By Yolanda Jones/The Commercial Appeal
SOUTHAVEN, Miss. (AP) — Greg Davis was a 24-year-old self-employed engineering consultant working out of his parents’ home when he decided to run for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
The year was 1990. State Rep. John Grisham, who held the seat, had decided not to finish the final year of his term, so that he could concentrate on becoming an author.
Davis won the seat in a runoff by defeating Southaven Alderwoman Lorine Cady. The victory launched his political career, one that has included many historic firsts.
His first history-making moment came in the late 1990s. After seven years as a Republican state representative he left the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., and came back to Southaven, his hometown, to be closer to his family.
After learning that former Southaven Mayor Joe Cates would not be seeking re-election, Davis ran for mayor and won a landslide victory with 63 percent of the vote.
In 1997, at age 31, he became Southaven’s first mayor under 40.
Now, 15 years later, Davis’ career has reached another, more somber milestone. After a yearlong, joint state and federal investigation, the DeSoto County grand jury returned a three-count indictment against Davis.
“Since I’ve been in DeSoto County, and I’ve been here since 1992, it is the first time a mayor in our county has been indicted to my knowledge,” said DeSoto County District Attorney John Champion. “We have other public officials like members of the Board of Supervisors indicted in the late 1970s, but I believe that this is the first mayor to be indicted.”
The indictment accuses him of embezzlement, false pretense and making false statements to authorities. The charges are linked to his city-leased vehicle and the use of city gasoline used to fill up his personal vehicle. The allegations also involve a $1,000 check Davis received from the city for a donation intended for the Bully Bloc, a political action committee at Mississippi State University. Investigators say the PAC never received the donation.
In Mississippi, Davis can remain in office under the indictment. If he is convicted of the felony charges, then “the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi shall promptly enter a motion for removal” according to state law.
The state and federal investigation was triggered when Aldermen William Brooks, Greg Guy, Ronnie Hale and George Payne blew the whistle on him early last year to the state auditor’s office. They felt that he was spending the city’s money’s recklessly.
After a seven-month investigation, Auditor Stacey Pickering found that Davis misspent city funds on clothing, a family trip, gay sex shop merchandise and other personal items.
Pickering ordered Davis to repay more than $170,000. Through supporters, Davis has repaid $96,000. He owes the state more than $70,000, and officials are going to court in January to try to recoup the remainder.
When asked about the legal battle, Alderman George Payne said, “This is not an indictment against the city of Southaven. This is an indictment against one man. We are going to continue to move forward as a city.”
For the last 15 years, Davis has been at the helm of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Last year, Southaven was ranked No. 6 in CNN Money’s Top 25 places to retire and No. 24 in the website’s list of top 25 places for affordable housing in the U.S.
But the mayor’s scandal has brought the city unwelcomed attention as well.
Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State, said the state and federal investigation has generated a lot of interest.
“If it had happened in a little town of 500 or 750 people, people would have noticed, but they would have said it is typical in a place where people are kin to half the board members,” Wiseman said. “But in Southaven, they are right behind Gulfport population wise, and growing rapidly. This is big city politics, and everybody is taking notice of Southaven.”
People also took notice last December when, in an interview with The Commercial Appeal, Davis announced that he is gay. It was a secret that the once married father of three had been struggling to conceal for years.
He is believed to be the first openly gay politician in DeSoto County. Davis is in a long-term relationship. He is also in the midst of a divorce settlement dispute that erupted this year with his former wife, Suzann Savage Davis.
Always intellectually gifted, a young Davis was valedictorian of his graduating class at Southaven High School. After high school, he received an appointment to West Point, but later transferred to Mississippi State University where he earned a degree in civil engineering.
His engineering background has served him well as Southaven mayor because he is able to discuss and negotiate large development projects for the growing suburb. Under his tenure the city has added roughly 20,000 residents, hundreds of new homes and has approved plans for a new regional outlet mall.
In a 2010 interview, Davis said he wanted his public legacy to include Snowden Grove Park, a multi-field baseball and softball complex that opened 12 years ago.
Noting that Davis is the town’s youngest elected mayor, first gay mayor and first indicted mayor, Southaven resident Tommy Hurst said the Davis legacy will be complicated.
“It is going to be a two-part legacy,” said Hurst, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Southaven organization, who earlier this year circulated a petition to get Davis out of office. “When people see Snowden Grove and some other things he has done they will remember his administration, but unfortunately the end of his administration is mired in controversy with all the allegations and charges. Everyone will remember what happened at the end, and that won’t be good.”