Moe Davis, the Democratic nominee for North Carolina Congressional District 11, answers questions during the Best in the West Candidate Forum on Western Carolina University's Biltmore Park campus on September 4, 2020 (Photo: Angeli Wright, ANGELI WRIGHT / ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)
For Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a career military attorney, the contract he won in 2005 could cement his chances of becoming a general. The native North Carolina-American – and now the Democratic candidate for North Carolina 11th Congressional District – has been appointed attorney general of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists detained at and at the base of the US Navy in Guantanamo, Cuba were subjected to military justice.
Davis accepted the challenge and compared his assignment with the public prosecutors who tried Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg after the Second World War. The tall, physically imposing officer quickly gained the reputation of an aggressive, literal prosecutor, who at frequent press conferences tended to crack down on lawyers and ridicule the prisoners, most of whom had been captured in the months after September 9th. 11 attacks on Afghan battlefields or during CIA operations.
"At first I thought he was being overly aggressive," said Miami attorney Neal Sonnett, who was hired by the American Bar Association to oversee the military courts to ensure prisoners were treated appropriately. "We didn't get away with it on a good foundation," said Sonnett in an interview.
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He declined that Davis publicly compared the prisoners to vampires whom he would "drag into the sunlight where they would melt". When a defense attorney sought sympathy for a Canadian-born prisoner who ran away to the Osama bin Laden terrorist training camp at the age of 15, Davis replied, "He did not go to this camp to learn knots and smells to eat. "
In Sonnett's view, by ridiculing the defense attorney and playing on the news media, I thought, "I thought (Davis) had crossed a line."
Still, Davis charged ahead. Journalist Jane Sutton, who covered the trials for Reuters news service, recalled: “He believed in the tribunals; he believed that what he was doing was right. Then he changed his melody. "
Davis suddenly resigned just two years after his job and shortly before his first trial.
To understand why Davis strayed from his dream job, one has to understand a lot about the personality, beliefs, and character of the 62-year-old man his friends call "Moe". This partly explains his decision to locate a congressional seat to represent much of western North Carolina, including Asheville and Buncombe Counties, in a campaign that sharply attacked his young opponent, an express dislike of the President and personal even the denigration of the religious leader includes Franklin Graham, whose father Billy Graham was a regional icon.
If there is one consistent thread in Davis' life story that has taken him from a small North Carolina town through several military posts around the world and ending up as a political candidate in Asheville, then it is a willingness to be the nonconformist be. to take the path that others had not taken – and then risk losing the ground he had gained in order to remain true to his deeply ingrained principles.
He grew up in Shelby, about halfway between Asheville and Charlotte, where he acquired a soft southern accent, a talent for acoustic guitar, and a taste for hunting, fishing, and NASCAR racing.
His father was a disabled World War II veteran, and medical treatments frequently took the family to the Veterans Administration facility in East Asheville, not far from where Davis currently resides with his wife Lisa.
Davis was able to attend Appalachian State University on a scholarship for children of disabled veterans. He earned a degree in criminal justice and raised extra money as a surety administrator to help bail fellow college students out of local prisons where many were arrested for violating local alcoholic beverage laws.
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He studied law at North Carolina Central University – a historically black university – and received a law degree in 1983. His decision to enroll at the NCCU was primarily financial, Davis said in an interview for this article.
"I qualified as a minority student (at NCCU) because I am white, so my tuition fees and a scholarship were paid for by the state," he said. But he added that his experience there shaped his racist views, both for his ability to be comfortable in mixed racial situations and for respect for minorities who faced challenges he did not have as a white man. "I've always felt welcome there," he said of his years at the NCCU, "it was never our attitude towards them."
He said he also noticed that in moot court competitions held among other law schools, his black classmates “only had to do a little bit better; They had to work harder to be on the same plane (than white law students). And they did it. "
A freshly minted attorney, Davis said he chose to join the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps for two reasons: first, as a tribute to his father's service, and second, because he had immediate legal experience. (His first case was against a more experienced JAG attorney, Lindsey Graham, who is now a US Senator from South Carolina).
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Over the next two decades, Davis rose steadily through the ranks, earned two other masters degrees, and was eventually named deputy commander of the JAG military school. He was admitted to the US Supreme Court and specialized military courts.
Retired Air Force Colonel Tom Strand, now a member of Colorado Springs city council, served with Davis during that time and said two things were noticed. The first, Strand said, was Davis' willingness to challenge a higher authority than he believed he was in the right position.
