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Veteran politicians know how to tailor their pitches to whoever's in the audience in front of them. Davis has been talking about inequality, opportunity, and fairness for decades, but when he spoke to professionals at the City Club on Monday, he didn't deliver a fiery sermon. His most intriguing and powerful arguments came during apparent digressions about his childhood in rural Arkansas in the 40s and 50s.
"The calf jumped over a wire fence and cut her leg, and there was gangrene, and we actually saw parasites in the calf," Davis said. His father vowed to try to save it. "He put his ax in the fire and got it red hot. He waved the chloroform over the calf's nose. He had my brother and I hold the calf. He cut the leg off and wrapped her up. The calf lived, and ultimately we sold her at auction for $175. But we were the only people in southeast Arkansas who had a three-legged calf."
Davis moved to Chicago in 1961, when he was 20, and eventually became a west-side community activist, alderman, and county commissioner. For the last 17 years he's represented the Seventh Congressional District, which stretches from the Gold Coast through most of the west side.
He's running unopposed in the March 18 primary, but he's also backing a former aide, Richard Boykin, in a tightly contested race for the county board. Boykin's best-known opponent is Ike Carothers, a longtime Davis rival who's trying to convince voters that his 2010 conviction for bribery doesn't mean he sold them out.
The congressman didn't talk about the election in his speech Monday—though at one point he gave Boykin a shout-out for helping him pass legislation that helps city residents connect with jobs in the suburbs.
Instead, Davis argued repeatedly that President Obama and congressional Democrats have made progress during "one of the most difficult economic periods in our history."
Still, he said, too many remain unemployed, including millions of ex-offenders. Without support, two-thirds end up incarcerated again, costing billions of taxpayer dollars. Davis appealed for renewed funding for the Second Chance Act, one of his signature accomplishments, which aids programs around the country that help ex-offenders find jobs.
The audience listened politely. But everyone perked up after Davis was asked to describe his parents.
After his mother passed away, his father eventually left the farm and spent the end of his life in Chicago, where he accompanied Davis wherever he could. He died at the age of 92 while visiting Davis in Washington.
Davis said his mother was gentle and generous, but also taught him lessons about power. "I'll never forget her sending me over to a lady's house who was sick with a pot of soup, and she put a towel over the soup and then put the lid on top of the towel. And I was riding a mule, and she said, 'No wasting it!' And I managed to get at least a bowl of that soup over there.
"You know, corporal punishment, they believed in it. And she would be whupping you and she'd be laughing about it, all at the same time. And she would say, 'It was about time you got a whupping so you don't get unruly.'
"That's where I came up with the theory that the best way for a minority to really handle a majority is to keep them in as much fear as you possibly could. And that's why in some states they have such regressive laws. Because more than half of the population in some of those states was black people, but they were controlled by other people, and we just got oppressed."