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Rep. Davis stakes his Metro East claim as a regional player

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Six weeks after realizing his dream of becoming a congressman, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis ushered a visitor into his office and motioned for him to take a seat on the government-issue sofa.

Asked how he is settling into life in Washington, Davis quipped, “You’re sitting on my bed!”

He said it with a smile, but Davis – a Republican who won Illinois’ 13th congressional district by only 1,002 votes last fall – views himself as a “top target” of Democrats who want to regain control of the U.S. House in 2014.

So Davis, 43, is not taking anything for granted, putting in 15-hour days on Capitol Hill and flying home to Taylorville. Ill., every weekend to spend time with constituents and with his wife and three children, aged 12 to 16.

“You’re really not done until 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “So it’s just as easy for me to be here [in the office] as anywhere else.”

Even though his home town is just 30 miles south of Springfield, Ill., Davis says folks in the St. Louis area should regard him as a booster for the region. After all, his district includes a chunk of Metro East, including Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, most of Maryville and parts of Collinsville and Bethalto.

“People don’t realize how much of the Metro East area I represent,” he said in an interview, pointing out that “the majority of the people in Madison County are in my district, which goes right through population centers in a growing suburban area.”

“To me, St. Louis is home – much more than Chicago ever will be. That means something regionally,” Davis added.

While his oddly shaped district elbows all the way eastwards to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, Davis insists that “St. Louis is my metro area. My family’s Cardinals season ticket holders. We’re Rams season ticket holders. When we go to a metro area for shopping or for activities for my kids, we go to St. Louis.”

Transportation in infrastructure connection

One reason that Davis could prove a player in gaining federal support for St. Louis regional projects is that he is now the only member of Congress from the bi-state region who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

For years, former U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan or St. Louis and Jerry Costello of Belleville had seats on that panel, which plays a key role in authorizing big infrastructure projects and programs. But Carnahan lost his congressional district and Costello retired.

“I’m the only person in the region who is on the transportation committee," said Davis, who says he has an interest in surface transportation projects – such as highways and bridges – and rebuilding the aging locks and dams on the Mississippi River above St. Louis.

“We’re looking at reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, and that’s my subcommittee,” Davis said. “This bill is extremely important to the Mississippi and our ability to send commerce up and down it. It frustrates me that we haven’t had the foresight to be able to look at replacing the outdated locks on the river.”

Aside from the importance of river transport to Illinois and Missouri farmers, Davis said coal is also a big factor in his support. “Most of the coal that is mined in my district in Illinois doesn’t get burned in Illinois. It is burned in China and India,” after being shipped on barges down the Mississippi, Davis said.

“What we do on the transportation committee – and what we do with the water resources bill – is crucial to our economic security.”

Davis said he has a genuine interest in regional cooperation that extends west of the Mississippi. After all, he nominated fellow freshman U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, to be the GOP freshman class representative at the House leadership table.

“There hasn’t been another member of my freshman class who’s helped me more than Ann Wagner,” Davis told the Beacon. “After the election, Ann called me and was going to ask me to support her for this post. And before she could even ask, I said: ‘I’m in. What do you want me to do?’ Because she’s that good of a leader.”

A 'No Labels' attitude?

Davis, a former staffer for his mentor, U.S Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, takes traditional GOP positions on many issues and is critical of President Barack Obama’s record on spending and deficit problems.

But Davis said he is unhappy with the rigid partisanship that impedes progress on Capitol Hill on issues of mutual interest to both Democrats and Republicans. He recently joined a group called No Labels with the motto: “Stop Fighting, Start Fixing.”

“It’s a group that tries to take some of the political partisanship out of Washington,” said Davis. The co-chairs are former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah – who ran unsuccessful for the GOP presidential nomination last year -- and a moderate Democrat, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“It just seems like every major issue becomes a partisan roll call issue,” Davis said. “The hardworking taxpayers of this country don’t see results because nothing gets done. It’s a failure of both parties.

"We’ve haven’t been able to pass a long-term farm bill, despite the historic droughts. We haven’t seen a long-term infrastructure bill to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and put our trades and labor folks back to work.”

After getting involved with the group, Davis said, “Some of my best friends here in Washington are Democrat members of my freshman class.” He said he is trying to work on central and southern Illinois not only with fellow Republican Shimkus but also with freshman U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who has an office on the same floor of the Longworth House Office building.

“The perception is that Republicans and Democrats don’t even talk out here. That’s way overexaggerated,” said Davis. “I talk with Bill [Enyart] every time we’re around.” He added that Chicago Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski “asked me to sit with him at the State of the Union speech.”

While Davis is critical of some of the Obama administration’s policies, he said the former Illinois senator “is very personable” and friendly. As Obama was walking into House chamber to give his State of the Union speech last week, Davis reached out to shake his hand.

