One free­wheel­ing run

In Vir­ginia, a can­di­date for lieu­tenant gover­nor ac­tu­ally lives in his cam­paign RV

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA VOZZELLA

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?’ ”

TI­MOTHY C. WRIGHT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY TI­MOTHY C. WRIGHT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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