One freewheeling run
In Virginia, a candidate for lieutenant governor actually lives in his campaign RV
State Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr., a Republican running for lieutenant governor of Virginia, is living in a van down by the river.
That’s the joke going around Capitol Square, inspired by the red-white-and-blue campaign RV that’s been conspicuously rolling through Richmond since the General Assembly was gaveled into session in January.
What most of the wisecracking politicos don’t know: Davis really is living in the RV, though not by a river.
Home base is a parking lot outside a suburban Richmond Planet Fitness, where Davis and his driver first inquired about memberships late one night before Christmas. Suzanne Zimmerman, the gym’s overnight manager, launched into her spiel about the equipment, tanning beds and other amenities, but they waved her off. After a late event in Waynesboro, Va., Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) has a shave. Davis sleeps in the 2016 Winnebago while it is parked outside a Richmond gym — where he has shower privileges.
“I got about halfway through and they said, ‘Really, honestly, we’re just here for the showers,’ ” Zimmerman said. She’s gotten that before — from itinerant construction workers bunking too many to a room in area motels. “This is the first politician we’ve had,” she said. Residing in an RV, and freshening up in a gym or truck stop, is not the most obvious route to statewide office. But there is a method to this mobile-home madness, one that could make Davis the sleeper candidate in more ways than one.
The RV has allowed the Virginia Beach businessman to zigzag around the commonwealth — even during the hectic legislative session that concluded Saturday — while still snatching the 5½ hours of shut-eye he needs most nights to get by.
After Davis, 43, wrapped up work in the Capitol
each day, the RV whisked him off to campaign appearances up to three hours away. Some would go late into the night. If he was still on the road by midnight, Davis would pull down the shades, slip into his Brooks Brothers pajamas and hit the sack — a twin-size bunk with a mattress the depth of an ordinary bed pillow. He would be up at 5:30 a.m., ready to do it all over again.
“It’s fiscally conservative,” he said. “It saves on hotel rooms. And the opportunity cost — that’s what this really means to me. It allows me to maximize my time, continually take on more and more.”
Davis’s two opponents in the GOP’s June primary are also legislators, who have campaigned during the session as much as anyone can without the benefit of a rolling bedroom. But they’ve also been ripping each other to shreds. Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) says Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) is behind anonymous emails falsely accusing him of having an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer.
Many Republicans have been disgusted by the saga — and that sideshow has created an opening big enough to drive, well, an RV through it. In his 27-foot Winnebago, Davis is making the rounds with an upbeat, pro-business message that also contrasts nicely with the Sturm und Drang coming out of Washington.
“At a time when there’s a lot of scorched earth, he envelops people in a positive, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Anne Seaton, who recently hosted a meet-and-greet for Davis at her home in Waynesboro, 90 minutes west of Richmond. “He has a very nice approach to meet voters where they are.”
Many observers still think that Davis’s odds are long. Asked about the race, veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita referred to Reeves, Vogel and “that Virginia Beach delegate whose name I can’t remember.”
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, described Davis’s efforts as “a little quixotic.”
“Politics attracts interesting characters, and campaigns oftentimes call for interesting tactics like this,” he said. “But the real question is: Is it enough?”
More than 80 people turned up to meet Davis at the Waynesboro event, which took place on a day when work in the House dragged on past 5 p.m. Davis arrived at 7:30 p.m., addressing the crowd as a whole and speaking individually until the last voter left three hours later. Then he grabbed a couple pieces of cheese and some crackers — his dinner — and boarded for the trip back.
At the wheel was Barry Sykes, who used to haul NASCAR vehicles around the country in an eighteen-wheeler. Sykes can nap in the day while Davis legislates, but he also takes care of the vehicle’s considerable maintenance needs, including emptying tanks for the toilet, shower and sinks.
“The bathroom fairy’s not going to come every three days,” he said.
Sykes pulled into the Planet Fitness lot sometime after midnight. By 5:30 the next morning, he and Davis were showering inside the club. Davis also used the locker room to steam his white dress shirt and dark Italian suit with a subtle stripe. Back in the RV, while he microwaved water for his instant oatmeal, he shaved over the kitchen sink.