“We talked for about 30 seconds and I reintroduced myself,” Davis said. “We’d met before when he was a state senator and when he was a U.S. senator. He asked me my district, and I said Springfield and he said he had spent a lot of time in Springfield.

“I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer to stop by the White House. And he said OK. So we’re going to try and make that happen.”

From staffer to member of Congress

Davis said he has had a “great transition” from congressional staffer to congressman, despite the demands of the job.

“Less than a year ago, if you’d have told me that I’d be serving in Congress now, I’d wonder how many shots of vodka you had in your bloody Mary that morning,” said Davis. “It just wasn’t something on my radar screen.”

When incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson decided not to run last spring, Shimkus called Davis and urged him to seek the GOP nomination, chosen by a Republican panel. “Other people said I couldn’t win, but [Shimkus] gave me the confidence to keep pushing.

“When I got the nomination, they said: ‘You can’t win. It’s a Democratic district.’ But I like proving people wrong. And John Shimkus has been my biggest advocate and best friend here.”

Davis first started working for newly elected Shimkus in 1996 and rose to become district projects director – a position that gave him the opportunity to travel through much of central and southern Illinois and get to know people in what is now his congressional district.

“I would not be in Congress without John mentoring me and getting me to the point where I had the confidence to put my name on the ballot,” said Davis, who calls Shimkus “a great advocate for the St. Louis regional area and all of southwestern Illinois.”

While the arrangement is not ideal, Davis said sleeping in his congressional office is probably a temporary solution that “gives me a chance to get my feet on the ground. The schedule here is conducive to working and living out of my office because you’re up early and you work late."

When he heads for the House gym early on workday mornings, House Budget Chairman – and former GOP vice presidential candidate – Rep. Paul Ryan “is down there doing P90X training every morning. I try and shuffle by him pretty quick so he doesn’t try and ‘guilt’ me into joining his group.”

He has a 16-year-old daughter in high school in Taylorville and two twin boys, aged 12, in sixth grade. He commutes back and forth every week, flying to either St. Louis or Springfield and then driving home to Taylorville. “My daughter is a teenager and she thinks I’m the dumbest guy alive.”

Agriculture and transportation priorities

Representing a “dead-even district” whose registered voters are about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, Davis fully realizes that he will be a prime target for Democrats in the 2014 election.

“I’m a black eye to the Democrats in Illinois. I won a district they redrew,” said Davis, noting that the Democratic-controlled state legislature redrew the boundaries. “I was the only [Republican] that came out of the six targeted races.” And he won by the smallest margin of any GOP victor.

Keeping in mind the district’s political split – ranging from very conservative rural areas to liberal bastions around the nine universities and colleges in the district, including SIU-Edwardsville and UI Champaign-Urbana – Davis plans to be pragmatic on some issues.

“It’s a freshman class that I think agrees that we need to work together in a bipartisan way to move some major issues forward,” he said.

For example, he joined 16 GOP colleagues in sending a letter to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging a House vote on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. While the Republican alternative to the Senate-approved bill doesn't satisfy many Democrats, it is scheduled for a House vote this week.

Davis and colleagues wrote that Congress is "long overdue in passing a reauthorization of this landmark piece of legislation which seeks to reduce instances of domestic violencevand protect women who are victims of such violence."

As a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the Transportation Committee, Davis said his priorities include:

* A long-term highway bill, focusing on revitalizing surface transportation.

“Hard-working taxpayers don’t mind sending their money to Washington when they know it’s going to go for roads, bridges and other things that they can see and use,” he said.

But he warned that Congress should focus on infrastructure, rather than redo something like the 2009 economic stimulus, which he contends “gave us growth in government, growth in waste and fraud, and growth in debt.”

* A long-term farm bill.

In the last Congress, the five-year agriculture bill passed by the Senate died in the House, where some fiscal conservatives opposed it. Davis wants to revive the effort.

“We’ve got to have a long-term farm bill,” he said. “Our farmers are willing to give up direct payments so that we can strengthen the crop insurance program.”

Agriculture in Davis’ district ranges from small family farms to agribusiness giants such as Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), which employs 30,000. “I’ve got the whole spectrum of agriculture in my district,” he said, including “some of the priciest farmland in America.”

In his agriculture subcommittees – one focusing on commodities, the other on research – Davis will have some influence on issues of interest to many of those farmers and agribusinesses, including St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.

Above all, Davis said he wants Congress to debate and take action on the major issues.

“The problem with Congress now is that Republicans and Democrats have kicked the can down the road for so long that major issues like a farm bill and infrastructure bill get pushed to micro-issue status,” said Davis. “That’s because the macro issues haven’t been dealt with.”