Appreciation: ‘Sin lobbyist’ Charlie Davis

He excelled at what he did because of the Everyman we saw in him.

September 26, 2023 12:45 am

“Capitol Square — Virginia, for that matter — is poorer without Charlie Davis,” wrote Mercury columnist Bob Lewis. (Chris Davis)

It’s hard to imagine the ecosystem of Virginia’s General Assembly in the late decades of the 1900s and the first couple of the 21st century without Charlie Davis, known and universally celebrated as “the sin lobbyist.” He animated the place.

Charlie, a smooth urbanite who never strayed too far from his Rocky Mount, Virginia roots, passed away Sept. 18 at age 77 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer and a brief bout with COVID-19, according to his obituary.

He embraced his role as the champion of the vices. His clients included institutions and major corporations that were leading purveyors of tobacco, alcohol and motion pictures. To have met him was to never forget him, a priceless asset in the field of public policy advocacy.

Charlie dressed and lived the part. He prowled the corridors of power in perfectly fitted charcoal gray or black suits, often a dark shirt and contrasting tie, his longish silvery hair swept elegantly back and his beard closely cropped and neatly trimmed. A handkerchief, often complementing his tie, blossomed from the breast pocket of his jacket.

A former Richmond radio reporter, Charlie innately understood the Capitol Square press corps, back when the press had a much stronger voice in public affairs than it does now. He knew better than to harangue the scribes or, worse, approach them with empty, saccharine entreaties. Charlie offered us something far more irresistible: actionable information, usually on dealings that somebody important wanted to keep quiet.

With his perpetual leering grin, Charlie would sidle up beside a journalist and say something like, “If somebody got up real early and sat outside a certain Appropriations Committee chairman’s door at 6:30 tomorrow morning, that somebody might come away with one hell of a story.” The tips almost always paid off because Charlie was almost always right. Little happened on that square that didn’t find its way to his ears. 

Charlie’s advocacy made vices seem virtuous. Until widespread public perceptions of tobacco and even secondhand smoke soured and smoking, beset by overwhelming medical evidence that it caused serious and even fatal illnesses, was ultimately banned in Virginia’s public dining and hospitality venues, he had a stunning run of success.

One day in the early 2000s in a crowded Senate Finance Committee meeting, witness after witness had spoken compellingly in favor of increasing state taxes on tobacco. That didn’t sit well with Philip Morris, owner of the world’s largest cigarette factory a few miles from the Capitol. Among the last witnesses was Charlie, whom senators greeted by name like an old pal who had arrived fashionably late at their reunion.

He coolly leaned against the rostrum, adjusted the microphone and, in his sonorous  voice and a slow, measured cadence, said, “Philip Morris … opposes … this bill.” Minutes later, after the committee clerk called the roll, the bill lay dead.

Once, in a push for more state support for the Virginia Film Office, Charlie hired a local actress who appeared in regional television commercials to play Marilyn Monroe.

She wore the same sort of shimmering, form-fitting, low-cut sheath that Monroe wore for her breathy, seductive rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Strategically stationed in the teeming atriums outside committee rooms on the first floor of the old General Assembly Building, Charlie’s Marilyn lookalike cut through the day’s noise and clutter like a lightsaber and got the message across to legislators — the male ones anyway.

Charles Jones Davis III was a rascal. He could flawlessly project himself as Joe Sixpack or a worldly, latter-day boulevardier, depending on the needs of the moment. He excelled at what he did because of the Everyman we saw in him.

Capitol Square — Virginia, for that matter — is poorer without Charlie. At a minimum, it’s a damn sight less interesting.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]