ANNAPOLIS – In 1975, a 4th grade teacher at Ritchie Elementary in Capitol Heights required her pupils to study current events. Little Dereck Davis watched a TV debate between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter.
Davis wanted to impress the teacher – but politics made an impression on him.
Two decades later, Davis, 28, is among the newest Prince George’s County delegates in the Maryland General Assembly. His top issues are education, crime and development. But his attention is also on his own cautious progress as a public servant.
On the crime front, Davis advocates such programs as military-style boot camps, midnight basketball and neighborhood watch as “effective but not costly” remedies.
“We’ve got to prevent crime as much as we fight it,” he said.
He is eager to increase economic development in the county, particularly through strengthening programs that set aside government contracts for minority-owned firms.
The Prince George’s delegation is traditionally a powerful group in the Legislature. But Davis has approached his first 90 days with care.
In this, he followed the advice of his mentors, who include top names in county politics – Beatrice Tignor, the former state senator; Jo Ann T. Bell, former county council member; U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Maryland. All three warned him to be careful whom he talked to or was seen with in Annapolis.
Davis found early that they were right. Once veteran lawmakers were comfortable around him, he said, they would talk about each other, trying to sway his opinions of people.
“I’ve learned real quickly here that image is everything,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to get caught up in Statehouse intrigue.
During Davis’ campaign, Tignor also reminded him to stay focused on the people he wanted to serve. She still tells him that.
“Dereck says he needs to get some bills, but I say don’t worry about bills your first year,” Tignor said. “You don’t move very far until you learn how to listen.”
And so Davis has co-sponsored only a few measures, including one on disguised weapons and one on minor’s police records. He has also lent his name to pieces of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s legislative package.
Davis has watched his fellow Prince Georgian closely, but doesn’t expect any favors. The new governor “is from the county, but he belongs to the state now,” he noted.
And while Glendening has taken some knocks, Davis said his “faith in the governor hasn’t wavered one bit.” He attributes the governor’s problems to managerial style. Glendening delegates a lot of authority, leaving himself “open to being burned.”
Eight weeks into the session, Davis is becoming comfortable in his role. He speaks out within his delegation, but has yet to address the House floor.
“I don’t want to fall into the trap of just filling my legislative responsibilities,” he said. “I don’t want to come back in four years and have [my community] say they don’t know me.”
His connection to home is rooted in years of work for other politicians.
While at the University of Maryland, Davis wanted an internship in political science. A friend suggested contacting Bell. “He was very persistent and he knew he wanted to work in a politician’s office,” she recalled.
She started him as an intern, eventually promoting him to legislative aide, where his responsibility was to keep her in touch with voters.
“He’s going to be one of the very few people who already know their constituents,” Bell observed.
In 1990 and 1991, Davis hung signs and knocked on doors both for Bell and for Tignor, who was then a delegate. Tignor warned Davis that campaigning was “dirty work.” But he didn’t mind, doing everything from licking stamps to attending forums, Tignor said.
Davis said he enjoyed the work because he “wasn’t responsible for their campaigns.”
On July 19, 1993, Tignor announced she was giving up her Senate seat to run for county executive, freeing up a House seat in the district.
Looking back, Davis said this was the day he thought his fourth grade dream could come true.
With only grunt-level experience, Davis had to learn and teach his own staff how to campaign. “It was like an emotional roller coaster, with good days and bad days,” he remembered.
His nerves calmed after he joined a ticket with Democrats Brenda Hughes, Michael Crumlin and incumbent Sen. Ulysses Currie. The slate survived the primary to run unopposed in the general election. Davis spent evenings with campaign workers playing cards.
Davis credits his parents, Norman and Ernestine Davis, with giving him what it takes to be successful. They taught him to value education, Davis said, adding, “That’s the one thing that can never be taken from you.”
Davis is engaged to marry Monique Whittington, who teaches television production at Thomas Pullen Middle School. -30-