A day in the life: Sen. Jim Davis makes the rounds, confident of outcome
Editor’s note: The Smoky Mountain News spent a day on the campaign trail with Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, as he tries to retain his seat in the N.C. General Assembly representing the seven western counties.
It’s almost dark and North Carolina Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is sitting in the Ryan’s steakhouse in Sylva. It’s Thursday, another day on the campaign trail with an election only weeks away.
“Usually the weekends are a lot busier. Weekends we’ll be going all day,” Davis says. “During the week there’s not a lot of stuff going on.”
This is one of the day’s stops. A chance to put some campaign swag on an info-table and eat dinner at the Jackson County Tea Party Patriot’s regular Ryan’s engagement. Before this there were two credit-union-appreciation-day drop-bys and a luncheon at Lake Junaluska.
Soon, Davis will commence to eating with the Patriots and a few other regional Republican candidates. But for now he’s being interviewed by a reporter. Answering questions about, at the moment, music.
“I have the most eclectic music taste,” the senator says.
Davis explains that he enjoys multiple genres. Loves bluegrass and “long-haired organ music.” He enjoys “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
“I don’t like hard rock and I don’t consider rap music,” Davis adds a caveat.
Earlier today, in his car traveling between campaign stops, the senator listened to local hometown heroes Balsam Range. He went to the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show last year, and is a bit disappointed he didn’t make it this year to see Balsam bring home their winnings.
The subject of music makes Davis smile. It seems the discussion has punctured a place of pure joy. Not only does the senator enjoy listening to music, he use to enjoy playing it too.
“Do I still play the trumpet?” Davis laughs. “I still have a trumpet. I don’t have the lip anymore.”
The senator’s smile is daydreaming. Back to his childhood. Back to when he got the King Super 20 S trumpet from his parents.
“Sterling silver bell with gold lacquer,” Davis describes the horn.
That trumpet seems to mean a lot to the senator. Almost as much as the fact that his parents were able to pull the necessary funds together to purchase the instrument.
“They really sacrificed to get that horn for me,” Davis says.
Warming the heart at lunch
Sen. Davis rolled into the Lake Junaluska luncheon around noon. He’d hit the Mountain Federal Credit Union’s Franklin branch on the way up, and now it was time for the Marketing Association of Rehabilitation Centers’ awards luncheon.
“I really helped them with some legislation a few years ago and I got to know the group, I really stay close to them,” Davis explained in the lobby of Lake Unalaska’s Lambuth Inn.
The Association, or MARC, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works with community rehabilitation programs across a 23-county region of North Carolina to provide services to individuals with a disability or socio-economic disadvantages. The organization works with individuals to teach marketable job skills and work habits, and also help them secure employment.
“They’ve dedicated their lives to enriching the lives of these disabled,” Davis said.
A few years ago the senator was successful in helping MARC with a Department of Labor waiver. The waiver allows for disabled individuals to gain employment without requiring that they be paid minimum wage.
“But it keeps them there,” Davis said. “It gives these clients something to do.”
As a result of his relationship with MARC and appreciation for their work, Davis decided he’d invite a couple of the group’s clients down to Raleigh to get an up-close look at state government.
“So we made a position called honorary interns,” Davis explained. “We’d send’em on errands and make’em productive. They got to meet the governor and the lieutenant governor.”
Displayed in the lobby of the inn is artwork created by MARC clients. During lunch the artists will be given trophies and accolades.
“It just does your heart good,” Davis said, heading into the dining room.
Davis sat at a table with businessmen who are plugged into MARC’s mission. Also at the table was fellow state lawmaker Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, as well as a representative from Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s office.
As MARC’s guests dined on pecan and pumpkin pies, employers and clients were recognized for their efforts and achievements. Awards were also given out to clients in celebration of their artwork.
One painting featured a house and two trees. Another piece of art incorporated a Cherokee corn-bead necklace. A large group-project piece was based on Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
Client Joyce Turner was awarded for a finger-print painting of a tree with many-colored leaves.
“Way to go, Joyce,” Davis congratulated the woman as she walked by his table.
Following the luncheon at Lake Junaluska, Sen. Davis hit his second credit union of the day. Mountain Federal had invited him to swing by their branches during the day’s customer appreciation events.
“Haven’t run out of food yet?” Davis asked upon entering the credit union.
It’s well past lunch and there’s not much food around. Near the door sits a spread of freebies. There’s a selection of red and orange fanny packs. And a bowl full of Dum-Dums lollipops.
Davis goes for a cherry-flavored lollipop and chews the fat with some of the branch employees. It’s a pretty slow scene at the credit union.
After a few minutes fellow Republican candidate Mike Clampitt walks in. He’s running against Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) for a House seat and is thus also making the credit-union rounds.
