Recently, ABILITY Magazine spoke with retired Air Force Colonel and congressional candidate Morris “Moe” Davis. Davis, a Democrat, is running for North Carolina district 11’s seat in the House of Representatives. District 11 encompasses a large portion of western North Carolina and includes the city of Asheville.
Davis grew up in Shelby, North Carolina. He attended Appalachian State University and North Carolina Central University’s School of Law. After completing law school and passing the bar exam, Davis spent 25 years in the Air Force. During his career in the Air Force, he served as the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay and director of the Air Force Judiciary. Davis received several prestigious honors and awards during his career including the Legion of Merit, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Headquarters Air Force Judge Advocate of the Year award. After retiring from the Air Force, Davis spent time working as a law professor, judge, speaker and writer. He has also served as a national security expert for congress and appeared on several major news networks as a guest.
One of the things Davis is most well-known for is his involvement in the prosecution of terrorists during his time serving as the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. Most notably, Davis refused an order given by the Bush administration in 2007 instructing him to use evidence obtained through water boarding, an interrogation method Davis believed to be torture. He believed water boarding and obtaining evidence through torture was illegal and morally wrong. Davis was eventually forced to resign because of his stance on this issue. While working for the Library of Congress in 2009, Davis again voiced his concerns regarding the prosecution of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. In an article written for the Wall Street Journal, he criticized the Obama administration’s handling of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and was subsequently fired by the Library of Congress. Davis sued his former employer and won, claiming that his first amendment rights had been violated. He finished his career by working as a judge at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Davis currently lives with his wife Lisa in Asheville, North Carolina. Some of the causes he hopes to champion if elected include health care, education, jobs, social security, the environment and immigration. He will face Republican challenger Madison Cawthorn, Libertarian Party candidate Tracey DeBruhl and Green Party candidate Tamara Zwinak in the general election in November.
Chet Cooper: We’ll start with some of the softball questions.
Moe Davis: All right.
Cooper: When a pitcher’s on the mound, and there’s a runner on second… What got you interested in running for Congress?
Davis: (laughs) It’s something I hadn’t really aspired to do. I’m in Asheville, North Carolina. My wife and I moved down here in May of 2019 with the intention of retiring. At the time, I was a judge for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). I had finished up all my trials; I just had decisions to write. You could telework and do that. So, we moved down here and we’re building a house. If I panned around, there’s boxes and stuff everywhere. We literally just moved in two weeks ago after 16 months of building. I was finishing up writing decisions for the Department of Labor, and in September, I finished my work and shipped the laptop and everything back to DC and thought I had retired.
If you’ve followed politics in North Carolina, you know we’ve had a number of districts that were heavily gerrymandered, and this district in North Carolina, the 11th District, which is the 17 westernmost counties, was heavily gerrymandered. Have you ever been to Asheville?
Cooper: No, and I don’t know who Jerry is.
Davis: (laughs) There’s a story behind that, on how they came up with the term. I describe Asheville to people who have never been here as the “Berkeley of the Blue Ridge.” If you picked up Berkeley, flew it across the country, and dropped it in the Appalachian Mountains, you’d have Asheville. It’s a very progressive, very accepting, blue city surrounded by red. I can tell you, campaigning in Asheville, if I were left of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), that would be perfectly fine.
Davis: And if I went 10 miles in any direction, that would not be fine. It’s an interesting place. But anyway, like I said, I thought I’d retired in September. What had happened, back after the last census, the Republican-controlled state legislature split Asheville down the middle and put half of the Democrats in the 11th district, which is the district Mark Meadows represented, and half in the 10th district, which is the district Patrick McHenry represents. The Supreme Court last June—today their big decisions are on Trump’s tax records—but last June, one of the big decisions was partisan gerrymandering. They used cases from North Carolina and Maryland. In North Carolina it was the Republicans who had gerrymandered and in Maryland it was the Democrats. The question was whether it violated the Constitution to gerrymander on a partisan basis, and the court said it did not. I thought that until the new census comes out next year and there’s redistricting based on that, that it was a dead issue. But at the end of November, the state courts here said under the state constitution that it was a violation, and they told our legislature, “Either you redraw the maps or we’ll do it for you.”
