So many politicians in Washington hang onto office so long that somebody once said that the only true cure for Potomac fever is embalming fluid. That or losing an election. So the decision last year by Tom Davis, the seven-term congressman from Northern Virginia, to give up his seat and go into private life was unexpected. Davis began positioning himself for a career in politics from an early age and has spent most of his adult life in elected office.
Born in Minot, North Dakota, where his father was a college professor, he grew up in Northern Virginia. Instead of attending a regular high school, he spent four years as a Senate page in the Capitol Page School, serving as class president. After graduating with honors in political science from Amherst in 1971, he followed a future politician’s career track—University of Virginia law school, officer-candidate school with active-duty and reserve stints in the Army, then a job as general counsel at PRC, one of Northern Virginia’s early high-tech companies.
Davis was first elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at age 30 and served 12 years before being elected chair in 1991. His rise continued with his election to Congress in 1994.
He spent 14 years in the House working on issues directly related to his suburban constituents, including federal employment and contracting, technology, and transportation. Assigned as a freshman to be chair of a subcommittee dealing with the District when the city was in financial collapse, he made a reputation as a friend of DC. He sponsored legislation to put the District under a financial-control board, which allowed it to regain its management powers in a few years. He also worked on closing Lorton prison and sponsored school vouchers, college-tuition subsidies for DC students, and economic-development measures helpful to the city.
Though a moderate, Davis took on a partisan role as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, raising money and recruiting candidates from 1998 to 2002. He had hoped last year to win the Senate seat vacated by John Warner but was blocked by conservatives in his party who nominated former governor Jim Gilmore, who went on to be badly beaten by Mark Warner. Davis then announced he wouldn’t seek reelection to the House. After leaving Congress he’ll be working in the Washington office of the Deloitte consulting firm and teaching a course in politics at George Mason University.
In his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by boxes as he prepared to leave office, we talked about what he’s learned.
What’s hardest about serving in Congress?
The fact that you’re not in control of your own schedule. You’d put your money down for a vacation, and all of a sudden you’d be in session. It makes it hard on those around you. Since I wasn’t running for reelection this year, I would just leave early and go to a ball game instead of sticking around on a 410-to-3 vote. My wife and I have gone to movies and done things we could never do before because of the schedule.
What are the differences between being a county supervisor and being a congressman?
I loved being a supervisor. I really felt relevant and important. You’re all over your neighborhoods; you know everybody in your district. In Congress, you have a much larger area to cover, with many more constituents, and you don’t get the kind of penetration down to the block level. As a supervisor, you ring doorbells for reelection. That’s wasted in Congress when you have 680,000 constituents—you can’t ring enough bells. So you work grocery stores, and you meet them in larger public places. It’s much more impersonal.
As a supervisor, you have to make sure the school bus picks kids up on time and that the water’s running. In Congress, there’s no direct responsibility for anything. You have a lot of decisions driven by a handful of people. I’m lucky that I was part of the Republican leadership for two terms and was a committee chairman for two terms.
What have been the biggest changes in the region?
When I was elected to the county board in 1979, Fairfax didn’t have any four-star hotels. I’ll bet hotel rooms were still renting by the hour back then. Nobody used Dulles airport. You could have gotten a suntan out there with your towel on the runway. There was no toll road.
The county started to turn around under Jack Herrity. Then we went through a hiatus where Audrey Moore tried to shut down growth. I came in with a pro-business plan. The Democrats who have followed me have kept that up. The region has grown tremendously, but Fairfax in particular has been an economic engine, with Fortune 500 companies and tech people moving in. It’s a very prosperous place and probably the envy of most of the world.