Davis, Danny K. 1941–
Danny K. Davis 1941–
Congressman from Illinois
A survivor of the “council wars” that plagued Chicago’s combative and racially divided city government, Danny Davis emerged in the 1990s as one of the leaders of the city’s large and influential African American community. In 1996, after two previous attempts, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. Far from mellowing politically, Davis continued as a staunch advocate of government social programs, and proved surprisingly effective in protecting some of them against the budget-cutters who flourished in the Republican-dominated Congress of the 1990s.
Davis was born in Parkdale, Arkansas, on September 6, 1941, the son of a cotton farmer. He graduated with a B.A. degree from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, in 1961, and moved to Chicago’s West Side shortly thereafter, landing a job as a postal clerk. Davis pursued a career in education, teaching and serving as a guidance counselor in Chicago’s public schools during the 1960s. In 1968, Davis received a master’s degree from Chicago State University. Married with two children, he has established deep roots within his West Side community, and serves as a deacon of the New Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.
A strong commitment to his community prompted the idealistic Davis to switch careers, putting him on a path that would ultimately lead him into politics. He became a health care administrator at the community level, serving as director of training at the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Health Center between 1969 and 1971, and then once again laying the educational groundwork for further advancement in the field; he earned a Ph.D. degree from the Union Institute in Cincinnati in 1977. Davis had already become the executive director of the Westside Health Center, a post he held until 1981. He has served as president of the National Association of Community Health Centers.
Davis combined his health care career with a commitment to grassroots community organizing, founding and becoming president of an organization called the West-side Association for Community Action. A run for the Chicago City Council was the next logical step. Davis was elected in 1979 as alderman of the Twenty-Ninth
At a Glance…
Born September 6, 1941, in Parkdale, AR; son of a cotton farmer; married to Vera; children: Jonathan, Stacey. Education: Arkansas A., M. & N College, B.A., 1961; Chicago State University, M.S., 1968; Union Institute, Ph.D., 1977. Religion: Missionary Baptist.
Career: United States Representative, Seventh District of Illinois, member of the Democratic Party. Clerk, Chicago Post Office, 1961–65; teacher, Chicago Public Schools, 1962–68; became director of training, Martin Luther King Neighborhood Health Center, 1969; became executive director, Westside Health Center, 1975; elected to Chicago City Council, 1979; backed Mayor Harold Washington in “council wars/early 1980s; elected as Commissioner, Cook County Board, 1990; ran for mayor of Chicago, 1991; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, 1996-.
Addresses: Office—1222 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
Ward, a district on the city’s western edge. He served on the council through some of its most turbulent years, emerging as a key ally of Mayor Harold Washington, who was elected on a groundswell of African American support in 1983 and became Chicago’s first African American mayor. Finding that Washington’s initiatives were frustrated by entrenched whites who controlled the council, Davis received an education in the difficulty of bringing about political change through established channels.
With an eye to the future, Davis challenged veteran U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins twice in primary elections, in 1984 and 1986. He was unsuccessful both times, but in 1990 was elected to the Cook County Commission. He ran for mayor of Chicago in 1991 against the extremely popular Richard Daley Jr. Although he lost the election, Davis broadened his name recognition, and went on to build his influence within the Chicago-area Democratic Party. In 1992, he became a state co-chair of Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency. Clinton, in return, named Davis to the board of directors of the National Housing Partnership, and he continued to serve on the county commission.
In 1996, Collins finally retired, and Davis entered a ten-way race for the Seventh District Congressional seat. A campaigner with a booming voice and a stately personal presence that contrasted favorably with the other, more flamboyant candidates in the race, Davis offered a liberal platform that called for increased spending on urban concerns and health care, and for a rise in the federal minimum wage to $7.60 an hour. Running, according to The Progressive, on a slogan of “jobs, justice, equality, and peace,” Davis called for cuts in defense spending and argued for the maintenance of affirmative action programs, a favorite target of Republicans. He also led journalists on tours of Chicago’s public housing projects during the Democratic National Convention. Davis won the primary by a margin of 13 percentage points over his nearest competitor, and cruised to victory in the general election in his overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Among the most liberal members of the House—in addition to his long-standing Democratic affiliation he also maintains ties with a small left-wing organization called the New Party—Davis might have been expected to have his influence severely circumscribed in the Republican-dominated House of the late 1990s. But Davis brought his considerable persuasive skills to bear on his fellow House members. He voted against a 1997 tax-cut bill, arguing, according to the Almanac of American Politics, that “[w]e cannot have a great, civilized and humane nation without paying the cost; if all we can do is cut, cut, cut, all that we will get is blood, blood, blood.” On that issue and on many other votes, Davis ended up in the minority.
However, on other issues, Davis enjoyed more success. He worked with the House Transportation Committee leadership on a bill to increase funding for services that would transport inner-city workers to suburban jobs. This issue gained importance in the late 1990s as the economy flourished and suburbs grew dramatically. Inner-city workers, many of whom did not own a car, were unable to commute to jobs that often went unfilled. Davis sponsored new funding for neighborhood health care centers, and worked with fellow Chicago Representative Bobby Rush to secure emergency help for the perennially strapped Chicago Housing Authority.
During the late 1990s, Davis took a strong stand on several controversial issues. He vigorously opposed the charter school movement, and was quoted by the Almanac of American Politics as saying that it was “a sinister move to dismantle public education.” In 1998, Davis was the first to point out that the U.S. Supreme Court had employed very few minority lawyers on its staff of clerks. Although this situation went virtually unchanged, Davis earned national recognition within progressive circles. That same year, Davis took the lead in resisting Republican-inspired budget cuts aimed at home-improvement loans for low-income Americans and at summer jobs programs for urban youth. “Having them [young people] on our streets instead of working is a crazy plan that is detrimental to their futures and to our communities,” Davis told Jet. At the turn of the century, American liberalism had found a vigorous new champion in Danny Davis and, with his record of ambition and accomplishment, he seemed to be a politician to watch for years to come.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa. The Almanac of American Politics: 2000. National Journal, 1999.
1997–1998 Congressional Directory. 105th Congress. United States Government Printing Office, 1997.
Ebony, January 1997, p. 64.
Jet, April 8, 1996, p. 40; August 3, 1998, p. 32.
Progressive, November 1996, p. 25.
Additional information for this profile was obtained at www.house.gov/davis/.
—James M. Manheim
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