When they did that, they had to put Asheville and Buncombe County back together because you couldn’t explain splitting it down the middle by any reason other than trying to rig the outcome of the election. I was in the gerrymandered part that would have put me in the 10th district. Now I’m in the 11th, and I looked at the Democrats who were running, and they were great people, but I just didn’t see anybody I thought had the ability to compete with Mark Meadows. So I got into the race.
Of course, shortly after that, Mark Meadows decided not to run. My thinking was, I spent 25 years in the military. I worked for Congress on Capital Hill for a little over a year, and then I was a judge for the Department of Labor for four and a half years. I figured I’ve got 30-plus years of defending democracy, and just to sit back now and watch it go down the drain just wasn’t palatable. So I got into the race.
Cooper: Wow! Are you having a good time?
Davis: I’ve never done this before. It’s been interesting and certainly COVID-19 has made it even more interesting. We never, when we started out, imagined that we’d have a pandemic and have to try to find alternative ways to campaign.
Cooper: Which for newbies, let’s say, might be easier than the road that others had to take pre-COVID because you would have been having to canvas the whole area physically, which maybe for exercise would be good, but a lot of handshaking and baby kissing and all that.
Davis: Yeah. The primary was Mark’s third, so from early December to early March we did traditional campaigning. There are 17 counties, and boy, it surely made me appreciate folks who do a statewide or a national race. I don’t know how they do it. I was trying to get around 17 counties, and often there’s an event on one end of the district in the morning and another one in the afternoon on the other side. Talk about exercise! It was mainly a lot of times sitting in the car getting from one place to the other.
Cooper: (laughs) I don’t know how they do it either. I can only relate to conferences, where you spend a day speaking to people and you go up to the room and sit there and you realize your face is frozen from smiling. I just don’t get how they take month after month of, like you said, state or national campaigns, and how they do it. We cover all issues and then we come back to some kind of a focus around disability and our attitudinal change and fabric of life concepts of the way we approach it. What’s interesting when looking at your material, and I think it’s because you were military, two things jumped out. One is about your father. The language is 100 percent disability, and the language we got from your office was 60 percent disability. The layperson doesn’t look at things like that. Can you explain what that means to a layperson?
Davis: I can try. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand exactly how the VA assesses disability. But in my dad’s case, he was 100 percent a disabled veteran from World War II. He was in a training accident at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. A group of guys were in the back of a truck and the truck flipped over and threw everybody clear except him. It landed on his back and broke his back. When I was growing up, my dad had—I’m 61 and was born in ’58, so in the mid-60s—my dad had hand controls on the car for the gas and the brake. Leg braces, back brace, crutches. In my early memories, he was in and out of the hospital having surgeries. One of the things we’re really fortunate in is, here in Asheville, we have—if it’s not the best VA hospital in the country, it’s clearly one of the best. So when I was a kid, I lived in Shelby, North Carolina, about an hour and 15 minutes east of here, over half a century ago. I can remember my dad saying, “Hop in the car, we’re going to the VA hospital.” They took great care of him.
For me, I’m rated as 60 percent service-connected disability. You can be disabled and not be service-connected. If they determined that it was incurred during your service, then it’s considered service-connected. How they came up with 60 percent, I’m not exactly sure. If you look at all the different parts and pieces, it literally adds up to in excess of 100 percent, but there’s a formula they use. Some things overlap. However their process works, it ended up determined at 60 percent service-connected disability. For me, it wasn’t like my dad, where it clearly was an accident, where the truck flipped over—for me, it’s just a dozen more minor things. I’ve had four knee surgeries, both shoulders, anterior cervical fusion; I also have sleep apnea and arthritis. All those bits and pieces, when you total them up, end up being assessed as a 60 percent service-connected disability.
Cooper: What does the VA do with that acknowledgment? What is the benefit to them and to you or to the patient?
Davis: Just being a veteran, you’re not entitled to veterans’ healthcare, although there’s legislation under the Heroes Act that would make VA healthcare available to any veteran who has lost healthcare coverage because of COVID-19. But normally, to receive VA healthcare, you have to have a service-connected disability, and then your status within the VA, the higher your disability rating, the higher priority you are as far as getting care. For me, to be honest, I forget what the different categories are, but I’m in the highest category with the 60 percent rating. I go to the same VA hospital now that my dad went to over half a century ago. They took great care of him, and they’re taking great care of me.
