Ernie Davis in a fight for his political life

From the Column of widely regarded and respected Columnist Phil Reisman in the Journal News.

Ernie Davis was taking it from all sides at a recent mayoral debate held in a packed conference room at the Wartburg Home in Mount Vernon.

Five rivals were taking turns, trying to take down the 76-year-old Democratic incumbent who runs the eighth largest city in the state of New York and may be facing his “last hurrah” in a Sept. 10 primary.

Davis testily tapped his pen at the front table. He grimaced at a critical litany that held him accountable for the woes afflicting the poorest and most densely populated community in Westchester County.

An allusion was also made during the debate to Davis’s conviction last year on two misdemeanor counts of income tax evasion. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $10,000.

Earlier this month, a state Supreme Court judge threw out a lawsuit filed by community activist Samuel Rivers who, citing the city charter, argued that Davis’s conviction should result in his removal from office.

When the issue was mentioned, Davis took umbrage at the phrase, “tax evasion.” He said that all he did was fail to report his taxes “in a timely manner.”

The challengers accused each other of incompetence, too, but Davis was the featured lightning rod. At one point, Dominic Carter, the seasoned TV journalist and debate moderator, raised the topic of the mayor’s leadership style.

Each of the candidates took a crack at the question: Was Davis arrogant? Davis had his own answer, which he delivered it in a laid-back drawl that is such a familiar facet of his entertaining persona that it ought to be registered as a trademark.

“I’ve earned the right to be arrogant,” he pronounced.

He told his critics to “get real.”

Then he informed the audience that he was smarter than all of his opponents — former Mount Vernon mayor Clinton Young, State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, City Comptroller Maureen Walker, Councilman Richard Thomas and Councilwoman Deborah Reynolds. This stirred the audience to laughter, but it wasn’t clear whether they agreed with the mayor, or were simply marveling at his chutzpah.

It should be pointed out that Reynolds was kicked off the Democratic primary ballot after her petitions were successfully challenged by Hassell-Thompson. Nevertheless, she has been included in the party debates and will run in the general election on the Conservative line.

That makes Reynolds a very long shot to win in a city where there are only a handful of enrolled Conservatives, and where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 13 to 1.

The Democratic primary will decide who will be the next mayor. When I recently reached him by phone Davis seemed confident that the decision would go his way and that he would secure his fifth term in office.

I asked him if he still felt he was the smartest candidate.

He laughed.

“I know I am,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re not smart people, but they’re not smart in this arena. They could perhaps be mayor of Bronxville or Pelham, something like that, but not this city.

“I mean, this city is a whole different animal, it’s got a whole lot of moving parts. Every day there’s something you have to do.”

He wouldn’t say whom among his opponents he feared most, choosing instead to describe each of them in unflattering terms. One he called “crude.” Another he said was a “one trick pony.” The word “liar” came up several times.

Davis’s critics say they like and respect him as a person, but that his time as an effective mayor has come and gone. One longtime observer of the city’s political scene, who is not a Davis supporter, lamented to me that the voters of Mount Vernon tend to favor the familiar.

Voters are familiar with Davis, who fulfills the local requirement of “showing up.” He attends the weddings and funerals. He kisses the babies. Obviously, he won’t go down without a fight.

And so the fight continues. The Journal News and United Black Clergy of Westchester are co-hosting another candidate debate that will be held at the Friendship Worship Center on Sept. 8, two days before the primary.

Last Thursday, which was a beautiful day, Bishop C. Nathan Edwers was standing at the front entrance of the worship center going over the plans for the debate.

A gray-haired woman with broken front teeth wandered into the parking lot. She was looking for something to eat.

Edwers said this happens all the time. That people are poor and hungry in Mount Vernon isn’t debatable.

Reach Phil Reisman at preisman@lohud.com Twitter: @philreisman.

preisman@lohud.com

Twitter: @philreisman

Sponsors