Persistent Democrat carries petitions today, hopes for a rejuvenated party tomorrow
It was a strange combination: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles. But together, they changed Jay Davis’ life.
Although in a slightly different way.
“JFK’s assassination was very traumatic,” said Davis, a 69-year-old lawyer from Rapid City known for his long-standing and staunch activism in the state’s Democratic Party. “We had just bought our first television and of course we were glued to this television like everyone else in the country.”
And the Beatles? Well, they opened up a whole new world of music – Davis would end up owning a music store for a while – and probably inspired his inherent tendency towards progressive causes and candidates.
Prior to all of this, Davis was already in an engaged Democratic home in Ithaca, New York. The son of a history professor at Cornell University, he graduated in political science from Brown University.
But the East Coast was not to be his destiny. South Dakota was.
Halfway through college, Davis came to South Dakota in 1972 to work on Jim Abourezk’s successful campaign for the US Senate. After college, he returned in 1974 to work on Jack Weiland’s unsuccessful race against Republican Jim Abdnor for the seat of the United States House in the 2nd District. (South Dakota at the time had two seats in the United States House.)
“Within a week of graduating, I showed up here,” Davis says. “And I ended up staying 47 more years.”
During these campaigns, he got to know the state a little beyond the superficial sights of summer vacation spent with his parents. And he liked what he had learned.
“And then I never left. In those early years, I was really in love with the place. It wasn’t as socially stratified in terms of class as the East Coast, ”he says. “I was a little fed up with the East Coast. All the time I have lived here I have always had friends who did not go to college or who did not share my education. It’s different from the world I grew up in.
“Here I can have a mason or farmer friend,” he says. “There really isn’t this stratification. On the East Coast, you really spend time with your own people.
Davis went to work for the Department of Human Services in Mission, then worked with United Family Farmers to help successfully oppose the massive Oahe irrigation scheme planned for north-central South Dakota.
He returned to work for the UFF as an executive director for a few years in the 1980s before divorcing and heading to law school at the University of South Dakota. He graduated in 1990 and has practiced law in the state since, including about half of that time with the Pennington County Public Defender’s Office. He has also worked for Dakota Plains Legal Services and practiced in private practice, focusing on foster children and defending minors in court.
He plans to retire from practicing law on Dec. 31, although he will still be a member of the South Dakota Bar and retain an inactive license. This gives him the opportunity to resume training if he wishes.
But he doesn’t think he’ll want to do it now.
“I think 31 is enough,” he said.
Nor is he done with Democratic politics or promoting public issues through petitions. The day we had our main phone interview, it was between Zoom calls with other members of the South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Council led by State President Randy Seiler, then another Zoom Committee meeting. central part of the democratic state.
After its heyday in South Dakota in the 1970s, the Democratic Party faltered in terms of elective tenure, especially over the past 20 years. The party has not had a governor since 1978. There are no Democrats statewide. And with just 11 Democrats in the 105-member state legislature, law-making on Capitol Hill led by majority Republican majorities leaves Democrats little clout.
They’ve been more successful in bringing Democratic-inspired questions to public votes, which Davis is doing these days.
“I think it’s fair to say that in South Dakota, people who vote rather directly for Republicans sometimes have more progressive views on voting metrics,” Davis says. “So the idea of pushing the Medicaid expansion, for example, is there, whether we can beat John Thune or Kristi Noem.
Davis is a regular at collecting petition signatures. But the pandemic has changed the way he works these days, which is mostly about making appointments with people in advance. That’s what he was working on when I met him at the home of avid Democrat Ardith Hinzman in his cozy and comfortably decorated home in historic West Boulevard in central Rapid City.
Davis was there to collect Hinzman’s signature for one of the two petitions he carries these days. One would extend Medicaid coverage to more low-income people in the state. The other would create a bipartisan committee to redesign legislative constituencies after a 10-year census. The current system gives the advantage of redistribution to the majority party.
Davis has collected over 400 signatures for the Medicaid expansion and over 300 for the redistribution. He stopped by our house while I was working in the front yard and had me sign the redistribution petition. I had already signed someone else’s Medicaid expansion petition.
My wife, Mary, was not home at the time. Davis therefore later returned to his research. She still wasn’t home. He knocked on our next door neighbors, however, and got two signatures, after I suggested they would probably agree.
And the next week, while he was collecting signatures, he stopped by our house again and finally got Mary’s signature.
“I am persistent,” he said as he stood on our porch, wearing a mask.
He is persistent. And that’s a pretty valuable quality for a Democrat in a state run by Republicans.
When asked what hope might be for the party in the future, Davis said, “The party that McGovern created no longer exists. We start again. And it’s going to be quite different.
The party has lost members on some issues, especially abortion. And struggled to attract and keep new ones.
The new South Dakota Democratic Party is likely to be a youth-led party with a worldview more compatible and more comfortable with Democratic philosophies, Davis says. And Native American members will be crucial to its expansion and success.
“The Native American population is increasing. They have a lot of young people coming, ”he says. “The party of the future will be very different. I might not live to see it.
Or maybe he will. He’s persistent, after all.