Cooper: I don’t think people understand that. I didn’t know that you had to have a certain rating. I thought all vets got to go to the VA hospital.
Davis: To be honest, I don’t know the percentage, but it’s only veterans who have service-connected disabilities. To get VA disability compensation, it has to be a minimum of 30 percent. For me, it’s 60 percent. I think it’s like $1,300 a month or something like that. The higher your disability rating, the higher the disability compensation is. And because of my dad, being 100 percent disabled, I went to college at Appalachian State, and as the child of a 100 percent disabled veteran, I had free tuition to go to college. The disability rating is an important part of the process, and then there are a lot of veterans who spend years trying to get assessed the way they feel like they ought to be assessed. There’s a backlog. The VA’s done, I think, a good job of trying to catch up, but there’s a backlog of folks with VA claims that I think they’ve whittled down considerably.
Cooper: I’ve definitely heard about that, I didn’t quite connect the dots till just now. Well, getting close to connecting the dots. Thanks for sharing that.
Cooper: I thought it was interesting when you and your opponent, Madison Cawthorn, appeared on our radar and you both have a disability—
Cooper: What were you doing for the DOL?
Davis: I was an administrative law judge. There are roughly 90 federal labor-related statutes that could potentially entitle someone to a hearing. To be honest, in my four and a half years, the majority of those statutes I never saw. The cases just didn’t arise. The bulk of my time was spent doing disability hearings for coal miners for black lung benefits. I knew nothing about coal mining. One of the things, too, with hearings with the DOL, most of the statutes entitle the claimant to a hearing within a certain distance of where they live. I was based in the Washington DC office. We had a courtroom there, but more often than not, we traveled to where the claimants were located. I spent a lot of time down in coal country—southwest Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia.
I knew nothing about coal mining. I always had a mental picture of a guy standing in a coal seam with a pickaxe chipping out coal. But in the Appalachian region here, most of the coal seams are 36 inches or less. These were guys who spent their careers, 10, 20, 30, 40 years, on their hands and knees in a coal mine shaft sucking in coal dust. Standards have gotten better over time, but for a long time there weren’t standards. It’s hard work. I had no idea what was involved.
Cooper: Did you ever go down in a shaft?
Davis: No, I never did. I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve never personally gone out to the mines to go in. The guys always would come in to the hearings and talk about what they did in the mines. I’ve got a lot of respect for the hard work that they did. Unfortunately a lot of them, like I said, sucked in coal dust, but a lot of them also smoked two packs of Camel no-filters every day. That was often the question of what caused their respiratory disability. Was it coal dust or cigarette smoke or some other reason? Living here in Asheville, we had a Duke Power plant, a coal-fired plant, that recently converted to natural gas. The big issue here is how they dispose of coal ash. I’ve seen the coal industry from the mines to the residue, and it’s a dirty, nasty business from start to finish.
Cooper: What were they trying to get? Would it be an individual coming in? Were they grouped together?
Davis: They were individual cases. When I first started, I remember asking a couple of my fellow judges when I was starting out why the coal companies would fight this so hard? They’re hiring experts, physicians to do examinations, radiologists to do x-rays and an attorney to come into court and fight it because of the benefits. I don’t recall the precise dollar amounts, but roughly, for a single coal miner, someone with no dependents, if they were determined to be disabled by black lung disease, their benefits were $650 a month. So my question was, why are they fighting so hard when $650 a month is not a Herculean sum of money? The reason is, if they’re determined to be liable for the disability payments, they’re also liable for the healthcare. And in some cases that involved lung transplants, oxygen 24 hours a day; it was extraordinarily expensive on the healthcare side. That’s why the coal companies fought so hard to deny the claims. They didn’t want to get stuck with the medical cost. The financial benefit would have been small potatoes compared to the healthcare cost.
Originally, back when the black lung trust fund was created, for every ton of coal there’s a fee collected that goes into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. And when the Republicans gained control of Congress back during the Gingrich era, they changed the rules. The presumption was that the burden was on the coal miner to prove that the disability was caused by coal mine employment. Typically in these cases, you’ll have two doctors who say the person is disabled from coal dust and two coal company doctors who say it’s from smoking Camel no-filters. Typically the cases are often 50-50, so whoever has the burden of proof generally loses.
