years.”
Davis said he is unlikely to make a formal announcement about the race until the end of the year, but during a telephone interview last week, he appeared to slip up at least two times, saying, “the fact that I’m running again” and “when I run again” — though he quickly corrected himself.
“As soon as I announce, then I’m shut off from so many people,” the 72-year-old Davis said, pointing to the icy reception he received from former Republican friends and some local business leaders after switching parties due to disputes with the GOP over trade issues. “Now I’m invited to speak to groups.”
As chairman of Save American Jobs, he’s also gained a national platform for his protectionist views. He’s already appeared twice this year on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” where he has expounded on the impact of the trade imbalance with China on American jobs and what he sees as the links between the budget crisis in New York’s Erie County — where a severe revenue shortage may force the firing of more than 2,000 public employees — and these trade policies.
“We’re getting hammered by the Chinese products coming in here. The WTO and the NAFTA are killing us. Globalization is not working, and if you come to Buffalo you see the true story,” Davis told Dobbs, a leading critic of outsourcing.
Davis’ CNN appearances weren’t his first national attention, however. He was publicly rebuffed by Vice President Cheney and kicked out of a fall 2003 GOP fundraiser in Buffalo after attempting to share his views on the administration’s free trade policies.
But Davis has not been entirely without fault on the issue himself. During the 2004 campaign, a Rochester television station reported that Davis had made several hundred thousand dollars by investing in companies listed as outsourcers, including Chevron and Anheuser Busch. Davis promised then to divest himself of those holdings.
For now, both local and national Democrats appear to have accepted his potential candidacy as their best hope of knocking off Reynolds.
“With his strong showing last year, and his strong opposition to the outsourcing of American jobs, Davis proved that he understands the problems and issues facing the families of Western New York,” Emanuel said in a statement. “The people of Western New York have responded to Jack Davis as a candidate and the DCCC is enthusiastic to be a part of the Davis team.” (Ironically, only days before Emanuel’s meeting with Davis in February, a DCCC staffer erroneously left a message with Reynolds’ office seeking recommendations for other potential challengers.)
“He is the overwhelming favorite to run again if that’s what he wants to do,” said Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard Lenihan. “At this point no one else has expressed interest.”
Should he decide to run, Davis will have his work cut out for him.
The district, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester, has a roughly 50,000 Republican registration overlay and has not sent a Democrat to Washington in decades.
Still, given voters’ dissatisfaction with the bleak economic outlook there and the fact that Davis did as well as he did the previous cycle with no assistance from the national party, Democrats are optimistic about his chances. At the very least, Davis has enough personal resources to give Reynolds fits — and curtail his travels on behalf of the NRCC.
“He forced Reynolds to come back home,” said Mark Poloncarz, a member of the executive committee of the Erie County Democratic Committee and a candidate for Erie County comptroller.
Democrats are also forecasting strong 2006 showings by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, their all-but-certain gubernatorial nominee.
“That should help turnout for Jack,” Lenihan said.
Because he is a newcomer to the Democratic Party, Davis appears to be beefing up his Democratic credentials for a Congressional run by installing well-known Democrats at the helm of Save American Jobs. Jeffrey Bono, the executive director of the group, is a former Democratic candidate for New York state Assembly and has served as the lead fundraiser for the Erie County Democrats. He also happens to be a cousin of the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.).
Meanwhile, Matt Bova, the group’s deputy director, is a state Democratic committeeman and a former Democratic candidate for New York state Senate.
The rare Republican listed on the group’s Web site, Davis’ former campaign manager and ex-GOP Erie County legislator William Pauly, is not expected to play a significant role in the organization or to reprise his gig as campaign manager. Pauly is listed as a consultant — information that appeared to be news to Pauly, who was not aware that his name was listed under staff. Pauly said he continues to advise Davis on an unpaid basis on issues he independently researches.
Still, it seems, Davis wasn’t entirely satisfied with Pauly’s performance in 2004, though he stopped short of offering any outright criticism.
“I’m looking for a more experienced person” to serve as campaign manager, said Davis. “I needed someone with experience with the” Federal Election Commission.
The FEC fined Davis’ campaign last year for failing to put the proper authorization line on some of its literature.
“Obviously, Bill has been taken out of the equation,” said one Erie County political insider, who believes ideological and operational differences between Pauly and Davis led to Pauly being “relegated to the role of consultant.”
But both Pauly and the Davis camp said the two men remained friendly and that there had been no falling out.
“Jack Davis continues to be advised by Bill Pauly,” said Curtis Ellis, spokesman for Save American Jobs. “Jack gets advice from a lot of people.”