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Five years later; Slain councilman was rising star

The Brooklyn Paper

He was the rising star of city politics, the up–and–coming lawmaker with the guts to buck the Democratic party machine and the charisma to charm voters and other elected officials.

He had Gracie Mansion written all over him.

But when a gunman cut down Councilman James E. Davis in a horrific assassination inside City Hall itself, the young pol became the city’s version of JFK — a man surrounded in an aura, ruefully remembered for his unfulfilled potential, and more famous for his death than his accomplishments.

Almost five years after his rival Othniel Askew assassinated Davis, a former cop and preacher before he took office in 2001, former constituents and office-holding peers reverentially recall the late, outspoken politician, but others question how far his influence actually extends outside his district or insider political circles.

Aside from the Shakespearean circumstances of Davis’s murder on July 23, 2003 — fodder enough for an enduring place in Gotham’s lore — the councilman is best remembered for his Stop the Violence marches that sprang from the 1991 race riots in his Crown Heights neighborhood, as well as a brash, outsider style used to challenge the Brooklyn Democratic party machine.

“He was unique in being less cautious than most elected officials would be,” said Sharon Barnes of the Society for Clinton Hill, as a way to explain that Davis spoke freely and frankly.

That upfront attitude was on display when Barnes met with Davis in his district office shortly before his death.

Barnes recalled that Davis talked on the phone with an apparent challenger — possibly Askew — bluntly telling him that there was more to be gained through cooperation than competition.

Weeks later, he was dead.

Askew entered City Hall as Davis’s guest and therefore didn’t have to pass through the metal detectors which might have revealed the firearm he carried — and later used with brutal efficiency from the balcony in the Council chamber.

Before Askew’s smoke cleared, a police officer assigned to the Council fatally wounded him as pols, staffers and civilians shrieked and dove for cover.

Davis’s death left a gaping hole in the Council, where he was an imposing figure, and in his district, where he had struggled to halt black-on-black bloodshed and police brutality, as well as seeking to ease the often-tense relationship between blacks and Orthodox Jews.

Eventually, Davis’s younger brother Geoffrey founded, with his mother, the James E. Davis Foundation. There, the younger Davis tried to fill the big shoes — and, eventually, his seat in the Council.

That failure, which stemmed from reports of a criminal past, unpaid child support and soliciting a prostitute, continue to cast a long shadow over Geoffrey Davis.

“I’m managing his legacy,” he said.

But that legacy remains open to debate. Some pundits say that Davis’s posthumous stature exceeds the reality of his accomplishments.

In retrospect, for example, his decision to join Council colleague Charles Barron in honoring Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2002 does not look so wise today.

At the same time, Davis remains beloved in political circles for his independence from a corrupt Brooklyn machine.

“He was a transitional figure,” said Ken Fisher, a former Brooklyn Heights councilman. “He did not come out of old style club politics. And he did not come out of Clarence Norman machine. In some ways he was a threat to them, because he had an independent base in the community.

But because Davis’s life was cut short at age 41 after just two years in office, his legacy may only be those annual Stop the Violence marches run by his brother.

“The assassination cut off a promising career but outside his district, he wasn’t really known,” said Baruch College professor of public affairs Doug Muzzio.

CORRECTED JULY 25, 2008: An earlier version of this story misidentified Sharon James of the Society for Clinton Hill. The Brooklyn Paper regrets the error.

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John from Clinton Hill says:
James E. Davis was and is a hero. Geoffrey Davis your doing a great job, keep up the good work.
The writer of this article must be crazy. This article did not mentioned the James E. Davis Multi Culteral Peace Breakfast/Memorial inside New York City Hall that Geoffrey Davis started nor doese it mention the countless work the James E. Davis Foundation provides.
However, it doese mention Assemblymen Jeffries prayer vigil (why is that?) Could it be because Geoffrey Davis supports the Atlantic Yards? hmm
July 21, 2008, 11:35 pm
Yelsi from Crown Heights says:
1. James E. Davis fought to remove look a like toy guns from shelves (Toys R US) accross America.
2. James E. Davis fought MTV and won to remove negative videos during daytime hours when chidren were watching.
3. James E. Davis called Assemblyman Clarence Norman a crook long before he was arrested and convicted.
James E. Davis changed the way campaining is done in Brooklyn and beyond (posters, billboards, bus stops)
4. James E. Davis fought the NYPD and won for illegally terminating him from the NYPD
lastly,
James E. Davis was killed while trying to pass legislation against violence in the work place.
To sum it up James E. Davis saved lives.
I truly belive the reporter knew this.
Geoffrey Davis is doing a great job thats why this paper is still writing about James Davis five years later.
Also, the reporter (Mike McLaughlin) is a disgrace and should be fired.
July 22, 2008, 10:14 am
Ike from Prospect Heights says:
James is a hero. You should be ashamed of yourself.
July 22, 2008, 10:19 am
TIFFANY from BEDSTUY says:
I MET THIS MAN THREE DAYS BEFORE HE DIED AND GOT TO KNOW HIM ALITTLE MORE WELL ITRIED TO I GOOGLED HIM AND EVERYTHING AND ONE MORNING BEFORE I WENT TO GOOGLE HIM AGAIN I HAD FOUND OUT THAT HE WAS SHOT TO DEATH IN CITY HALL IT TOUCHED ME CAUSE I JUST SEEN THIS MAN IN MY LOCAL CHINESE STORE BUYING CHICKEN LIKE ME ITS CRAZY SO ON THIS NOTE R.I.P JAMES DAVIS
Nov. 18, 2008, 8:47 am
anonymous from Prospect Lefferts Garden says:
Many years ago, I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting this man while waiting on line for a food pantry to open up. We began talking like two regular neighbors. The two things that I remember was his smile and his listening skills. He hardly spoke, but just listened. That is what is wrong with today's "leaders," they don't listen to the people. I know it's a cliche, but we have two ears and one mouth, so we have to do twice as much listening than talking. Hope this brother was saved before he was killed, that is the only way that his soul will rest in peace.
Aug. 19, 2012, 8:15 pm

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