When they changed the law and put the burden on the miner, the miners lost more often than not. If you remember back during the Affordable Care Act, they said there’s stuff buried in there that nobody had ever read before they passed the law. And that was true. One of the things buried was by Senator Byrd from West Virginia, who stuck a little thing in there that changed the presumption in favor of the miner. More recently, if the miner can show at least 15 years of coal mine employment and a totally disabling respiratory condition, the presumption is that that was due to coal dust. It’s put the burden on the coal mining company to rebut it, and it generally can’t do that. A lot of times these guys work for a mine for a couple of years and it’d go out of business and then they’d go to work at another place. A lot of times the litigation boils down to whether a miner can prove 15 years of coal mine employment. If they could, they generally won, and if they couldn’t they generally lost. Senator Byrd took care of the coal miners when he snuck that into the Affordable Care Act.
Cooper: You keep drifting down with your camera. Is there a way you could bring—
Davis: I think I’m sliding—actually, I told you I’d just moved into a new house. I have a sit-stand desk and a chair that is on a FedEx truck to be delivered today, so I’m sitting in a lawn chair, and I keep sliding down the vinyl. (laughs)
Cooper: Do you have a mai tai in the corner of the lawn chair?
Davis: (laughs) I’ve got a little pocket for it!
Cooper: Were these cases in which the judge made the determination? Was there a jury?
Davis: It was the judge. That’d be me. In the hearings, I was the one to make the decision on who prevailed.
Cooper: That must have been frustrating.
Davis: It is. Again, you apply the law and the facts and that determines the outcome. Often these were really sad cases. In many of the cases, they were widows’ claims. It was the widow of the coal miner trying to get benefits. These weren’t wealthy people coming in to the hearings. Often the coal miners would have on their overalls and they were pulling an oxygen tank. Just getting into the courtroom and up to the witness stand you could tell was a real struggle for them. But at the end of the day, it was the evidence—like I said, often these cases came down to whether they could prove they worked at least 15 years in the mines, and if they did, there was a good chance they would win.
Cooper: Are those mines still open, still operating?
Davis: Yeah. The Trump administration has pushed the whole “clean coal” concept, but last time I looked, I think the number of folks employed in coal mining was roughly 40,000. An encouraging sign is that for every coal miner, there are about six or seven folks working in solar energy, which is all around much better for the workers and for the environment. I think that’s the path forward.
Cooper: The fact that you worked in disability claims, which you’ve just described—and your own experience and your father—do you have any thoughts about the Americans With Disabilities Act’s (ADA) 30 years this month? Do you have any thoughts about pre-ADA, ADA today, and where ADA could be in the next five, 10, 30 years.
Davis: I think the ADA was a game-changer for people who wanted an opportunity and were often denied because of the physical limitations or other limitations. I joined the Air Force in ’83, more than 30 years ago, and since then the ADA is something I’ve used. When I worked for the Department of Labor, I mentioned that as I’m getting older, my arthritic conditions are getting worse than they were. I was fitted for an ergonomic chair and I had a sit-stand desk. As a judge, I spent a lot of time writing and just sitting there for eight hours a day, which was hard on me. Due to the ADA, the government has to make reasonable accommodations. I have a lot of friends who were government employees who were the beneficiaries of the ADA. Over 30 years it has become socialized. That’s part of planning. If you’re creating a business or opening an office, that’s just part of the process now. It’s become a way of life.
It’s not perfect. Employers can often find a way to try to articulate some other innocent reason to avoid what many view as the burden of complying. But I think for the most part, government and private employers as well have fully embraced it. A lot of folks are working now that if you went back to pre-ADA, they probably wouldn’t be.
Cooper: Where do you think we could go with any challenges you may see with the ADA now and into the future?
Davis: I’m not aware of there being any serious assaults on the ADA. I think it’s become just accepted practice. I know there was resistance initially, with folks trying to retrofit and spend money and effort to come into compliance. I know there are outliers; there are still cases that are litigated over whether an employer is in compliance with the ADA. But I think that’s become the rare exception rather than the general rule, which is that folks with different abilities are generally welcome.