Second, Strand continued, "I thought Moe was always inclined to want to understand an individual's personal plight. He wanted to consider whether they were raised in poverty, whether they were minorities, or whether they were facing difficult problems.
"I thought that made him uncomfortable as a prosecutor because he could sympathize with the man who was having problems," said Strand.
These characteristics became apparent during his mission in Guantánamo, where al-Qaeda prisoners, dubbed the "global war on terror" by the George W. Bush administration, were held in newly built prisons until their legal rights were asserted . Davis was the third JAG attorney hired by the government to prosecute those who allegedly participated in or supported the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America.
He said he was excited about the assignment and wanted his work to take its place in history alongside the Nuremberg Trials, which are known for their justice. Some of the war criminals charged were acquitted, which many historians cite as evidence of the judicial restraint of the trial.
"We look back on these trials with pride," said Davis. "I wanted our children to look back on Guantanamo in the same way."
In the eyes of his management superiors, Davis's tenure as attorney general started well. Davis was a staunch advocate for the tribunals and the detention center, which had been criticized by many human rights organizations. Davis scoffed at those who compared the Guantanamo facility to a concentration camp. He said that during his years rescuing college students from county jails near Boone, conditions were far worse than most of the prisoners in Guantánamo.
Two of his superiors put him on his way to be brigadier general. But one of those superiors suddenly asked Davis for something he thought he couldn't give.
"I was pressured to use evidence obtained from waterboarding prisoners," said Davis.
It was already known that waterboarding was being incorporated into the administration's so-called "advanced interview techniques" to obtain information from prisoners. It meant strapping a prisoner to a horizontal board and pouring water jugs on the prisoner's face, creating a fear of drowning until the prisoner confessed.
For Davis, it wasn't just about the fact that boarding water has been viewed as torture by virtually every agency other than the Bush administration for millennia. His concern was to know that prisoners' confessions during boarding were not reliable. "Torture is a great way to get someone to talk," said Davis, "but it's not the way to learn the truth."
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As a prosecutor who has an ethical duty to build a case based on reliable evidence, he said he had no choice but to oppose his manager's order to use the information so obtained. As Davis later explained in one of the interrogation trials, "The guy who said waterboarding was 'A-OK' I didn't want to take orders from. And I stop. "
The decision stunned many who had considered Davis a hardliner, a man trained to execute orders. "He was in the military and there were (other prosecutors) doing things that I knew they wouldn't approve of," recalled Sonnett, the American Bar Association's independent observer. “People who did what Moe did had lost their careers. I came to respect Moe for his ethics and principles. "
The retribution came quickly, at least initially. He was denied a Defense Service Medal because, according to a performance review, "You resigned when you were needed because you did not want to be supervised by a senior agency with whom you had a disagreement." However, that stain on his file was cleared later tempered when he received an even higher award from the commanding officer of the Military Advocate General, the Legion of Merit for "extraordinarily meritorious conduct".
Sutton, the Reuters correspondent, told the AVL Watchdog that it took people a while to understand Davis' Wende. “While he was a prosecutor, the human rights community treated him like a Nazi, then he went to the other side. He said, "If you are in the middle of the street, you will be hit from both sides." Davis realized that his hopes of becoming a general had been dashed and retired from the Air Force a year later.
However, he quickly got a position as head of foreign affairs, defense and trade for the Congressional Research Service. He also used his detachment from the military as an opportunity to speak and write about his growing opposition to the Guantanamo tribunals, which struggled to find a legal grounding between the war-based military justice system and the broader rights granted to defendants in federal courts .
When Davis wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal criticizing newly elected President Obama for failing to reform this process, he was asked to meet with a manager who was unhappy with this outspoken contributor was.
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"It never occurred to me that what I wrote was problematic," he said in the interview for this article. “My principal said if I admitted I screwed up, I would keep my job. But I didn't believe that. I defended my right to freedom of expression. But he sent me a letter saying I was fired. "
Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union, who criticized Davis as Guantánamo prosecutor, stood up in his defense and brought charges on his behalf. Although it took six years, Davis won a settlement in which he obliterated his firing and awarded him $ 100,000 in damages.
Although the lawsuit targeted President Obama's policies toward the military courts, Davis said the president did not appear to hold a grudge. "He later invited me to come to the White House to talk about Guantanamo."
Davis' willingness to fight his layoff also earned him the support of former Urban League President Vernon Jordan, who helped Davis get a faculty position at Howard Law School in Washington, DC, where he is stayed another four years. From 2015 until his retirement last year, he served as an administrative law judge at the US Department of Labor, ruling on cases of labor law violations, workplace discrimination and black lung obstruction. Perhaps best known is a decision he passed in the summer of 2019 that fined Enterprise Rent-a-Car $ 6.6 million for alleged racial discrimination in recruitment, training and promotion at its Baltimore offices.
