Upstart Leaves the Campaigning to the Congressman

Jack Davis, running against Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds in New York, seems to be trying to win by letting the incumbent lose.
Jack Davis, running against Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds in New York, seems to be trying to win by letting the incumbent lose. (By Harry Scull Jr. -- Associated Press)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

AKRON, N.Y. -- You want the candidate to do that door-to-door, knock-knock-and-glad-hand stuff? That's ridiculous.

Jack Davis roams around his factory and pays for campaign commercials. He doesn't care for flacks, either: Before sitting down to talk to a reporter, he shoos his spokesman out the door.

Davis is not sure why the Democrats wanted him to run in the 26th Congressional District in Upstate New York in the first place. He can rehearse his negatives as quick as any Republican. "I'm a white Anglo-Saxon millionaire owner of a non-union factory," he said.

Davis, 73, has a white mane, narrow hips and a bony run of a face, and he paces about his office. "When the Democrats first asked me to run, I said, 'Yeah, great idea, except I'm a Republican.' "

Jack Davis is the anti-candidate, and so far his strategy, if that's what you want to call it, has the look of distilled brilliance. A recent poll found Davis, who changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat in 2004, has jumped 17 percentage points ahead of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a Republican power broker.

Davis is helped greatly by the fact that the House Republicans in general, and Reynolds in particular, have tripped through a trapdoor labeled "Congressional Page Scandal." Reynolds, a beefy political pro who rarely spots a back that doesn't beg for a friendly slap, wears a haunted look of late.

Two weeks ago Reynolds flew to Upstate New York and surrounded himself with 25 children (staffers' kids, friends' kids, pretty much anyone wholesome-looking and under the age of 14) before calling in the local media to talk about politics, sex and naughty instant messages. Then Reynolds ran a television ad to explain his role in the controversy, in which his eyes dart here and there and rarely look squarely at the camera. Comedian Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" ran the commercial nearly in its entirety, figuring it trumped any attempt at satire.

Ray Yacuzzo, the Genesee County Democratic Party chairman, says he is baffled by Davis the non-campaigning candidate. But who can argue with success? "This campaign is like physics," Yacuzzo says. "Reynolds has so much negative momentum, it looks like Jack Davis is picking up speed."

You try to obtain a campaign schedule for Davis, and his spokesman Curtis Ellis says there isn't one. You click on the "Events" tab on Davis's Web site, and it reads: "Check back soon. . . ." Ellis does give you directions to Davis's factory, which lies out in the rolling farmland of far eastern Erie County. The I Squared R Element Co., which Davis owns and very actively manages, manufactures silicon-carbide heating elements that are used in high-temperature electric furnaces.

Davis waves at you to follow him and embarks on a fast-paced walking tour of his factory. Most of the 75 employees make more than $20 an hour and appear genuinely to respect their boss. This factory is the only one of its kind left in this nation (his competitors have moved south of the border or overseas), which circles back to why Davis ran against Reynolds in 2004 and again this year. Davis loathes free trade and globalization.

"We've got to get off this globalization kick," Davis says. "We're the only country in the world that believes in it."

In the manner of a self-made man accustomed to having those on his payroll listen attentively, Davis declines to measure his words. He speaks to the lives of many working-class New Yorkers upstate, where the carcasses of factories do not become luxury lofts. They just stand abandoned.

"Globalization's profits come back for the top 10 percent in our society, but look what it does to the middle class," he says. "Job, retirement plans, a pension: It's all going away."

Davis, a big Lou Dobbs fan, wants to impose cliff-high tariffs on goods from "Red China" and build tall fences on the border with Mexico. And no amnesty for illegal immigrants; it would just encourage them. "I see radical Mexicans saying President Polk took their land in the war with Mexico." He whacks the table. "Well, here's what I have to say: You lost that war, baby!"

Let it be noted that Davis is not spreading the Gospel According to Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman who champions neo-liberalism and free trade and has masterminded the Democrats' congressional electoral assault this autumn.

Davis wiggles his bushy eyebrows. "Rahm told me he believes in a big tent," Davis says. "I said: 'Fine, let me in.' "

A few years back, Davis was a Republican high roller, writing fat checks to upstate Republicans. When Vice President Cheney rolled into Buffalo, Davis wrote a $2,000 check for Cheney but took out a full-page ad in the Buffalo newspaper decrying the Republican embrace of free trade. Cheney's crowd was not keen about that.

"This Cheney woman comes running to me in the parking lot and says: 'You can't talk to the press!' " Davis recalls. His response? "The next day I talked to the Democratic county chairman. . . ." Polls still show that a third of voters in this district don't know who Davis is. Whatever. He's wrapped up nominations from the Independence Party and the Working Families Party, giving him three ballot positions on Nov. 7. He's spending $3 million of his own money on the race. And he's convinced he's got it figured out.

Davis opens his door and lets his spokesman come back in. "I don't see the point," Davis says by way of goodbye, "in wasting time going around campaigning."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company