I’m sure there were instances of discrimination against folks with disabilities, but at least at the places I worked, that just wasn’t the case. I spent, like I said, more than 30 years working either in the military or the federal sector and when I was a hiring authority, that wasn’t a factor we took into consideration. If you had the ability to do the job, we’d make the accommodations to help you do that.
Cooper: Can you tell me about the work you did at Guantánamo and why you left the position?
Davis: I took the job in the summer of 2005. At the time I was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I got a phone call from the Judge Advocate General of the Air Force asking, “Would you consider taking the job as chief prosecutor at Guantánamo?” He said the person who had had that position, an army colonel named Fred Borch, whom I knew, had been a concern within the office. Some of the younger members of the prosecution team thought Colonel Borch was pushing them to do things that they thought exceeded the ethical bounds. There had been an email exchange between some of them within the office. Those emails made their way into the New York Times, which led to Colonel Borch being asked to move on.
The Judge Advocate General said—the younger attorneys who were questioning this were Air Force attorneys— “Look, the Air Force helped to create this problem and we ought to help fix it. Would you consider taking the job?” I flew to Washington, had an interview with Jim Haynes, who was the General Counsel for the Department of Defense. After that, I was picked for the job. We had 30 days to get from Washington to Cheyenne and then back to Washington.
I took the job because I thought it was important that we do it right. I went to Case Western University’s law school. There was a professor emeritus there, Henry King, who had been one of the Nuremberg prosecutors. He came to the talk I gave and afterwards came up, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “It was important to Robert Jackson that we do it right at Nuremberg. Don’t you screw it up at Guantánamo!”
Davis: Going into the job, there was concern about how far I would try to push the members of the team. The first meeting I had, I told them, “Look, people my age look back at Nuremberg with a kind of sense of reverence. At the end of the war, rather than vengeance, we did justice. We had trials. There were people who were convicted and executed and there were people who were acquitted. I want us to do Guantánamo in a way that when our grandkids think back about Guantánamo, they’ll think about it the way we think about Nuremberg. We’re not going to use evidence obtained by torture.” Of course, back then I couldn’t say “torture,” I had to say “enhanced interrogation techniques,” because that sounded nicer.
We were going about building cases without using evidence obtained while detainees were in our custody. That didn’t excuse what we did to them, but it makes it irrelevant in their criminal trial if we don’t use that evidence. For Khalid Sheik Mohammed, there was ample evidence to prove his guilt without anything he ever said after we captured him. So why do it? Why use forced evidence if you don’t need to? But by the summer of 2007, the people above me in the chain of command who had supported my policy had retired and they were replaced by political appointees. So I went from working for a career two-star general to a lady who had never served in the military but she had served as Dick Cheney’s Inspector General when Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense.
That was when I was told that, “President Bush said that we don’t torture, so who are you to say that we do? All this evidence you’re not using, you need to dust it off and get into court and get these guys convicted.” That was when I quit. And I looked at it and thought—I was the senior person on the prosecution team. I had a lot of young folks who still had families and careers. For me, what was the worst they would do to me? Have me retire as a colonel? That’s not the worst thing that can happen to you, so I figured, if not me, who? We needed to call attention to it. That’s when I quit.
Cooper: It must have still been a difficult decision.
Davis: I think there are some parallels to hearing people in the Trump administration say, “Why does this person or that person hang in there? Why don’t they just quit?” For many of them, I hope their thought process was kind of like mine. “If I quit, they’ll get a yes-man who’ll come in and do exactly what they want.” I hung in there until it was apparent that my efforts were futile to try to have full, fair, and open trials, and that was when I chose to quit. I knew that there would be adverse consequences, but to this day, I haven’t lost any sleep over the decision I made. I would have had to just knuckle under and say, “Yes, sir, I’ll get in there and do that.”
Cooper: That’s the irony of some of these issues. Some of these people were obeying orders. You’re being put in a position, ironically, of obeying this order that you know is not the right thing to do. Do you know Tom Steyer?
Davis: I’ve never met him, but I certainly know the name from his presidential run.
Cooper: His father was one of the attorneys in Nuremberg.
Davis: I don’t know that there are any left. When I met Henry King back in 2006, I think he and one other person were still alive from then. Henry King has since passed away.
