Rep. Susan Davis battles a Middle Eastern sandwich

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Mama’s Bakery and Lebanese Deli is not the kind of place you know about unless you know about it. It’s a place you discover. Tucked away on a residential street in a slightly seedy San Diego neighborhood, it’s run out of an old house, with the kitchen in the former garage and a corrugated plastic-roofed dining patio in the onetime yard. In short, it’s a real hole in the wall.

It’s Veterans Day, and business at the Middle Eastern joint is sluggish. A sedan pulls up, and Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) emerges resplendent in a tailored red knit suit and blue-and-white scarf. She apologizes for her out-of-place formality — she’d much rather be in jeans — but her day is packed with official duties. She has already marched in the Veterans Day parade downtown and toured the new gardens at a veterans memorial. After a quick lunch break, she’ll give a speech to seniors and veterans in her district.

That Davis chose this spot for lunch — that she even knew of it — seems suspect, maybe a gimmick devised to make her look like a woman of the people. But it turns out not to be.

“My son is a librarian, and he works at the library right around the corner,” she explains. Davis admits she’s pretty clueless about San Diego’s culinary offerings, which have blossomed over the past decade — about the time she began spending most of her time away, first in Sacramento for three terms in the state Assembly, then in Washington since 2000.

But she knew this place was good, and she pores over the menu and offers recommendations at the counter. Davis orders the eggplant wrap and instead of ordering a drink opts for the water provided gratis on the patio. Her whole lunch comes to about $5. (Ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) she ain’t.)

After Davis begins eating her sandwich, it becomes clear this choice of eatery was no ploy. Hers is possibly the messiest wrap on earth, the kind you’d only want to eat in front of your best friend — and only at 3 a.m. after several drinks. The eggplant is peeled and deep-fried, and the homemade flatbread, while delicious, is no match for the auxiliary sandwich contents. The thing is falling apart before she takes the first bite.

But Davis manages it well, and the conversation meanders from the circumstances that brought her south from Northern California to San Diego 34 years ago to her two grandkids to trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. A little tahini sauce leaks onto her fingers, and a tomato chunk (or two) plops onto the table, but given the potential for chaos, her sandwich technique is impressive.

Conversation veers toward corrupt politicians. It’s a hot topic in San Diego; in addition to the Cunningham scandal, two local councilmen were recently convicted for bribery.

Davis, known for her peacemaking on the House floor, can’t be persuaded to dish her colleagues, but she allows that there’s “a certain atmosphere of entitlement that people gain from being in office and the feeling of power that comes with it.”

Davis says that even before the rash of trouble among San Diego politicians she was sensitive about propriety, quickly shutting down any conversation with lobbyists that drifted into quid pro quo territory.

It’s not, Davis says, that she’s worried that she might give way to temptation. Rather, it’s her way of battling a negative perception of politicians. She doesn’t believe, as most people do, that political power necessarily corrodes character, she says. Her mother-in-law was plainly horrified when Davis decided to run for state Assembly after 10 years on the local school board.

“My mother-in-law was pleased about the school board. That was accessible to her,” Davis says. “But at the state level, she thought I was leaving myself open to be in a corrupt world. She said, ‘Why would my nice Jewish daughter-in-law do such a thing? She’s a nice person!’ Why would I do something so nasty?”

By the time Davis ran for Congress, her mother-in-law’s fears that she’d be corrupted were quelled, but her early reaction is a constant reminder of how the public sees politicians.

Davis earned her master’s degree in social work — it’s a background that comes through in her approach to her congressional duties. The highlights of her trips to Iraq involve interacting with individuals, such as participating in a workshop to train Iraqi women for life in elected office.

Another highlight: getting delayed for more than three hours at a military camp near Baghdad, which gave her ample opportunity to mingle with troops and get a sense of the challenges they were facing.

“It was Christmastime, so a lot of people were pretty unhappy, and they wanted to talk about it,” she says. “A lot of this job is just taking the time to listen and seeing how you can help.”

While she discusses our troops in the Middle East, a certain Middle Eastern sandwich is imperiling Davis’s peaceful transition from lunch to speech. She has given up on the sandwich and left half of it, but grease has run through the bread and wrapper, leaked onto the table and dripped onto her skirt. What to do? Battle the stain? Or surrender and stop home to change on the way to the next event?

There will probably be a podium at the event, and after rubbing some club soda on it, the spot’s not terribly noticeable. She decides to let her staffer advise her when he comes to pick her up.

In a follow-up a few weeks later, Davis says she ultimately opted to go home and change so that she wouldn’t be confined to the podium. “In speeches, I try to engage the audience, get their experience,” she says. “I changed because I was really self-conscious.”