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Rita P. Davis
Rita P. Davis, legal counsel to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, is shown June 11 in her office in Richmond. (John McDonnell, The Washington Post via AP)

Lee statue case devised by lawyer descended from slaves

Editor’s note: This is an Associated Press Member Exchange feature.

RICHMOND, Va. — It was an explosive question, delivered by text message, and Rita Davis was ready for it: Could the governor simply take down Richmond’s divisive statue of Robert E. Lee?

As legal counsel to Gov. Ralph Northam, Davis had been researching that very topic for a year. Now it was being posed by her colleague, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, who had just watched a crowd angry about police violence against African Americans gather outside a state office building as Northam (D) held a news conference inside.

Moran was thinking of Charlottesville in 2017, when white supremacists rallied around a statue of Lee and a young counterprotester was killed. Richmond’s even bigger monument was now the focal point of demonstrations. What if alt-right groups confronted them? It could be a disaster.

So Moran asked Davis and chief of staff Clark Mercer whether Northam could remove it. And Davis was unequivocal: Yes. The law was on his side.

Two days later, Northam announced the statue would come down, triggering a fusillade of lawsuits and intensifying the spotlight on the monument amid a national reckoning over racial injustice.

At the heart of the issue in Richmond is Davis, who sees her whole career as building toward this moment.

No woman had served as top legal adviser to a Virginia governor before she got the job in 2018. Davis, 48, knew the reverence attached to Lee, because she had walked by his tomb every day as a student at Washington and Lee University. She had been a patrol officer in conservative Lynchburg and believed in law and order.

And she was black and felt deeply the need for change. All those elements, she believed, were coming together in one unexpected event.

“It does seem like it is fortuitous, that maybe somehow my experience . . . will contribute to this landscape of change in Virginia history,” she said in an interview.

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It won’t be easy. On June 18, Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo extended an injunction that bars the statue’s removal, giving opponents more time to save it and making clear that he took a dim view of Northam’s action.

Davis won’t publicly discuss Northam’s legal strategy for the upcoming court showdown, and it’s up to the state attorney general’s office to argue the case. But she is adamant, after her year of research, that the law gives the governor authority to act.

“When you get to the issue of public art, it is public speech,” Davis said, adding that communities and their elected leaders should be the ones who answer the question: “Who are we going to say we revere, and for what?”

The administration is so confident in her position that it attempted to take down the statue quietly, before Northam announced it. But they couldn’t find a Virginia-based crane company willing to take on the controversial job, Mercer said.

“It was pretty disappointing. We got a lot of colorful comments,” he said, adding that at one company, the younger generation was willing, but the older owners threatened to disown them if they went ahead.

With word getting out, Northam told the world on June 4 that the statue would come down.

Once the lawsuits hit, the governor pledged to fight. He asked Davis — the great-great-granddaughter of enslaved people — to explain his position at a news conference. Her voice broke with emotion as she said that the statue was designed to “minimize a devastating evil” and that removing it “takes us a step closer to reclaiming the truth of Virginia’s history . . . for all Virginians.”

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Even in a diverse administration, she stood out at the news conference, with her gold pendant that says “Boss” and glittery shoes decorated with comic book graphics and the word “POW!”

The image is a long way from her days as an undergraduate. Raised in rural Bedford County — her mother was a seamstress, her father a mechanic — Davis chose Washington and Lee because it looked like the beautiful ideal of a college campus. A scholarship enabled her to be the first in her family to attend college, and she went without knowing that the school was Lee’s final resting place. He had served as its president during the last years of his life after the Civil War.

One of only a handful of black students there in the early 1990s, Davis recalls sitting meekly in the dining hall as fraternity brothers paraded through in Confederate uniforms. It didn’t occur to her to speak up.

After graduating with an English degree, Davis wanted real-world work experience before going to law school. Her father had dreamed of being a police officer but grew up in a time when blacks in rural Virginia had few such opportunities. She decided to give it a try — especially after her father told her she wasn’t tough enough.

Davis got a job with the police department in Lynchburg, a city of 82,000 best known as the home of the late evangelist Jerry Falwell and his Liberty University.

Quiet and studious, she pushed herself into uncomfortable areas — working undercover, posing as a drug dealer and a prostitute.

“I think she may have been the only female and perhaps the only African American on the unit at that point,” said K. Todd Swisher, who worked with Davis on the vice squad and now is Lynchburg’s circuit court clerk. “But she handled it all very well.”

Davis said she was tempted to stay, but left after 3 ½ years for a rapid climb up a traditional ladder: law degree from the University of Richmond, then 15 years at a prestigious firm in the capital. Eventually, she joined the state attorney general’s office to head the trial section of the Civil Litigation Division.

When Northam took office in 2018, he hired her as his legal counsel. She and her deputy and assistant became the first all-female legal team to advise a Virginia governor.

They craft language for executive orders and review every bill that comes from the General Assembly for his signature — looking for pitfalls, suggesting fixes. Where Northam is laid-back and likes to listen, Davis is more hard-driving and outspoken.

Married, with two children, she said she continually marvels at her position.

“The whole idea that I am sitting here today, not that far removed from people who were held in bondage because of the color of their skin, is amazing,” she said. “It is not lost on me, the significance of all the opportunities I have had and how far we have come as Virginians in a relatively short period of time.”

During Northam’s race-related crisis last year, when a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, Davis never wavered in her support. Insiders say she was an early defender.

“It was painful for everybody,” Davis said. But “we all signed on to this administration because we believed in the governor. . . . This crisis that happened was an opportunity for us and him to sit down and talk about: What more could we be doing?”

Northam rejected calls to resign, instead proclaiming that he would devote his term to addressing racial inequity. All department heads were asked to come up with projects. Davis said she already had pondered the question of the Lee statue but then began to “drill down” on it.

She knew the full power of Lee as a symbol. The revered gentleman from her college days, who in life had never wanted to be memorialized in a statue, was also the totem for white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville.

At the time, Virginia law prohibited localities from removing war memorials on their own property (though the General Assembly removed that prohibition this year). But Lee is on state land. As Davis and her deputies researched Northam’s authority to take it down, they used a code name for the incendiary topic: “Project Traveller,” after Lee’s horse, which is also buried at Washington and Lee.

“We came up with the plan and then just sort of sat on it to wait for the right time,” she said.

That turned out to be early this month, when police brutality against blacks touched off protests around the country.

Some legal scholars say the state’s case is uncertain. The lawsuit that led to the injunction cites the 1890 deed conveying the site to the state, which stipulates that the statue must be “affectionately” preserved. Other court cases have reached a variety of conclusions on such language, said Alex M. Johnson Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in real estate and race issues.

“There is no prevailing legal norm that would say, ‘Oh yeah, this is a slam dunk,’ ” Johnson said. He added, though, that the issue could wind up moot if the state invokes eminent domain and simply seizes the statue in the public interest.

Davis said she is happy to wait for the case to play out. In some ways, she said, it’s better for the legal system to reach what she says is an inevitable conclusion than for the statue to simply disappear overnight.

“I want this statue to come down,” she said, “but I want it to come down because there is a consensus in Virginia saying that that’s not who we are anymore.”

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