Cooper: If you want me to, I’ll reach out to Tom Steyer’s team. Not only are you both dealing with voting issues—but on that other connection with you doing what you were doing and having to talk to one of the last surviving people at Nuremberg and his stories with his father. He remembers a lot of it, even though he was, I guess, pretty young at the time.
Davis: That was a time when we did it right, when we lived up to the principles we claim that we represent. In the modern era, we haven’t done that.
Cooper: Why do you say the Air Force had put us in that situation?
Davis: There were some younger members of the prosecution’s team—attorneys, captains and majors—who were junior officers who had raised the concern and had generated this email stream within the prosecution’s office about, “Hey, is it legal and ethical for us to be doing this?” When that exploded, I think the perception was that we had young Air Force attorneys who had created the turmoil. I think the Judge Advocate General thought, “We kind of helped cause this, we ought to help fix it.” That was when he called me.
I’m good at working with people. That’s the same Judge Advocate General—General Jack Rives— in 2003, when the Air Force Academy had their sexual assault problem and it became a national issue. Congress demanded an investigation. He called and said, “Hey, would you head up the investigation?” He’s now the Executive Director of the American Bar Association. He would often call when he needed somebody he could count on to get people to work together. He got high marks when I was Chief Prosecutor. I didn’t go to it with any animosity toward the FBI and the CIA. My team, by the time I was there, probably had about 110, 120 people, from DOD, FBI, CIA, NSA, Department of Justice. That’s one of the things I was commended for, my ability to get disparate elements that didn’t necessarily work well together to meld into a coherent team. That’s the part I regretted about resigning. The folks I’ve worked with I really enjoyed. It was an interesting endeavor, and I was working with good people, so I hated to leave that, but it was the right thing to do.
Cooper: What do you think about some of the things happening in this administration connected to the Department of Justice? I keep feeling that I’m leading the question with everything I say here. The checks and balances that should exist between Justice and what’s coming out of the White House? — there I go again.
Davis: It’s disappointing. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see the current state of affairs. Calling it the “Justice Department” seems like a misnomer. Attorney General Barr seems more singularly focused on representing Donald Trump and not America in some of the things he’s done. Today’s Friday, so we’ll say the Friday Night Massacre of this week. Up until now, whether it was under a Democratic or a Republican president, the Justice Department has always been perceived to be a neutral arbiter. They served justice, not whoever happens to be in the Oval Office. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. One of my big concerns, and one of the reasons I decided to run, is that as a military person and a person who’s dealt with national security issues for most of my adult life, I’m really worried about the harm we’ve done internationally.
We spent decades and decades building alliances—after World War II, after Nuremberg, we led the efforts to create the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations and NATO. We’ve kind of undermined all those things that we worked so hard for, and I think it’ll take a long time to repair the damage. The one that really appalls me is abandoning the Kurds, after they fought and died in Syria fighting ISIS on our behalf, and then we just turned our back on them. I think we’ve done a lot of damage, and I think it will take a long time to fix it. But we’ve got to start.
I think the same is true here domestically with the Justice Department. I think public confidence has been dealt a pretty severe blow with what Bill Barr has done. And we saw this week with—I’m no fan of Jeff Sessions by any means, but there were moments when he was the attorney general when he did the right thing. You saw what happened this week, where Trump trashed him and he lost the runoff in Alabama to try to get his Senate seat back. You saw what happened, too, with Colonel Alexander Vindman, with retiring. So you have Roger Stone, the president does him a favor because Stone lied for him, and you have Vindman who gets punished by the president for telling the truth. That’s just a horrible example. We can’t keep doing this.
Cooper: How are you doing in the polls?
Davis: Let me give you two answers, one on the record and one off the record.
Cooper: (laughs) OK. We’ll put one on the record and the other one over there.
Davis: (laughs) On the record, our polling shows that we have a real path to victory. I know a lot of prognosticators have written us off as a solid Republican district, but our research has shown that we have a clear path to winning, but it’ll take a concerted effort. I can’t do it alone. It’ll take people helping to spread the word to win this race, but we can do it. With COVID-19, I’m sitting here at home doing these kind of things rather than—
Cooper: Hey, what are you saying?
Davis: (laughs) Not that I don’t enjoy it, but as you know, we have counties here where the broadband access rate is more than 50 percent. I need to be at the VFWs and the volunteer fire departments because I can’t reach those folks online. That’s the challenge.
