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DAVIS MAKES FREE TRADE THE ISSUE IN RACE FOR CONGRESS AGAINST REYNOLDS

CNN scoured the country this summer looking for John Q. Publics whose passion for an issue moved them to run for political office.

The cable network found everything it wanted in Akron's Jack Davis:

Disenchanted Republican turned Democrat.

Political novice spending his own money to oust a Washington insider.

Successful small-town business owner obsessed with the exodus of jobs overseas and eager to preach the need for tariffs every chance he gets, everywhere he goes.

Central casting could not have asked for a better choice than the gray-haired CEO from rural Erie County.

"Jack's doing this for all the right reasons," said Ben Miles, a worker at his plant. "He's doing this because of the future. He's afraid for his kids and everyone's kids."

And yet Davis is viewed by his own party and the big-money people as a nonfactor, a non-entity in the Democratic Party's quest to regain control of the House.

One of the biggest reasons is the guy he's trying to oust.

Thomas M. Reynolds is the king of Republican politics in Western New York, a lawmaker with the clout in Congress to deliver lots of federal money back home. No one, not Joel Giambra, not Jack Quinn, has his national profile or his close relationship with President Bush.

From the day he entered the House six years ago, Reynolds was on the leadership fast track. After only two terms, he was named chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee and entrusted with the task of maintaining a GOP majority in the House.

Even now, he's one of a handful of House Republican leaders mentioned as a possible candidate some day for speaker.

"Not bad for a kid from Springville," he's fond of saying.

Whether it's Washington or Albany, where he also climbed the leadership ladder as an assemblyman, Reynolds has been known for getting things done behind the scenes, a pragmatist who can work with anyone.

Even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a favorite target of Reynolds' conservative allies, talks warmly of their close working relationship and mutual admiration.

"We respect each other," Clinton said during an interview last year. "And he makes me laugh. He's got a great personality."

The race, once thought to be a sleeper because of Reynolds' power and substantial war chest, has turned nasty and expensive.

The 26th Congressional District includes Amherst, Clarence and Lancaster in Erie County, all of Genesee, Livingston and Wyoming counties and parts of Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties.

Together, the two campaigns spent more than $2 million by mid-October. The big difference is that, unlike Higgins, Naples and Reynolds, Davis is using $1.2 million of his own money to bankroll his congressional campaign.

Why would Davis, at age 71, his self-made business holding its own, spend $1.2 million of his own money on a race few experts think he can win?

It's a question that prompts Davis' eyes to well up as he talks about his passion -- I Squared R. He started the business 40 years ago in his garage and has seen it grow into the nation's largest maker of silicon carbide heating elements.

"I spent my life building this company, and I could see it being destroyed," he said. . "I have 75 families who depend on me. If I didn't do something, I knew I'd spend the rest of my life regretting that decision."

Even today, he walks the shop floor at his family-owned business three or four times a day, talking with his employees. Even privately, they talk glowingly of the guy they call "Boss" or "Jack."

To hear Davis talk, these are the reasons he took on Reynolds and made free trade and jobs the centerpiece of his campaign.

Davis is as close to a one-issue candidate as you can find, but it's an issue Western New Yorkers care deeply about. Except, perhaps, for the Iraq war, no other issue dominates the public consciousness here like the loss of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs," said Dale Knuth, a plant engineer at Davis' company. "We see a lot of our customer base disappearing, not just companies, entire industries. And China is taking a lot of those jobs."

The issue is so important to Davis, he took out a full-page ad in The Buffalo News last year questioning the Bush administration's stance on trade. It ran just before Vice President Cheney came to Buffalo for a fund-raiser.

Davis, a loyal Republican, had written a $2,000 check to Reynolds' re-election campaign just months before. Clearly at odds with his own party, he switched to the Democratic Party a few months later.

"They're destroying the country," Davis says of the so-called "free traders."

Reynolds says the correct title is "fair traders."

Even though experts expect him to win handily, Reynolds has reacted sharply to Davis' attacks. . He goes out of his way to suggest that Davis' "protectionist" stance on trade is out of sync with both political parties.

"It's a very risky scheme," he says of Davis' position. "If you look at the trade policies of (President) Bush and (Sen. John F.) Kerry, they both see Jack's as wrong and feel it would have a huge impact on our economy and turn it upside down."

Reynolds blames the lack of job growth here on the "triple shock of a recession, terrorist attacks and corporate scandals." The solution, he says, is to cut taxes and health care costs, not adopt a protectionist attitude toward trade.

"We need to continue in a global economy," Reynolds said in a recent interview. "We've seen stronger European Union and Asian markets that necessitate we continue in the opportunity of marketing our goods globally."

He said he will always vote for trade pacts that expand domestic job opportunities. He notes that 20 percent of all manufacturing workers in New York State are employed by companies that depend on exports.

And when faced with unfair trade, the Republican said he's not immune to tariffs or other measures.

When the Chinese tried to undercut New York apple growers by dumping apple juice concentrate in the states, Reynolds supported a 55 percent tariff on the Chinese.

To offset Davis' constant attacks on his trade record, Reynolds often stresses his own record in bringing federal money for the region. His supporters say his re-election is crucial to get federal funding for projects like the bioinformatics center in Buffalo.

"Without his leadership, without his actions, without his results, this community would not be prospering in areas in which he has delivered," said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

And as Reynolds' political stature increases, the opportunity for federal funding becomes greater.

"Maybe some day we'll have a speaker of the House from Buffalo, N.Y.," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis, no relation to the Democratic candidate. "That would be big, so big."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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