“I’ve shaved going 70 miles an hour going down the interstate,” he said. “Never cut myself.” But as a precaution, he has switched to an electric razor.
By the time Davis stepped out of the RV a block from the Capitol, he had precisely knotted a red, striped tie and donned elephant cuff links. He looked like a lodger from the posh Jefferson Hotel, not a squatter at a Midlothian strip mall.
In ordinary times, Davis shares a 3,000-square-foot, five-bedroom house in Virginia Beach with his wife, Chelle. These days, he overnights in the RV with as many five campaign staffers. Most nights, though, it’s just Davis and Sykes.
In the House only since 2014, Davis was considered a long shot when he threw his hat into the ring. Reeves, by contrast, launched his bid last year as he was coming off a headlinegrabbing gun deal with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Vogel, in the Senate since 2008, has a personal fortune that could allow her to self-fund. (She recently bought a $7.25 million chunk of Bunny Mellon’s estate in Upperville.)
But Davis has earned some endorsements, including that of House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who is expected to become speaker next year, and former congressman Thomas M. Davis III, a moderate Northern Virginia Republican who is of no relation.
A former Virginia Beach city councilman, Davis owns On Call Holdings, a telecommunications management firm that at one point included Geeks On Call, the mobile tech-support chain.
He is trying to turn his techie tendencies to his advantage. On the trail, he touts MIT research indicating that powdered coal could be used in place of silicon in electronics. The idea is central to his pitch for remaking the state’s economy and reviving Virginia’s beleaguered coal country.
“Coal isn’t dead,” he said. “It just isn’t your grandfather’s coal industry anymore.”
Davis had never set foot in an RV before buying the used 2016 Winnebago last spring. He didn’t expect to sleep in it. He was looking for a rolling office, a place where he could work — for his business, constituents and his campaign — between appearances. His first upgrades were WiFi, a printer and noise-canceling headphones.
But the efficiency of sleeping in the vehicle soon became apparent, especially when swinging through some of the far-flung corners of a state that stretches from the Atlantic to west of Detroit.
The RV is a gas-guzzler, getting about nine miles to the gallon. And it is not the smoothest ride. After a hair-raising trip along the switchbacks of Southwest Virginia, Davis had a sway bar installed. But the Winnebago still rattles and rocks as it cruises down the highway.
“It’s not like one of those big tour buses that goes around the country. You feel quite a bit of the road,” he said.
He has learned to put a nonslip pad on the table where he works and eats, and to wait until the vehicle stops before working on any handwritten notes.
The RV has about as much space as a “tiny house,” one of the itty-bitty cottages featured on HGTV. The kitchen boasts a decent-size refrigerator, a threeburner propane stove, microwave and sink. The bathroom has a shower about the size of a phone booth, but Davis prefers to use a gym or truck stop for that. There is a closet with room for a week’s worth of suits and shirts.
Chelle Davis, who works in public relations, often prepares meals at home that her husband and Sykes can reheat on the road. She avoids messy red sauces, although she made an exception for Super Bowl Sunday so that Davis and the driver could have ribs and pulled pork for the big game.
Prone to motion sickness, she was not a big fan of the RV at first.
“I’m pretty sure I said, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I ever heard,’ ” she said. “‘Can’t we just take a car?’ ”
She nevertheless agreed to go RV shopping with him. She stepped inside the Winnebago and immediately noticed the loud, yellow trim. Chelle Davis owns nothing yellow. Not clothing. Not furnishings. She decorated their home in earth tones.
She eventually embraced the color, dubbing the vehicle “Mellow Yellow” and outfitting it with yellow sheets, yellow plates, yellow towels. But her first reaction?
“I said, ‘Well it’s yellow,’ ” she recalled, drawing the word out. Her husband didn’t take the hint. “He said, ‘I know. Isn’t it great?’ ”
At top, Cole Trower, campaign manager for Virginia Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), takes a photo of Davis between Anne Seaton and her husband, Scott, at the Seatons’ home in Waynesboro, where they hosted an event for the lieutenant-governor candidate. After, Davis’s driver took the RV and the candidate back to their regular roost — a Planet Fitness parking lot in Richmond, above.