Five years later; Slain councilman was rising star

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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