City council candidates are hardly household names, but there was one this year: James E. Davis, whose ubiquitous billboards, posters and mailings turned the little-known political wannabe into the unexpected victor for the City Council seat in Fort Greene and Crown Heights.
A police officer and ordained minister, Davis had run for office four times since 1996, losing by increasingly close margins. This year, however, with outgoing Councilmember Mary Pinkett supporting him, he had the edge to finally put his real secret weapon to the test: Love Yourself/Stop the Violence, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1990 “to unite inner-city communities and teach them self-love and respect,” according to its web site. For the last seven years, the group has sponsored annual parades and rallies promoted on posters and large billboards prominently featuring Davis’ name and smiling face.
This fall, Davis took his opposition by surprise, defeating the highly favored Letitia James in the Democratic primary. His victory pushed James’ legion of supporters–including Brooklyn’s Democratic organization, several major unions and most of the area’s elected leaders–to continue her campaign through the general election on the Working Families Party line. James made the best showing of any local third-party candidate since the 1940s, receiving 42 percent of the vote, but it was too little, too late.
Davis’ detractors still refused to give up. The day before the election, an aide to Assemblymember Roger Green, who supports James and is her former boss, filed a complaint about Davis’ finances with the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Among other things, Janella Meeks charged Davis with circumventing the board’s spending restrictions by promoting his candidacy through Stop the Violence. Under federal law, tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from engaging in political activity, and the city campaign law limits a council candidate’s spending at $274,000.
Davis’ expenditure filings failed to list phone costs, fundraising expenses and payments for campaign aides, the complaint alleges. “I’ve been working on campaigns for 10 years, and I know how much these things cost,” says Meeks, sister to Congressman Gregory Meeks. “It had to be much more exorbitant than what he spent.” As of late November, Davis’ campaign had reported slightly less than $100,000 in spending to the CFB, and another $59,000 he still needed to detail for the board. Letitia James spent about $175,000, according to CFB records.
Davis dismisses Meeks’ charges as sour grapes, and calls them almost “anti-Christian.” “These allegations are preposterous,” he says angrily. “They come from people who cannot accept the fact that I won.” Davis insists he was merely frugal. “I ran my campaign from the basement of my house,” he says. (His filings show he paid his landlord–his mother, Thelma–$500 a month for the space.)
To be sure, a host of factors contributed to Davis’ win. The primary’s crowded field of candidates likely took votes away from Letitia James,. and Davis’ status as a police officer certainly raised his profile in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Automated phone calls from Pinkett on Davis’ behalf also didn’t hurt.
But Davis’ critics insist his real advantage was Stop the Violence. He was known to peddle the group’s material at candidate debates and to promote it in his campaign literature. He used the Stop the Violence web site to promote his candidacy. “James E. Davis is supremely confident, multi-faceted and infintely [sic] courageous,” reads the site’s home page.
Calling Meeks’ charges “bull crap,” Davis says Stop the Violence is an above-board operation. Made up of “four, five, six [members], I really don’t want the people to know,” the group is a subsidiary of his church, Jesus Christ House of Prayer, based in Crown Heights. He invited City Limits to his home to “open the books” of Jesus Christ House of Prayer, but then refused to do so. The group is so apolitical, he says, that he has no plans of stepping down as its director once he takes office in January.
As for his further political aspirations, Davis says he has only just begun. He says he plans to run for Congress against Major Owens in 2002. “I view myself as a bowling ball,” he says. “My job is to clean up all the trash out of the gutter of the Democratic political machine.”