Cooper: Can’t you get out with social distance and masks? Especially those places you mentioned that have groups already in the field.
Davis: We’re going to start doing that. This week we put out some guidelines. We’ve had folks for a while now who have wanted to do fundraising events for meet-n-greets and those kinds of things. We’ve been holding off trying to see how COVID-19 was going to progress. Given our numbers here in North Carolina, we’re continually not going in a good direction. So we put out guidelines. Instead of doing big events we’ll do smaller events with social distancing and masks. If you want refreshments, bring your own, that kind of thing. That’s one thing that’s frustrating. My opponent has totally disregarded that.
Cooper: At first we were set up to speak with him, and I think they might have looked at our website a little bit too deeply. We try to be nonpartisan, but we believe in science.
Cooper: They’re not responsive anymore.
Davis: It’s frustrating to me. I’ve been pinging him on social media and in some radio interviews I’ve done. In the runoff, he was in touch with me, and he was frustrated that his opponent wouldn’t debate him. Now that he’s won—we kept talking about, “Hey, we’ve got to do debates.” And now that he’s won, it’s radio silence.
Cooper: Yeah. His handlers are doing what they do.
Davis: You would think you would have learned a lesson. That really bit his opponent in the butt. Of course, that’s what she did. She wouldn’t debate, went into a cocoon and thought she had it wrapped up. He seems to be, at least for the last couple of weeks, in that same mode.
Cooper: I would disagree with something you said a second ago. You said to bring your own food? I think you should figure out a way to give box lunches, give food, give something. I’ve been to so many various events, and people love to eat.
Davis: (laughs) Yeah. There’s a couple out in Waynesville, a little west of here, a husband and wife, both retired military, and they want to do an event for veterans. They want to do a cookout. They said, “Nothing works more to get veterans than a free cookout.” (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) That’s not just veterans. It’s one of those common denominators.
Davis: We should have it in next week; we have logo-ed hand-sanitizer to pass out.
Cooper: Nice! I would even go with masks, if you have the budget.
Davis: Yeah, we talked about that. We’re just kind of torn on what kind of—
Cooper: What would be the message?
Davis: Our mantra during the primary had been “Mountain Strong.”
Cooper: I saw that.
Davis: NowI think we’ll change it to some like “Experience Matters,” because of the contrast between my record and my opponent’s non-record.
Cooper: I like that too.
Davis: A couple of folks have sent me ones that say “Democrats,” red, white, and blue, something other than the plain generic medical masks.
Cooper: Oh, yeah, you definitely need to have a well-fitted material mask with a message that is good enough to be worn without having to say—you’re in a red state. Those people wearing that have to feel like it could be looked at both ways, but it’s still branding you without necessarily somebody yelling at them saying, “Why would you wear that?”
Davis: Yeah. We went out to dinner Wednesday night for the first time since March, and there’s a restaurant nearby that had converted an outdoor area into a seating area. That’s something we’ve really missed. At dinner we heard people start clapping and we thought it must be a birthday or something, but instead it was that a bear had come out of the woods and smelled the food, and I guess they were clapping to run him off.
Cooper: If you could get that bear to wear a mask—
Davis: (laughs) Bears around here are pretty common. My campaign treasurer keeps saying we’ve got to figure out some way to get a t-shirt on the bear or something.
Cooper: (laughs) What happens if you don’t get elected? What are your plans?
Davis: In September, I retired. If I don’t win, I’ll continue my plan to be retired.
Cooper: I know so many people who are busier being retired than they were before. What would you be doing in your retirement?
Davis: My plan had been to do some work. I retired from the Department of Labor, and they have a program where—as an example, when I was a judge, if you look at all the decisions I issued, I probably personally wrote about half of those. Probably 25 percent of the others were probably written by my law clerks, and the other 25 percent by contract writers, who are mainly retired judges. I just got a box yesterday. When the case is over and the trial’s done and the transcripts and all the evidence are in, they box it up and ship it off to a retired judge who will go through it and write a draft decision. It then goes back to the actual judge, who will edit it and make it read the way they want it to read. The beauty of the thing is, you can work no hours or 48 hours; you can work on your own schedule. That was what I was planning to do when I retired. I didn’t want to work 40 hours a week, but maybe 20, something to keep my mind active and keep me engaged that would be a little bit of supplemental income.
