When a boyhood chum spouted vote counts and political trivia, Richard J. Davis was bored.
When his business friends first urged him to run for the city council in his native Portsmouth, Davis refused.
When Virginia Democratic Party leaders offered him the nomination for the U.S. Senate, he issued a Shermanesque statement turning it down.
Now that he is the party's senatorial candidate, the 61-year-old Davis still isn't displaying the lust for political office that is the trademark of many modern office-seekers -- including, some say, his 35-year-old, hard-charging Republican opponent, Paul S. Trible Jr.
"If I were not to win, it would not be the end of the world for me," says Davis, who was elected lieutenant governor last year. "It would not be the end of the world for Virginia."
It is this air of studied indifference that characterizes Davis' once-improbable campaign against Trible in their tight race to succeed retiring independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. White House strategists have targeted Virginia as one their best shots for a Republican Senate gain this fall. Democrats are counting on the race to solidify their victories in last year's sweep of statewide offices.
Yet as Davis criss-crosses the state in his blue pinstriped suits and black wingtips, the white-haired, paunchy Portsmouth mortgage banker displays a relaxed and self-deprecating Southern charm. Davis tells audiences he's a fast learner and that he'll be "the hardest-working senator you ever saw." In almost the same breath, he jokes: "I'm not really certain I want to go to Washington anyway."
That can drive his campaign staff up the wall. "Sometimes I feel like I want to shake him and say, 'Listen, even if you don't care about winning this election, I do,' " said one Davis aide.
Davis' attitude toward political office is not surprising to many who know him. A one-time altar boy who hawked newspapers during the Great Depression, a Marine veteran who worked his way through law school by waiting tables, Davis remained on the fringes of Virginia politics until 1974 when, at age 52, he finally acquiesced to pressure from associates and ran successfully for the Portsmouth City Council. By then, he was well on his way to amassing a banking and communications fortune currently estimated at $2.1 million.
Today, seeking statewide office for the second time in as many years, Davis seems a man comfortably at ease with himself, an affable and ruddy-faced Irish Catholic who likes to swap sports stories and relax with the National Enquirer or a novel by Harold Robbins. "He's not your typical politician," says McLain O'Ferrall, a friend and Democratic party fund raiser. "He's not in the least bit uptight."
Throughout his 4 1/2-month campaign, Davis has avoided detailed discussions of most national issues, preferring instead to issue terse and sometimes snappy one-liners. Asked where he stands on nuclear arms reduction, Davis replies: "I'm for a return to the bows and arrows."
Davis advocates a strong national defense, and hammers away at budget deficits and unemployment. "When you mention unemployment to a Republican, they mention 'lagging economic indicators,' " he recently told a black audience. Yet Davis also shuns open criticism of Ronald Reagan, a strategy in keeping with public opinion polls that show the president still popular in Virginia. "He's my president as well as my opponent's president," Davis has said.
Trible backers charge that Davis, who campaigned for Jimmy Carter in 1980, is attempting to cloak his liberalism behind a cloud of conservative rhetoric. Others say his ambiguities can also mask a fundamental unfamiliarity with global issues.
To be sure, Davis' campaign has issued a number of lengthy position papers outlining his commitment to eliminate "waste and inefficiency" in the military, defend Social Security and revitalize small businesses. More recently the position papers have given way to negative reports on Trible, accusing him of congressional absenteeism and being a "do-nothing, press-release congressman."
If Davis' strategists are right the "issues" won't matter. They say the race will be decided by national economic trends and voters perceptions of the candidates' characters -- a comparison that the Democrats say they win hands down.
At a recent meeting at BDM Corp., a defense-oriented think tank in McLean, Davis praised the Reagan administration for doing "a good job in its handling of some very critical [foreign policy] issues." Later, pressed by reporters, Davis was unable to point to any specific action he found laudable.
What does Davis think of Israeli settlements on the West Bank? "I can't comment on that." Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe? "I would again be guided pretty much by those who are better informed than I." Military aid to the government in El Salvador? "I don't have a preference as to the current government or the insurgent government."
Davis' assets are, first and foremost, those of the business world. He is credited as a shrewd executive who projects a fatherly and friendly air that inspires strong loyalty among his subordinates. A fiercely proud man, Davis rarely shows emotion in public -- yet he often plays on the sentiment his own rags-to-riches story evokes.
Davis was born in a poor Irish neighborhood, where his father died when he was 7 and his mother ran a rooming house for Portsmouth shipyard workers. Davis' days as a newspaper delivery boy and peanut peddler at the local minor league baseball stadium are today a stock part of his campaign speeches and even one of his television commercials.
"It taught me the value of hard work," Davis says. "When I was delivering papers, I knew if I didn't have the money to the circulation manager on Wednesday, I might as well be dead."
