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Davis betting $3 million on fourth race for House Battles free trade as enemy of U.S. manufacturing

Jack Davis dreams of an America where a good man can make a good wage making things, his hands and his head and his heart all working as one, with a team of men just like him at his side using cutting-edge machinery to create wealth they all can share.

On a very small scale, in a factory in Newstead that can get as hot as a blast furnace, he has made that dream come true.

But in that very same factory, for nearly a decade now, Jack Davis has harbored another dream, one that sees his little factory as a prototype for a new and better nation.

He imagines going to Washington as the 26th District's congressman -- and as the Tom Paine of a new American economic revolution that would put free men ahead of free trade and end the era of globalization.

Fabulously successful at creating a company that has thrived amid the collapse of U.S. manufacturing, Davis has spent more than $5 million of his earned riches on three separate stabs at his second dream.

And now, at the age of 78 and spurned by both political parties, he vows to spend another $3 million on his fourth race, a bid on the Tea Party line for a congressional seat that could disappear in redistricting in 20 months.

Beset by criticism of his incendiary comments on immigration and derided by bloggers who call him "crazy Jack Davis," the Clarence multimillionaire insists that he is spending his money wisely.

He sees no better way to promote his America-first philosophy than through the megaphone awarded to 435 Americans every two years: a seat in the House.

"You ever have anything you really have to do out of love?" he asked. "I love my country. Everybody tells me: don't do this, Jack, you'll kill yourself. I don't care. I'd die for my country."

Of course, the typical politician doesn't talk that way.

There's nothing typical, though, about Jack Davis.

For proof, just look at the company the University at Buffalo engineering grad created in 1964 and runs to this day, the oddly named I Squared R Element Co. Inc.

The company's 75 workers earn no more than $12 an hour in wages, making heating elements used to forge the super-strong glass used on the front of cell phones and flat-screen television sets.

That would likely make them miserable but for two things.

Jack Davis shares his company's profits with his employees every month.

And, Davis and his employees say, the company is enormously profitable.

"Guys with high school diplomas can come here and in a good year make a six-figure salary," said Shawn Borgosz, a 14-year company employee from Depew.

It all stems from Davis' belief that profit-sharing turns workers into a team that can beat any competition.

"It makes every employee an entrepreneur," Davis said. "It makes them want to work. It makes them not want to waste."

Davis calls his employees his "extended family." Many have worked at the company for decades, and all repeat anecdotes about Davis walking through the plant multiple times a day every day to supervise things, often taking time to talk to workers more like a friend than a boss.

"I got hit in the mouth once with a staple from a staple gun, and afterwards he came to me and said: 'You get any bills from this, you come and see me,' " Borgosz said.

Davis believes so strongly in his workers-first philosophy that he will not give I Squared R Element to his children when he passes away. Instead, he's set up a trust, run by employees, to own it.

Not surprisingly, Davis' decision to give the company to his employees didn't sit well with all of Davis' six children. His son Bob left the company and retired at the age of 49, said Al Davis, another son.

"It was power struggles," the 29-year veteran of the factory floor said. "He thought he'd get the company."

Similarly, when Davis announced his fourth bid for Congress, not all his children agreed with the decision.

"My brother wasn't too keen on it," Al Davis said.

Davis' longtime friend Den Black reacted to the prospect of another Davis campaign by saying: "You've got to be kidding me."

To which Davis replied: "I can't help it, Den. I'm simply an American patriot."

A former Marine Corps and Coast Guard reservist, Davis was a lifelong Republican until he witnessed the decline of American manufacturing about a decade ago.

"Free trade, globalization, it's a job-killer," he said. "And you need no better place to look than downtown Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Detroit. They're all disasters caused by our free-trade policies."

Noticing his customers moving overseas and leaving I Squared R Element less profitable than it otherwise would have been, Davis started contacting officials in the administration of President George W. Bush to complain about free trade.

They not only would not listen, but also tried to stop him from speaking.

Talking to reporters about his new anti-trade crusade at a Buffalo fundraiser featuring then-Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2003, Davis found Cheney aides ushering him out of the room.

That episode, and a falling-out with then-Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, over the trade issue, prompted Davis to decide to challenge Reynolds in 2004. Davis lost both that race and a rematch against Reynolds in 2006.

In 2008, he finished third in the Democratic primary for the open seat later won by Chris Lee, a Clarence Republican who subsequently moved to Amherst. Lee's resignation in February following a Craigslist sex scandal prompted Davis' run in the May 24 special election.

Many blame Davis' unusual approach to politics for his losses.

For one thing, as a trade protectionist who otherwise supports low taxes and small government, he was an uneasy fit in the Democratic Party.

"He's driven by one issue, the trade issue," said Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. "He's a traditional Republican when it comes to taxes and things like that."

Beyond that, Davis repeatedly chose to wage his campaigns largely through air wars that bombarded television viewers with commercials.

Again and again, he ignored pleas from political pros to leave his Newstead factory, where he has based his campaigns, and regularly attend events where he would meet the voters.

"Jack is Jack," Lenihan said. "He wants to do what he wants to do, and that's it."

And then, of course, there was Davis' penchant for politically perilous pontification.

"Davis warns of a new civil war with Southern states/Sees possibility of secession due to Mexican immigrants," read an August 2008 headline in The Buffalo News.

"Davis' comments shock GOP leaders/Deportation of Latino farmworkers and busing of inner-city youths to pick crops are suggested," read a headline in The News last month.

Davis insists his beliefs are not racist or xenophobic; they simply are geared toward making the United States a better place for Americans.

"We have to put the blacks back to work. If we had less immigration, we'd have more blacks working," he said in an interview last week.

Those who know Davis well acknowledge, however, that his comments don't match up with what voters expect in an era of carefully calculating poll-driven politicians.

"He's not a watch-what-you-say, say-what-you-want-to-hear kind of guy," said Kelly Jensen of Corfu, a manager who has been at I Squared R Element for 32 years.

And as a result, "I think he comes across a little different than he really is."

Jensen described Davis as a generous boss who lives his philosophy every day.

For proof, Jensen cited the time several years ago when Davis was assembling a tool kit for his daughter to take to college. Unable to find a drill that was made in the United States, he gave his daughter his own.

"He truly wants America to prosper," Jensen said.

Black, Davis' longtime friend, agreed, saying his old tennis buddy would be a tenacious fighter for the American worker in Congress.

"Jack is anything but a crazy guy," Black said. "He's a prince of a guy. He's a role model for what a patriotic American should be and a role model for what corporate America should be."

Given that Davis is running for Congress with his own money and that he has no ties to the established political parties, "he'd be truly independent" as a member of Congress, Black said. "He could not be bought by anybody."

Armed with that freedom, Davis vowed to build a new and broad anti-trade coalition in the place that matters most.

"Congress controls international trade," Davis said. "They made the mistake. That's where you go to correct it."

Then again, in a different world, Davis would aim higher.

"There's probably nobody in Washington that has the problem-solving ability that I do," he said. "I've been solving problems for 50 years. If I were younger, I'd be running for president."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com