But then I started campaigning, and that’s kind of gotten put on hold. So I guess if I lose, I’ll revert back to my original plan.
Cooper: If you win, are you going to specifically try to reach out to certain committees to be part of? Have you thought that far out?
Davis: One of the points I’ve tried to make in some interviews I’ve done is that for this district a real advantage for me winning is I worked for Congress. We advised eight committees in the House and eight in the Senate when I was at the Congressional Research Service. When I come in on day one as part of the freshman class, I’ve got an advantage of having the experience of having worked there. I’ve testified before Congress. I’ve written legislation. I’ve worked with Senators Graham and McCain. I know my way around. On day one, when other folks are trying to figure out how to get to the bathroom and the cafeteria, I’m—
Cooper: You’ve already finished breakfast and are back at your desk!
Davis: (laughs) Yeah. I’m not 100 percent ready, but 90 percent from my past experience. I think that would be something I can leverage with the leadership to say, “Hey, look, I don’t need the training wheels to get started.” And two, since this has been a red district, I think the leadership would have an interest in trying to give me good committee assignments to keep this a blue district. I think those two things are both good for the district.
Obviously, the Armed Services Committee would be a natural fit based on my background. I’d also be interested in Veterans Affairs. I think I mentioned before that we have a big VA hospital here that’s one of the best, if not the best, in the country. That’s where I go. I think this is an area where I can reach some Republican voters, those veterans who don’t want to see the VA privatized. And then Natural Resources. Our economy here is centered on tourism, and tourism is centered on our national parks and national forests. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the country. That’s the key driver of the economy here. For the last several years the budget keeps getting cut, which is not good for our economy. So those are three committees I’d have a real keen interest in.
Cooper: That bear is kind of an iconic figure if you’re in the Smoky Mountains. Is that where Smoky the Bear comes from?
Davis: Yeah! When I grew up around here, bears weren’t extinct, but it was rare that you saw a bear. The state has really done a good job over the last 20, 25 years of helping to revive the bear population, to the point now where they’re still a novelty, and a lot of trusts come here because they like seeing the bears. Wednesday is trash day at our new house. I’d ordered trash cans and they hadn’t been delivered yet. After the bear got into the trash on Wednesday out in front of the house and I had to pick it up, I made a trip to the Waste Management company and got my bear-proof trash can. They’re smart. Trash day was Friday where we lived before, and here it’s Wednesday. It’s like they know when it’s trash day. (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) They’re smarter than the average bear.
Davis: The bears have really made a comeback. We’ve never had a problem. I think the only real danger is if you get between a mother and her cubs, the mother will do whatever she’s got to do to protect her cubs.
Cooper: When people are hiking, do they always carry bear spray? Is it to that level?
Davis: I wouldn’t say always. I went hiking on Monday with some friends and we didn’t take anything. If there’s a group of people and they hear you coming, they’ll get out of the way. Unless you get between the mom and her cubs, then you’re in trouble. My wife walks and runs a lot and she carries either an air horn or pepper spray and so far hasn’t had to use it. I had one occasion, I was doing an interview with somebody and I had to stop because I got a phone call from my wife. She was up a dirt road near where we used to live and there was a mother bear with three cubs in the road not moving. So I had to get the car and pick her up and get her past the bears to continue her run.
Davis: I’ll tell you where it does have an impact. My wife works for an animal rescue, and she was working for an emergency vet here in Asheville that’s open 24/7. It’s a weekly occurrence, sometimes multiple times a week, that folks bring in dogs that have gotten into it with a bear. The dog is not going to win that fight.
Davis: It’s quite a regular occurrence up here having to patch up a dog who got swatted by a bear claw and paid the price.
Cooper: I didn’t know that. My sister lives most of the year in Montana, walks daily and always carries bear spray. They get bears on their property.
Davis: I think that might be grizzlies. They’re more aggressive. The black bears here are not very aggressive.
It’s fun living here. If you look out the window, I don’t know if you can see it—
Cooper: Oh, that is great!
Davis: We live in a forest. You never know. I’m sitting here talking and I look out the window and there’s a bear or a deer or a turkey or something milling around in the yard. It’s always an adventure.