Arnold “Dave” Davis
Arnold “Dave” Davis is a name we’ve seen in countless headlines and heard in everyday conversations for years. He’s mostly known as the grey-haired “white man,” who sued the Guam Election Commission for denying his registry to vote in the plebiscite because he is a non-Chamorro. Arnold “Dave” Davis is a name some people despise, but others, mostly without saying it out loud, thank him for what he has done.
After six years of legal battle, Davis may have forever changed voting in Guam when a federal judge sided with his claim that the plebiscite law is unconstitutional.
“The U.S. Constitution does not permit for the government to exclude otherwise qualified voters in participating in an election, where public issues are decided simply because those otherwise qualified voters do not have the correct ancestry or bloodline,” Federal Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood said in a March 8 ruling.
The judge thus struck down the plebiscite statute that “impermissibly imposes race-based restrictions on the voting rights of non-native inhabitants,” in violation of the 15th Amendment.
“The judge’s ruling simply confirmed what I’d believed in and known all along – voter discrimination isn’t allowed within the American democratic system,” Davis said.
The ruling may pave the way for non-Chamorros to be able to vote for Guam’s future political status. But the legal battle is not over. Governor Eddie Baza Calvo has instructed the Office of the Attorney General to appeal the district court’s ruling. “We are outside; we don’t have a representative in the U.S. Senate, we don’t have a vote in Congress and under rules, only certain parts of the Constitution apply to us — based on what Congress wants,” Calvo said. “Yes, how can the federal court make this decision when it comes to our own plebiscite? We will fight this decision and if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, we will continue to fight.”
Throughout the years, Davis was consistently attacked in the media—specifically by the Chamorro nationalists, who referred to him as an “outsider.” He had no business meddling with the plebiscite law, his critics said.
Prior to his trip to court, Davis used his column, aptly titled “The Outsider Perspective” in the former Guam edition of the Marianas Variety as a platform to tackle racial discrimination issues on Guam — a delicate subject matter in this insular territory which itself is subjected to institutional discrimination by the U.S. Congress.
But who is this “outsider”? Who is this white man who dared to challenge the laws of our island?
Davis was born and raised in a small town in Maine. “We lived in a one-room log cabin my father built. We were very poor. All my father’s earnings went to my mother’s medical bills. We had no heat in the winter, no running water, electricity, or phone. We ate mostly what we grew in the garden. We had a hog for pork every year, one cow for milk, cream, and butter and chicken for meat and eggs. We also had a horse for transportation.”
He described his childhood as “somewhat rocky” having lost his mother to Tuberculosis at a young age. “In those days, there was no medical cure or effective preventative treatment for TB.” Davis said he was not able to spend much time with his mother because she was confined to a sanitarium, a place where TB patients were quarantined to prevent the spread of infection. His father was a game warden and forest ranger, who spent most of his time working to provide for their family.
Where he grew up, the children were required to work during the summer in order to buy school uniforms and supplies. Growing up, Davis said his interests were similar to teens now, girls, cars and the like. He also learned to play the trumpet and loved it. He enrolled in a teachers college after high school and bought his first car – a 1941 Ford convertible.
“I completed two years of college before finally completely running out of means to pay for the basic things to survive, and I enlisted in the Air force in the summer of '56,” said Davis.
Davis was an enlisted man for eight years and was eventually offered an opportunity to enter a commissioning program, which he described as a major turning point in his life. Davis became a second lieutenant and moved with his family – wife and one son at the time – to Florida. During his military career, Davis was stationed in many states and every corner of the world, from Germany, to Vietnam, to Thailand, to Japan, and finally the Northern Mariana Islands in 1970.
He moved to Guam in 1977. Davis said he decided to come back and live on Guam because he loved the people and the tropical climate. He retired at Andersen Air Force Base in 1982 after 26 years of service.
“While in Guam, my new wife and I had a son born in 1981. He now lives in Georgia. I have my four children living with their mother in Spokane, Washington. I also have seven grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.”
For the most part, Davis lived an ordinary life on island until it all changed when he decided to pursue legal actions against the plebiscite law. For many years, Davis had attempted to challenge the law, but no local attorney would take his case on a pro bono basis. He contacted many law firms on Guam, but in a community where no one wished to be alienated, nobody would touch the emotionally charged suit. Davis pursued the battle all by himself. Those secretly supporting his cause cheered silently on the periphery.
“On the most basic level, I did it because it was the right thing to do and I knew that nobody else would come forward to do it,” he said. “My decision to pursue the issue had been made many years previously, when I recognized that the Chamorro-Only approach to indicating preference for Guam's future political status contradicted everything I believed relative to U.S. law and the Constitution. My attempt to register to vote on that issue was a statement of that belief and the refusal by the election commission was evidence of discriminatory voter policy and practice.”
Davis said he remained optimistic throughout the entire process. “This case changed forever the complexion of voting in Guam and struck a crippling blow against entrenched institutionalized government discrimination.”
Besides the plebiscite statute, Davis also had a beef with the 1975 Chamorro Land Trust Act policies that make land-use programs available only to “native Chamorros.” In 2009, Davis filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice following the Chamorro Land Trust Commission’s rejection of his application for the lease of trust land.
After tagging the land-trust law as race-based discrimination, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division gave the local government an opportunity to decide whether or not to negotiate a settlement and enter into a consent decree.
“I made it clear to the governor and senators that I will not be signing a consent decree,” Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson said in a press statement. “Both the plebiscite case and the attack upon the Chamorro Land Trust are resurrecting the old political status debate. This is good because the debate has been too quiet for too long.”
Clearly, Davis is off to yet another battle. “I realized that there are huge numbers of Guamanians who will benefit from my work and I am confident that I have their unspoken thanks as well,” he said. “I had many congratulatory notes from those who recognized what I'd been able to do, many of whom I don't know personally. I do have a feeling of deep gratification and pride of accomplishment.” (This article was published in the July issue of our print edition)