Mount Vernon's Mayor Davis seen as man of vision and division
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As Mayor Ernie Davis sat in his office on a recent afternoon, the wail of police sirens outside Mount Vernon City Hall nearly drowned out his voice while he spoke about issues that have shaped his long and controversial political career.
In this hardscrabble city, with its record high 9.2 percent unemployment and double-digit homicide rate, the challenges of crime and poverty have occupied much of his time since the Democratic leader returned to the mayor's office more than a year ago.
The way he sees it, the troubled kids in his city don't get a fair shake, and that's part of the problem.
"We have to do something with our youth, other than just arrest them," Davis, 74, said, leaning back in the brown leather couch in his office adorned with African and Chinese art. "We need to give them hope."
Steady, soft-spoken and unabashedly egotistic, Davis has governed this predominantly black, 4.4-square-mile city of nearly 70,000 for 13 years -- except for a hiatus from 2007 until 2011 -- with a mix of shrewd power politics and laid-back Southern charm.
His critics have accused him of crossing ethical lines, including flashing the race card, to get what he wants. They say his efforts to revitalize Westchester County's third-largest city have fallen short and he's done little to reduce poverty and crime, often pushing for big ticket projects that never come to fruition.
Davis, dapper in his signature bow tie and clutching a hand-rolled cigar, shrugs off the criticism from people he calls "wannabe politicians" and "charlatans" and ticks off a list of accomplishments, from razing blighted properties to privatizing a public-housing project and building retail chain stores along Sandford Boulevard after a court challenge from neighboring Pelham.
Rejuvenating his long-depressed city -- with a poverty rate of 14 percent, compared with Westchester County's 8.9 percent -- will take a heavy hand, and he's ready to use it.
"All I'm seeking is to give this city a fighting chance," he says. "And I know that I'm the best person to do it."
SAYS FEDS DID 'A JOB' ON HIM
Davis, an architect, served 12 years on the Westchester County Board of Legislators before he was elected mayor for the first time in 1995.
He led Mount Vernon until 2008, when was voted out of office after a flurry of federal investigations of City Hall prompted by a scathing 2006 audit of the Mount Vernon's affordable housing program.
He never was formally accused of wrongdoing, but the allegations cost him his re-election bid the following year.
Davis claims he was scapegoated by the feds.
"They've done a job on me and they haven't stopped," he said, suggesting federal authorities are still investigating him. "I'm not a choir boy, but there are some things I just don't do. Nobody stole any money. It was mismanagement."
In one case, his former planning commissioner, Constance "Gerrie" Post and Wayne Charles, a Mount Vernon entrepreneur, were accused of overbilling the federal government by $1.7 million in Section 8 subsidies between 2003 and 2004.
Both were convicted of fraud and the state eventually took over the city's Section 8 program.
Another case involved trash haulers overbilling the city by $1.25 million. James Castaldo, a public works supervisor, was sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2008 after admitting that he took $50,000 in bribes from waste collectors.
Former employees also have accused Davis of blocking investigations into his friends' businesses, fudging crime statistics, appointing cronies to senior positions and trying to prevent the arrest of his grandson on an illegal-weapons charge.
He has never been prosecuted for those complaints, and lawsuits filed by former employees have been dismissed.
While Davis earns more than $209,000 a year including his mayoral salary and state pension, he has fallen behind on his property taxes at times. Last year, Yonkers placed a lien on his second home, a condominium on Water Grant St., for $4,255 in unpaid taxes.
Davis returned to City Hall in January 2011 after winning the mayoral seat back from Clinton Young, a Democrat and former political protege who had bested him in an election marred by mudslinging and dirty campaigning on both sides.
To hear Davis tell it, voters were merely reaffirming that he's the person who can put the city back on track.
"They're wannabe politicians," he sniped. "And I know more about government than all of them."
SOUTHERN ROOTS TO NORTHERN POLITICS
Davis grew up an only child in Charlotte, N.C., at a time when the South was still segregated. His father was a baggage handler for Southern Railway and his mother worked as domestic housekeeper for an affluent white family.
He remembers his first experience with segregation at 11. His father brought him to a baseball game played between two Negro League teams and relatives of the ballplayers had to sit in the bullpen, while whites sat in the stands.
"Even though Charlotte was segregated, you didn't see it," Davis recalls. "But this was up close and personal for me."
As a student at North Carolina A&T State University, Davis became involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the first sit-ins at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, where blacks tried to get served at the "whites only" lunch counter.
Davis met his wife, Bettye, in college and they moved back to Mount Vernon after they graduated in 1960. He worked as an architect for a while before he eventually got involved in politics and local government. The couple have two adult children, Rene, 55, who lives in Mount Vernon, and Lisa, 48, of Charlotte, and live in a big two-story house in Mount Vernon's affluent Esplanade neighborhood.
Davis said his early experiences with segregation prepared him for the rough and tumble world of New York politics, where race often comes into play. Critics say Davis has used race to his advantage. They note that he quieted much of the opposition with claims of racism during the city's protracted legal battle with Pelham over the Sanford Boulevard project.
He faced major opposition to the project from neighboring Pelham, where residents and business owners filed lawsuits over concerns about traffic and the impact on small business from big-box stores anchoring the project.
"I just used that as a tactic," Davis admits. "I have no idea if there was racism or not."
A GRAND VISION FOR CITY?
Davis has a reputation for pitching grandiose projects that seldom get off the ground, such as a proposal to build a $300 million hotel, sports stadium and retail complex downtown that he has talked about for more than a decade.
His shortcomings are often blunted by supporters, who talk about him with a statesmanlike reverence.
City Council president Yuhana Edwards, a fellow Democrat who ran against Davis for mayor in 2007, said his think-big strategy is vital for a city struggling to reduce violent crime and boost its stagnant property tax base.
"He's a visionary," Edwards said. "He knows what the city needs and he's not afraid to go after it."
Davis' charisma has allowed him to placate even his staunchest political rivals. Young waged a successful and bitter campaign against him in 2007, was reluctant to criticize Davis when contacted recently by a Newsday reporter.
One of his frequent critics and onetime mayoral candidate, the city's Comptroller Maureen Walker, says many of the big ticket projects Davis pursues are ill-conceived and risky for the city's taxpayers, such as his recent proposal to borrow more than $1.5 million to buy and convert the dilapidated former YMCA building into a city-run recreational center.
"He doesn't seem to understand that you have to run a city like a business, or it will fail," Walker explains.
Political observers say many of those projects are likely to end up benefiting his political cronies, not the city.
"He's an extremely controversial figure," said Mike Edelman, a longtime observer of Westchester County politics. "This is a guy who puts his friends before the city's interests. He's not the person who should be running that city."
Edelman said despite claims by Davis and his champions that he has made Mount Vernon a safer place and improved the quality of life for its recession-weary residents, the city's unemployment and crime rates have increased under his watch. In addition to the 10 murders in 2012, there were 20 shootings in the city.
"He can claim whatever he wants," Edelman argues. "But the statistics speak for themselves."