Davis moved to Asheville last year, and after examining the field of likely candidates for Republican Mark Meadows' congressional seat, he decided, “I had the strongest credentials to include him. I was disappointed when he was eliminated from the race because I thought he was an easy target. "
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Moe Davis, the Democratic candidate for North Carolina Congressional District 11, sits with his opponent, Republican nominee Madison Cawthorn, answering questions during the Best in the West Candidate Forum on Western Carolina University's Biltmore Park campus on Aug. September 2020 (Photo: Angeli Wright, ANGELI WRIGHT / ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)
Republican nominee Madison Cawthorn offers a dramatic contrast to Davis in terms of age, accomplishments, and beliefs. At age 25, Cawthorn ran for his first adult job, despite listing himself as CEO of a real estate investment company with no other employees. He was home-schooled and attended a semester at an Evangelical Christian college in Virginia after being severely injured in a car accident in 2014 before dropping out on poor grades.
But the charismatic Cawthorn has won the support of Meadows, now the White House Chief of Staff, and President Trump. He spoke at the Republican National Convention in late August.
Among the expected political differences on issues such as abortion rights, universal access to health care, and gun rights (Cawthorn wants few, if any, restrictions, while Davis advocates strict background checks, red flag laws, and a ban on offensive weapons without a government) differ the two candidates strong in terms of racial redress. After both Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission passed redress orders apologizing for slavery and pledging to correct racial inequalities, Davis immediately gave his support, saying he would also call for federal policy.
Cawthorn said the civil war had brought sufficient redress to blacks, and those seeking more payments – including blacks and "white liberals" – were racist themselves. The Republican candidate also accused Davis of "being an advocate for the rights of terrorists" for opposing the use of water-boarding evidence – an indictment that Davis says is refuted by his record as a Guantánamo attorney .
The Democrat's path to victory, like District 17, which is mostly rural, is viewed as a steep climb by political odds. Republicans register Democrats by more than two to one. Davis' hopes, however, lie with unaffiliated voters – those who are not registered in any of the major parties – who make up a small majority of the total. For this group, Morris points to his track record of challenging presidents of both parties – George W. Bush and Obama – as a sign of independence.
And on social media, he makes no effort to win the support of two major electoral blocs in the district: Trump supporters and Evangelical Christians who are positive about Franklin Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham who lived in Black Mountain. Davis' disgust for the two men was evident in a tweet released in April after Franklin Graham said in a Fox interview that COVID-19 was "God's wrath" for human sins.
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Eleventh District Democratic candidate Moe Davis is fighting in Weaverville on August 12, 2020. (Photo: Paul King)
"If Franklin Graham is right and COVID-19 is God's wrath for sin, then (guilt) the sinner-in-chief @realDonaldTrump, the most immoral, incompetent and corrupt president in American history, a habitual liar, porn shag, narcissistic, evasive demagogue draft. "
When Graham showed up at a rally in Asheville prior to the pandemic, Davis participated in a counter-protest with a sign that read, "The Christian Profit, Franklin Graham," with "Prophet" deliberately misspelled. He tweeted a photo of himself with the sign and wrote: "Moe @ the Franklin Graham Klan Rallye und Herdvlies …"
In the first candidate debate, Davis said he admired Billy Graham very much and consumed many of his works. But he said his son was capitalizing on his father's reputation by paying organizations salaries in excess of $ 1 million a year.
Most importantly, Davis counts on the majority of the district's voters to honor his decades of high-level experience in terms of party affiliation. He misses few opportunities to belittle Cawthorn's lack of work experience, incomplete college education, and reliance on financial investments to support a privileged lifestyle.
For some who have watched Davis over these years, why would he enter politics is not a difficult one to answer. Strand, the Colorado Springs councilor and former JAG, said Davis' candidacy was consistent with his instinct to challenge authority and support the underdog. Sonnett said he thought Davis' decision was another example of his "need to stand up for Principle".
And, according to Davis's own report in a 2017 opinion piece by the Los Angeles Times, one principle deserves continued engagement: “Injustices must not be forgotten. I intend to do my part to help Americans remember that torture was wrong then and is wrong now. "
AVL Watchdog is a non-profit news team that produces stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe Counties. Tom Fiedler is the former editor-in-chief of The Miami Herald, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for political reporting. He lives in Asheville.
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