In The Shadow Of A Congressman: Two Hours With Danny K. Davis (Part One)

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Danny and Paul(Congressman Davis with Paul Gattuso inside of Paul’s Pizza in Westchester. Photo by Michael Romain for The Village Free Press). 

Screenshot 2014-06-18 at 12.36.20 PM

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 || By Michael Romain 

Danny K. Davis, as most in his district know or at least suspect, is the United States Representative for the 7th District, which spans an incredibly large and diverse swath of Cook County, including Maywood, Melrose Park, Bellwood, Forest Park, Oak Park and parts of Chicago (see map). Davis, 72, has been in Congress since I was in elementary school. I’m almost 30. And yet, he is still only ranked 87th on Wikipedia’s “List of current members of the United States House of Representatives by seniority.”

To give you an idea of how much future legislative potential Davis still has, consider that the representative ranked number one on that list I cited above is John Dingell, 87, a Democrat from Michigan, who’s been in Congress since December 13, 1955. That’s nearly 60 years. The second most senior representative on that list is also a Democrat from Michigan, John Conyers, 85, who’s been in Congress since January 3, 1965. That’s nearly 50 years.

Davis, who began his tenure in Congress on January 3, 1997, a few weeks before Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, still has some ways to go if he chooses to keep travelling down this road. As the Congressman himself might put it, God isn’t finished with him yet.

Thursday, June 5, 10 AM – The Last of the Mohicans

I arrive with the Congressman’s suburban liaison, Larry Shapiro, at Paul’s Pizza in Westchester. It’s the first stop on Davis’s ‘thank you tour’ of five restaurants that donated food for a senior Christmas party he hosted last year.

The Paul in Paul’s Pizza is Paul Gattuso, the restaurant’s owner and Westchester’s former mayor. Shapiro and I are sitting at a table by the door when I see the Congressman emerge from his SUV alone and wearing a nondescript gray suit that seems more of a necessary inconvenience than a deliberate choice. His tie–red punctuated by thin diagonal stripes–is loosely knotted at the neck and clashes somewhat with a brown dress shirt with vertical stripes.

Davis may very well be one of the most unpretentious, down-to-earth members of Congress you’ll ever meet. Indeed, Davis’s earthiness can be otherwordly, which is why he could walk around in an Irish kilt and people would barely glance down to notice. That’s because the most prominent features of the Congressman are above his neck–his wizened face and his bluesy baritone and the fact that he quotes whole stanzas of Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems verbatim and breaks out in Ray Charles songs in the middle of casual conversation.

Davis has the unique ability to make the past vividly useful to the present, and the present a tribute to the past, almost as if time were irrelevant. The 7th District’s Democratic dominance and Davis’s voting consistency aside, it’s perhaps the Congressman’s function as his constituents’ wise, wholesome, hovering uncle or grandfather that most explains his perennial popularity.

While a January Gallup poll puts the approval rating of the 113th Congress at a pathetically low 13 percent, Davis won his last campaign for reelection with nearly 85 percent of the vote–in a three-candidate race. This year, he’ll likely run unopposed.

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When Davis comes in, Gattuso rushes up to greet him. They hug and exchange pats on the back before Gattuso offers the Congressman a cup of coffee.

“We’re making the rounds thanking you and other people like you who contributed to our Christmas party,” Davis says. “We’ve learned to take a little bit and make a lot out of it. If we can get 50 chicken wings from one person, bread from another, some pizzas from another–well, sooner or later you’ve got a whole meal and nobody has to give up a whole lot.”

Not long into the meeting, the conversation takes on an almost philosophical tone, the two political veterans sharing laments and hopes and stuff in between.

“Every little bit of contribution that anybody makes is useful,” says Gattuso, who’s owned his pizza place since 1982.

“We used to do senior trips downtown to the Bean, wine and cheese in Iowa, we’d go see the Rockettes and go on architectural tours downtown. I would provide the boxed lunches and they would just pay for the buses. Nowadays, that’s gone by the wayside. No one has that anymore, it’s really sad. But you’re right, it’s a chain event. If you can help here and there, it adds up. We should try to revive that,” says Gattuso.

Paul's IIPaul's I(Inside of Paul’s Pizza in Westchester. Photo by Michael Romain for The Village Free Press).

“Next Saturday we’re taking a busload of kids to the penitentiary to see their fathers for Father’s Day,” Davis says on an optimistic note.  “The Illinois Department of Corrections is paying for it. Each kid will spend two hours with his father.”

“Our world today has changed so much,” says Gattuso. “We’re the last of the Mohicans. I try to instill it in younger kids. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.”

Davis and Gattuso eventually concede that, despite the conditions of the present, they can each do something in their own way to make it a little better.

“[By doing the right thing] we have to accept that, although we didn’t change the world, we changed one person’s mind–if only for an hour,” Davis says, laughing.

Gattuso, a former politician who has tired of politics, says that nowadays, he only moves in the relatively frictionless space that he can control–the mostly politics-free zone that surrounds his restaurant.

Gattuso hosts car shows in the parking lot of his Westchester restaurant, replete with a Rolling Stone cover band. He says that now that he’s out of office, his focus is a lot easier to accomplish and the route between wanting to good and implementing the good is a lot purer. He just does it–without any nastiness, no groping for favors, no trying to please this or that interest before a foot gets lifted off the ground. He just wants people to have fun and be engaged with each other–just one step in the goal of reviving that world of community and mutuality that he fears may be receding with each generation.

“The more people stay alone and inside, the meaner they get,” Gattuso says.

“That’s right,” Davis says, amused at the turn of phrase.

“I’ll have to remember that one.” VFP

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