While popular on the campaign trail, the tales may have worn a little thin for those who have heard Davis repeat them during the past two years. "If I hear that story one more time," Davis' spunky wife Martha joked, "I'm going to throw up."
As a World War II Marine, Davis stormed the beaches of Tarawa, Saipan and Okinawa. Battle scenes and machinegun fire are incorporated into his TV commercial designed by Democratic media expert Robert Squier, who also handled media for Gov. Charles S. Robb's campaign last year.
During the early weeks of his campaign, Davis even rolled up his left sleeve to show that he served in the war despite an arm bent by several boyhood accidents. The gesture was none too subtle: Trible received a draft deferment during the Vietnam era because of a slightly malformed right arm.
When Trible partisans and newspaper editorialists cried foul, Davis indignantly denied he was trying to portray Trible as a man who shirked military duty. "Some of the media are trying to make me ashamed of my military experience," he snapped.
After the war, Davis married and was later divorced from the daughter of one of Portsmouth's wealthiest developers. With his then-father-in-law's aid Davis became a successful mortgage banker. Although he raised money for the Senate campaigns of his law partner and boyhood friend, William B. Spong, Davis personally shunned the political arena -- primarily, he said, because he didn't want to compete with Spong.
Davis also showed scant interest in the social issues championed by Spong, a maverick foe of the conservative Byrd organization. During the era of "Massive Resistance" in the 1950s, when the state closed schools rather than integrate them, Davis was silent. "Nobody asked my opinion either way," he says.
Davis was active in an informal community group in Portsmouth for several years, but it took a delegation of his business associates in 1974 and a scandal in the city police department to convince him to run for elective office. Davis refused his friends the first time they asked. "He thought he would be a poor candidate," one recalls.
After the city council elected Davis mayor, he used his contacts in the business community to spearhead a drive to revitalize Portsmouth. Dr. James W. Holley III, the city's black former vice mayor, says Davis "had the charisma to get people involved. He was able to turn the city around."
Davis convinced one of his closest friends and business partners, lawyer Herbert K. Bangel, to chair the city's Redevelopment and Housing Authority. For years, the authority's legal work was handled by Davis' law firm, and that work increased dramatically under Davis' term as mayor as the authority embarked on its subsidized housing program.
During Davis' six-year tenure as mayor, the Portsmouth housing authority paid $1,018,446 in legal fees to the Davis firm, according to housing authority figures. The relationship prompted conflict-of-interest complaints that led to a formal investigation in 1980 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Attorney's office in Norfolk.
Both inquiries eventually cleared Davis of any wrongdoing, in part because of an agreement Davis had signed with the firm preventing him from sharing in any fees derived from city business. Under his agreement with the firm, which is still in effect, Davis receives a flat $3,000 annual salary from the law firm, but does not share in the its profits. "I never made a penny" through legal dealings with the city, Davis says.
"The fact that they were friends of the mayor, or friends of the council, was irrelevant," says Robert T. Williams, then the city manager. "What was important was that they were all good quality businessmen."
Davis also forged strong ties to Portsmouth's black community, appointing blacks to many boards and commissions in the 50 percent black city for the first time. Yet Davis also sent two of his three children to the Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, one of many private academies that grew up in southern Virginia when the public schools were integrated in the 1960s. There are no American blacks in the school's 960-member student body, though school officials say they have an "open-door" admissions policy.
Davis says he sent his children to the school, 16 miles from his Portsmouth home, at the request of his son, whose best friend was already a student there. "The main thing was that race was never any consideration as far as I'm concerned," says Davis. "My record should allay any sense of bigotry or prejudice against any member of the black race."
After his mayoral stint, Davis ran for chairman of the state's Democratic Party, a post that positioned him well for last year's successful race for lieutenant governor. Conducting a rather subdued campaign, Davis watched his opponent, State Sen. Nathan H. Miller, sink under the weight of conflict-of-interest charges. Davis won the race by nearly 150,000 votes, a margin far larger than in either of Virginia's two other statewide races.
Davis' 10 months as lieutenant governor have been largely uneventful. In his only constitutional role, that of presiding officer in the state Senate, Davis cast five tie-breaking votes. In one, he infuriated the state's powerful banking lobby by casting the deciding vote for a bill that prohibited banks from charging $15 annual fees to credit card customers.
Davis acknowledges that his sights were set on a run for governor when he arrived in Richmond this year. When the Democratic party -- convulsed by racially tinged infighting over the Senate nomination -- turned his way, Davis, characteristically, said no. But when no other viable candidate emerged Davis somewhat reluctantly accepted the nomination, in what he calls "the closest thing to a draft."
So four months later, Davis is back on the campaign trail, blasting Trible as a young political opportunist. Still, says Davis with a smile: "I'd be perfectly happy doing something else."