SALt LAKE CITY — Sen. Gene Davis, the longest-serving Democrat in the state Legislature, has been in office so long it’s easy to forget that in a previous life he was a radio disc jockey spinning rock 'n' roll records on the air.
When Davis first took office, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Democrats had just taken control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats have had many ups and downs since then, but Davis is still here. In January, he began his 31st legislative session.
In answer to the obvious question: Davis, the Senate minority leader, is leaning toward another run for office in 2018, and a win there would give him a 12-0 record in elections for state office.
Ultimately, he will make his final decision the same way he always does: He will write a memo to himself about why he should run for office again — what he can contribute, what goals he can achieve. If he can do that to his satisfaction, he’ll run again. It’s an old routine, but this time there will be one difference.
“I used to write it with Penny,” Davis says. “We’d talk, I’d write it and we’d read it together.”
Penny, his late wife, died of cancer in 2015. She persuaded Davis to run for office when no one else could, and he chokes up several times as he recalls her memory. He apologizes for this. “My loss is still very tender,” he says in a low voice. They sat in the same junior high typing class. They were together 45 years and raised two children.
“Right now I intend to run again, basically for her,” he says. “I never ran for me.”
It seems like another lifetime that Davis was a local DJ. He has been a fixture on the Hill since 1986, and after serving in the House for a dozen years, he moved to the Senate. In the last election, 2014, he ran unopposed.
Three decades is a long run, especially for a Democrat in the bright-red state of Utah. He watched in dismay as Republicans ruled the national elections last fall in a grass-roots repudiation of President Barack Obama’s eight years.
“The table has turned on us,” Davis says. “Fate was not with us this time, or lady luck or whatever you want to call it. Naturally I am disappointed.”
Being in the minority party is nothing new for a Democrat in Utah, but even there he has seen change. During a plane flight two decades ago, he realized a gradual shift had occurred that he hadn't noticed earlier. He was sitting next to Mel Brown, the Republican speaker of the House at the time, when Brown told Davis he was having a difficult time working with liberals in his caucus and wondered if Davis was having a similarly difficult time with the ultra-conservatives in his caucus.
“I couldn’t think of any ultra-conservative Democrat in my caucus,” Davis recalls. “And to me, all the Republicans in his caucus were moderates. It gave me an idea of where he was viewing the middle. Things had moved further right in reality. Then Mel left the Legislature, and when he returned a number of years later, his colleagues were referring to him as a RINO (a term for a more liberal Republican). We had drifted even further right.”
Davis believes the issues of gun control and abortion have done the most damage to Democrats in Utah. He is most passionate about the public school system, which he says is “under attack,” blaming this at least partly on the trend toward charter schools. “Tax money should go to educating the masses,” he says. “We’ve got 45 legislators connected to charter schools in one way or another.”
Davis is still impassioned by these issues. At 71, with silver-white hair and a matching mustache, he believes he has a mission in the political arena. When he writes his 2018 campaign thesis this year, it is likely he will conclude there is more to do and reason to seek the 3rd District office again.
“I’ve got two years left in this term, and I’ve got to give it everything,” he says.
Davis never foresaw a political career. He was a DJ, and what did that have to do with running for public office? But beginning in the late '70s, he was gradually lured into politics in his Sugar House neighborhood.
It began when he saw an article in the newspaper about the imminent razing of the old Forest Dell clubhouse, which he thought should be a protected historical building. He began making inquiries and wound up on a three-man committee that studied the issue, eventually resulting in protected status for the club.
That led to his involvement in the creation of a master plan for Salt Lake City, which he presented to the City Council. He found himself involved increasingly in local politics, and meanwhile he was learning the machinations of politics. In 1985, he took the next step and ran for City Council. And lost.
A year later he received a call from Randy Horiuchi, the charismatic chairman of the state Democratic Party, asking him to run for a seat in the House. Davis turned him down. Other Democratic leaders made the same plea and he turned them down as well. Horiuchi then called Penny to see if she could convince her husband to meet him in his office.
“I had run (for office) and I had lost, and I was more concerned about getting on with my life and taking care of my family,” Davis recalls. “I told Penny I wasn’t going to go to (Horiuchi’s) office. She said, ‘I told him you would be there.’”
Davis went to the meeting but he was still unswayed. As Davis recalls it, “When I told Penny that I had said no, she looked at me and said, ‘Remember when we were in junior high typing class and what we had to do?’” Davis remembered the old typing exercise that required students to type, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.”
They continued their discussion and repeatedly arrived at the same conclusion. “You want me to run, don’t you?” he would say to her.
“I’m not going to say that,” she would say. “It’s your decision.”
He finally relented and made a successful bid for the House.
At the time, Davis was a long-established presence on the Utah radio scene. When he was doing all-night shifts, he was billed as “Gene Droopy Eye Davis.” He can still turn on his “radio voice” on demand. Davis fell hard for radio as a boy while listening to music and the Lone Ranger at home. He favored rock 'n' roll and liked the banter of the DJs. “I wanted to be one of them,” he says.
An uninterested student, he worked seven days a week during high school as a gas station attendant, pumping gas, washing windows and checking oil. After graduating from South High, he attended radio operational engineering school and for the next 24 years worked as a DJ at a series of radio stations.
He began with a station in St. George and then moved to another station in Page, Arizona, before landing a job at KNAK in Salt Lake City. For four years he was on the air from midnight to dawn, six days a week. He worked another four years doing mornings and midday shifts. When the station was sold, he was out of a job.
He worked for KSUB in Cedar City for a few months, but he wasn’t making enough money to survive so he left the radio business for a couple of years and tried selling insurance and, later, insulation. After Penny urged him to return to radio, he DJ’d for KALL in Salt Lake City for 11 years.
Davis felt compelled to leave his radio career when he was elected to the House because of FCC equal-time laws and because of the demands of the annual 45-day legislative session. He worked in public relations for Valley Mental Health until he retired.
Davis has lived two separate professional lives — more than two decades on the radio and three decades on the Hill.
“I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason,” he says. He talks again about Penny and the road they set out on together when he entered the political arena. “She’ll be on my shoulder if I run again,” he says. “She will be with me.”