‘Aggressively fair’ Philly government reporter Dave Davies retires after 37 years

Even the politicians he hounded for decades say they respect his work.

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Twitter / @DaveDaviesWHYY
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Bob Brady still remembers when Dave Davies ruined his Thanksgiving dinner in 1987.

The head of the Philadelphia Democratic party had just negotiated five high-profile appointments of judges with then-Gov. Bob Casey Sr., who forbid Brady from publicly discussing the details.

So when Davies, then a young broadcast reporter for KYW Newsradio, tracked him down, Brady ignored question after question as he walked away. The story about the powerbroker’s silent treatment aired just in time for the holiday.

“He beat me up all day and he ruined my Thanksgiving Day dinner,” Brady recalled.

That refusal to let up would become a signature for Davies, who on Friday announced the end of a 37-year-career chronicling politics and government.

Instead of making enemies out of those he covered, however, Davies’ tenacity earned him respect. Though Brady’s attorney once threatened to sue him over an investigation, according to Davies, the former congressman said he always returned the reporter’s phone calls without hesitation.

Why? Brady repeated one word.

“Fair,” he said.

It’s a descriptor so often assigned to Davies — “aggressively fair,” one observer added — as to be nearly synonymous with his name, even among the politicians he has watchdogged for the entirety of their careers.

“There’s no question,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans. “He’s always been top shelf as a reporter and as a person.”

In addition to his award-winning journalism, Davies, 66, has gained widespread recognition as the guest host for Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. And those fans shouldn’t worry — he is only stepping away from beat reporting, so he will continue his role on the nationally syndicated show.

When it comes to the local newsroom, however, Davies is retiring. He does so leaving an adoring group of fans and colleagues who know him for his accomplished journalism.

He has covered eight mayor’s races, five administrations and countless scandals, as well as daily life in the city, from Mummers Parades to historical news events like the 1985 MOVE bombing.

Front page of the Daily News on May 11, 1990, where Davies' first byline for the paper appeared front page.

The front page of Philadelphia Daily News on May 11, 1990, where Davies' first story for the paper appeared.

Turned down at the Inquirer

Davies’ path to journalism was not straightforward. Raised on the Gulf Coast of Texas, he followed a girlfriend to Philadelphia in 1975, where he worked a menagerie of jobs as a welder, a cab driver and a teacher at an all-girls school.

He was 28 when he broke into journalism as an intern for WHYY and a reporter for a now-defunct bilingual print publication in Fishtown and Kensington, before moving on to KYW.

Seeking an entry into print journalism, Davies was turned down for a job at the Inquirer, he recalled, before landing a City Hall post at the then-competitor Daily News. His first story for them landed front page on the May 11, 1990 edition of the tabloid — an exclusive look at then-Mayor Wilson Goode’s pitch for a new income tax. He spent two decades with the paper before returning to WHYY in 2009.

Attempts to locate sources who would challenge Davies’ reputation as a journalist were entirely unsuccessful.

Even John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty had nice things to say. Sure, there was that time during a heated 2005 interview when the powerful labor leader once threatened to shove a newspaper down Davies’ throat. But on Friday, he personally called Davies to deliver his best wishes on retirement.

Dave Davies wearing part of his extensive collection of press passes

Dave Davies wearing part of his extensive collection of press passes

Molly Seavy-Nesper / Fresh Air

‘Life is complicated’

In an interview, Davies told Billy Penn he has enjoyed observing Philadelphia’s progress over the decades. The city has adopted some of the most aggressive campaign finance and pay-to-play laws in the country, he said, and our government is better for them.

Asked about his proudest achievement as a reporter, he responded in characteristically measured fashion.

“Life is complicated. Politics is complicated. Government is complicated,” Davies said. “I’ve always tried to get to the bottom of everything I looked into and report it thoroughly and fairly.”

He filed his final story as a daily reporter on Thursday: a dispatch from a contentious Council hearing on ethics reforms in Delaware County.

It will live on among the thousands of others in the archives that tell Philadelphia’s story, which might have taken a different path if not for the journalism of Dave Davies.

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