“Did you make it to Sylva and Cherokee?” Clampitt asked.
“No,” Davis replied, “I made it to Franklin.”
The senator bids a farewell and walks outside. He’s heading home for the afternoon, before meeting the Patriot’s at Ryan’s later on.
In the parking lot, Davis passes a woman walking into the credit union.
“Good afternoon, Senator,” the woman says.
“Hello,” Davis replies. “How you doing?”
“It’s a beautiful day,” she says.
“In the neighborhood,” the senator smiles.
Into the sunset
Sitting in the backroom of Ryan’s, Davis discusses his campaign scheduling strategy. He gets a lot of invites and can’t be everywhere. Sometimes the senator will confirm on a “contingent” basis, in case a more pressing engagement pops up.
“You have to make priorities,” Davis says. “You have to invest your time judiciously.”
There are different types of campaign events. Some amount to cold-calling at a public event, like walking the line at a festival to greet strangers in the hope of convincing a few of them to vote for you. Others entail defending positions to a roomful of critics.
And then there are the events that put a candidate in front of the party faithful, the in-the-bag votes.
Such is the case with the Patriot’s dinner at Ryan’s. The senator needn’t worry about this bunch voting for his Democratic opponent Jane Hipps.
But Davis is at Ryan’s for a reason. The same reason DA candidate Ashley Welch is there and the same reason Jackson County commissioners candidate Doug Cody is there. The same reason Clampitt is there. A lovely dinner and the company of political admirers and true believers.
“Preaching to the choir is something you have to do because you want to keep them energized,” Davis says.
To be honest, Davis says, he’d just as soon be talking to a group of critics. Those engagements help him fortify his philosophy.
“I like to be challenged,” Davis says. “You’re better grounded if you have to defend your position.”
The senator is no stranger to defending his positions. He regularly takes heat from the left, weathering challenges to his takes on Medicaid expansion, fracking and education funding.
Teachers have been particularly critical of Davis. They have vocally disagreed with him along the campaign trail, questioning his support of the current legislature’s direction when it comes to education funding.
“They keep saying that we’re trying to destroy education,” Davis says.
The senator defends his position in regards to education funding, contending that critical educators are “not amenable to facts, logic and reason.” He notes that he has not heard such complaints from other public employees, such as firefighters and law enforcement officers — “you know, they’re state employees and people shoot at’em.”
“That’s why I’m really frustrated by the teachers who complain,” Davis says. “It’s a tough economy out there and we have to deal with reality.”
But the senator will not be encountering such critics this evening. The Patriot room at Ryan’s is a safe place for a Republican, a place where most everyone is on the same page — a fairly fearful place where Ebola, Isis and Obama haunt the future.
And for a conservative state Senate candidate that fear can be good for votes.
“People are nervous, they’re really uncertain,” Davis says, theorizing whether national and international issues will impact local outcomes at the polls. “As a group people are less secure with their own lives and their own government.”
Of course, the senator doesn’t believe he’ll need any trickle down in his race. He’s got it covered.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Davis says coolly.
The senator isn’t sweating Election Day. He has no doubt in his mind that he’ll be sent back to Raleigh. Handedly.
“I expect to win,” Davis says. “I won’t be surprised if we win by double digits.”
The backroom at Ryan’s will close out Davis’ Thursday. Capping off another day on the campaign trail. A short series of appearances within a season of appearances — at luncheons, at festivals, at rallies and debates and forums.
“My wife calls herself a political widow,” Davis jokes.
These days and nights on the trail can wear on a candidate. The senator’s formula for keeping his energy up during campaign season is fairly simple.
“My wife feeds me well, I get a good night sleep,” Davis explains. “But it’ll work on you, it’s not for the faint of heart.”
But it’s worth it. Or at least the prize he’s eyeing — a chance to continue representing his Western North Carolina constituents — makes it worth it.
“You have to be dedicated, you have to be on a mission,” he says. “It’s not lucrative, it takes time away from people you love. But it allows you to make a difference.”
But what if the people of Western North Carolina don’t ask him to keep making a difference in the legislature? What if he loses the race to Hipps?
“Well, I’m 67 years old,” Davis says. “So, it’s time to start slowing down.”
If voters should decide to release the senator from Raleigh, he plans to spend more time with his wife and family. He’ll take her to Banff, Canada, and she’d really like to visit Italy, too.
And then, of course, there’s the “bucket list.”
“I want to ride my bicycle across the U.S.,” Davis says. “And I want to ride my motorcycle to the Arctic Circle.”
The senator rides a BMW GS motorcycle. It’ll carry him pretty much wherever he wants to go. Regardless of election outcomes.
“It’s a great dual-sport bike,” Davis smiles. “It works really great on the highway, but it also does well on gravel.”