Last May, Evan Davis angrily withdrew his name from the roster seeking delegates’ votes at the state Democratic nominating conference. Davis, who is seeking his party’s nomination for state attorney general, complained that money was poisoning the process and accused one of his rivals, Eliot Spitzer, of using personal funds to win the support of the county leaders who control many of the delegates’ votes. Davis, 54, has since collected more than 50,000 signatures to petition his way onto the ballot, and has continued making ethics and campaign finance a central theme of his campaign. He has limited his own fundraising, soliciting donations of no more than $2,500 — the state’s limit is $13,000 — and proposing a law that would curtail donations and prohibit certain contributions.
“I have sacrificed fundraising to take a stand on principle,” said Davis in an interview with Jewish Week reporters. “An attorney general should set an example, not taking money from corporations, unions and PACs.Although Davis lags behind his rivals in fund raising (he has taken in just over $500,000) he seems to have gained politically for his stance. The most recent poll by the John Zogby group has Davis in a statistical dead heat with Spitzer, with 15 and 16 percent, respectively. State Sen. Catherine Abate was favored by 8 percent while former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell was last with 4 percent. The vast majority of voters remain undecided.
A graduate of Harvard and of Columbia Law School, Davis served as counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1985-1991. Confined to a wheelchair as a result of suffering from polio as a child, Davis said he was particularly sympathetic to the disabled chasidic students of Kiryas Joel, and had gained an understanding of Jewish issues from a law school roommate who became Orthodox.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
The Jewish Week: What kind of legislation or litigation would you pursue as attorney general?
Davis: My first priority is to clean up the corrupt system we have in government. Money is such a part of the process that the middle class is totally left in the lurch. We would investigate every corrupt situation, whether [it be] the Legislature, executive, or a former government official. I’d be really strong on the watchdog role. I’ve already filed complaints against [Republican Attorney General] Dennis Vacco [regarding a contribution from a car-leasing company under investigation by the state] with the State Ethics Commission and the Board of Election and they have it under consideration …I will establish a consumer complaint bureau for utility work and insurance work, and we will take on insurance rates. We’ll petition the superintendent of insurance to hold hearings.
Another area where the attorney general can do criminal enforcement is environmental work. We have to have a team of scientists, lawyers and investigators. I would put that team back together, get back to work, make General Electric pay to clean up the Hudson. Cleaning up the air and water is critical to the future.
Courts have struck down two state laws creating the Kiryas Joel school district. Should there be further legislation?
I have a special take on that because these are handicapped kids, disabled kids who need some special help because of their disability. My heart goes out to those children who were totally abandoned by the Monroe-Woodbury school district. Now, fortunately the Supreme Court recently decided a case that is going to make it sort of unnecessary to have a special school district. They have modified the old case … allowing much more latitude for special education, allowing the state to give to sectarians schools some aid for special education. Now you can go onto the site in the sectarian schools. Children can now be taken care of at state expense without having them go either to Woodbury school system or in vans outside. So a special school district is not needed. So it seems to me the rationale is now different.
If there was another law, the job of the attorney general is to defend it, but there is nothing stopping me from saying to the people of Kiryas Joel, do you really need this law?
There is a challenge before the court to the state’s kosher enforcement laws. Should they be upheld?
This is a very valid state consumer protection function, totally within the attorney general’s [powers]. Although I’m not Jewish I have some kosher experience. My law school roommate in our third year … sort of got religion and decided to start keeping kosher. So for a year I lived in a kosher household. I know what’s involved. People have to know that what they’re getting meets their needs, and I suppose there is the temptation then to go to the highest standards because then everybody’s needs are met. If there were two levels you can mark products level one or level two. Glatt kosher is to some extent that kind of notion.
Should the state enact tougher laws against bias-related crimes?
I totally support [the bias crime bill] and everybody knows the reason it’s not getting out of Senate — the gay and lesbian issue. I’m totally opposed to taking them out of it. I would like to see all the groups who are subject to bias attacks, black communities, Jewish communities, standing firmly that the gay and lesbian community, which is absolutely subject to being beaten up, not be eliminated. The way to get that bill passed is to force a vote on the floor of the Senate. I would favor changing the system so votes could be forced. Too much in Albany goes on in secret in these conferences. … The worst part is no one ever has to be accountable. They can come back and say I tried. How do you know they tried?
Should state law be changed to recognize same-sex marriages?
I think that stability in relationships is good for society. These relationships are going to exist, love is love, commitment is commitment. I don’t think we should discriminate. I think there are severe economic penalties, particularly in inheritance law. If you’re married and you die, your spouse takes your estate, tax-free. And if you can’t get married, you can’t have the benefit of that, and it just makes no sense to me. If the matter originated in the Legislature, I would be supportive [and] applaud them.How do you feel about the return of the death penalty?
If I had been in the Legislature I would have voted against it. But the law is the law and I will support it. I think prompt and certain punishment is the way to have an effective criminal justice system. The death penalty is a distraction from that goal because these cases go on forever. I’m in favor of life in prison without parole. I agree with Gov. Pataki in making life in prison without parole stronger. If there is not a unanimous jury decision on death, the judge can impose 25 years to life. I think the law should be changed so that in a capital case, if [the jury] didn’t vote for death, the sentence is automatically life without parole.
Is your objection to capital punishment on moral or practical grounds?
Both. I don’t believe it deters, and if you don’t believe it deters, you have an ethical problem because then it’s not self-defense.
Note to readers: Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross has not responded to numerous requests for an interview. Therefore, this concludes our series on candidates for governor, attorney general and Senate in the Democratic primary. There are no statewide Republican primaries. The Jewish Week will present interviews with the Republican incumbents in those offices, Democratic comptroller H. Carl McCall and Republican comptroller candidate Bruce Blakeman in future issues.