It was a strange combination — the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles. But together they changed Jay Davis’ life.
Although in slightly different ways.
“The JFK assassination was very traumatic,” says Davis, a 69-year-old lawyer from Rapid City known for his fervent, long-time activism in the state Democratic Party. “We had just gotten our first TV set and of course we were glued to that set like everybody else in the country.”
And the Beatles? Well, they opened up a new world of music — Davis would eventually own a music store for a time — and likely inspired his inherent tendency toward progressive causes and candidates.
Prior to all that, Davis was already in an engaged Democratic household in Ithaca, New York. The son of a history professor at Cornell University, he would go on to graduate with a degree in political science from Brown University.
But the East Coast was not to be his destiny. South Dakota was.
Midway through college, Davis came to South Dakota in 1972 to work on Jim Abourezk’s successful U.S. Senate campaign. After college, he came back in 1974 to work on Jack Weiland’s unsuccessful run against Republican Jim Abdnor for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. (South Dakota had two seats in the U.S. House back then.)
“Within a week of graduating, I showed up here,” Davis says. “And I ended up sticking around for another 47 years.”
During those campaigns, he got to know the state a bit beyond the superficial views from past summer vacations with his parents. And he liked what he got to know.
“And then I never left. In those early years, I just really was in love with the place. It wasn’t so socially stratified in terms of classes like the East Coast,” he says. “I was kind of sick of the East Coast, The whole time I’ve lived here I’ve always had friends who didn’t go to college or share my educational background. That’s different from the world I grew up in.
“Here I can have a friend who’s a bricklayer or farmer,” he says. “There’s really not that stratification. On the East Coast, you really hang out with your own kind.”
Davis went to work for the Department of Social Services in Mission, then worked with the United Family Farmers to help successfully oppose the massive Oahe Irrigation Project planned for north-central South Dakota.
He went back to work for UFF as executive director for a few years in the 1980s before going through a divorce and heading to the University of South Dakota School of Law. He graduated in 1990 and has practiced law in the state ever since, including about half of that time with the Pennington County Public Defender’s Office. He also worked for Dakota Plains Legal Services and has been in private practice, focusing on children in foster care and defending juveniles in court cases.
He plans to retire from practicing law on Dec. 31, although he’ll still be a member of the South Dakota Bar and will maintain an inactive license. That gives him the option to return to practice if he decides he wants to.
But he’s not thinking he’ll want to right now.
“I think 31 years is enough,” he said.
He isn’t done with Democratic politics or promoting public issues through petition drives, either. The day we had our main phone interview, he was in-between Zoom calls with other members of the South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Board led by state Chairman Randy Seiler, then another Zoom meeting of the Democratic State Central Committee.
Following its zenith in South Dakota during the 1970s, the Democratic Party has faltered in terms of elected office, especially over the last 20 years. The party hasn’t had a governor since 1978. There are no Democrats in statewide office. And with just 11 Democrats in the 105-member state Legislature, lawmaking in the Capitol ruled by Republican supermajorities leave Democrats with little clout.
They have had more success bringing Democratic-inspired issues to public votes, which is what Davis is up to these days.
“I think it’s fair to say that in South Dakota people who vote pretty much straight Republican sometimes have more progressive views on ballot measures, Davis says. “So the thought of getting Medicaid expansion through, for example, is there, regardless of whether we can beat John Thune or Kristi Noem.
Davis is an old hand at gathering petition signatures. But the pandemic has changed the way he does that work these days, which is primarily by making appointments with people in advance. That’s what he was working on when I met him at the home of passionate Democrat Ardith Hinzman in her cozy, comfortably decorated home in the West Boulevard Historic District in central Rapid City.
Davis was there to collect Hinzman’s signature for one of the two petitions he is carrying these days. One would expand Medicaid coverage to more low-income people in the state. The other would create a bi-partisan committee to redraw legislative districts after 10-year census counts. The current system gives the redistricting advantage to the majority party.
Davis has gathered more than 400 signatures for Medicaid expansion and more than 300 for redistricting. He stopped at our house when I was working out in the front yard and got me to sign the redistricting petition. I’d already signed the Medicaid expansion petition carried by someone else.
My wife, Mary, wasn’t home at the time. So Davis came back later looking for her. She still wasn’t home. He did, however, knock on the door of our next-door neighbors and get two signatures, after I suggested they would likely be willing.
And the next week when he was out gathering signatures, he stopped by our house again and finally got Mary’s signature.
“I’m persistent,” he said as he stood on our front step, wearing a mask.
He is persistent. And that’s a pretty valuable quality for a Democrat in a state ruled by Republicans.
When asked what the hope might be for the party in the future, Davis says: ”The party that McGovern created no longer exists. We’re starting all over. And it’s going to be quite different.”
The party lost members over certain issues, abortion in particular. And has had trouble attracting and keeping new ones.
The new Democratic Party in South Dakota is likely to be a party driven by younger people with a world view that’s more compatible and comfortable with Democratic philosophies, Davis says. And Native American members will be crucial to its expansion and success.
“The Native American population is growing. They have a lot of young people coming up,” he says. “The party of the future will be quite different. I might not live to see it.”
Or maybe he will. He is persistent, after all.