Out of the torrent of news reports about the recent tragedy at City Hall emerged a portrait of City Councilman James Davis as a charismatic, streetwise, and principled progressive politician—responsive to his local constituents, and, perhaps, accessible to a fault. His loss is not only Fort Greene’s, but all of Brooklyn’s—as Davis was one of the few politicians willing to challenge the dubious leadership of the borough’s Democratic machine.
The day after the tragedy, California announced that a recall election would indeed be held in early October, imperiling the political life of the state’s current governor, Gray Davis. Other than their last names and party affiliations, the two figures could not be further apart. To compare them may seem at first like reaching for coherence in the headlines—a temptation usually best avoided. But in this case I think there are greater lessons to be learned, especially regarding what we expect from our politicians, and what they actually deliver.
With an approval rating currently at a ridiculous 10%, Gray Davis is easily the most disliked and uninspiring politicians in a country full of disliked and uninspiring politicians. The only reason he has twice been elected governor of California is that his opponents were first Dan Lungren and then William Simon, Jr., candidates so reactionary that they made the ultra-moderate Davis seem like a palatable, albeit sorry, alternative. On both occasions, Davis offered no meaningful vision of what he stood for—other than to say, “Hey, at least I’m not as bad as my opponent.”
Now comes word that Gray’s savior may be the state’s black and Latino voters, who will likely turn out in high numbers on October 7 due to a separate measure on the ballot. It is yet another anti-affirmative action initiative pushed by Ward Connerly—one of those “I want to make sure the next generation doesn’t benefit from the same programs I did” types. Over the next two months, Gray will thus pay lip service to the state’s minority communities, assuring them, “Hey, at least I’m not as bad as Darrell Issa or the other reactionary challengers.”
But even though he has managed to pull of victories twice before, this time the numbers look bleak. And here is where Gray, not to mention many other politicians, could take a page from the book of James Davis, who won by campaigning in the streets and churches of his community, and who remained popular by listening to people’s needs once he got in office. James Davis was someone who fought for his principles, regardless of what the leadership of his party or the City Council wanted him to do.
Obviously there are differences between being one member of a large City Council and being the governor of a very large state. Yet the defining characteristic of any politician is ultimately his or her desire—beyond simply ego gratification—to be in politics. Gray Davis’s sole motivation appears to be to stay in office, perhaps because he doesn’t know what else to do with his time. James Davis, like every other politician, was in the game to make a name for himself, but in the process he was addressing the real needs of his community. May that spirit carry on.