News & Politics

Why Is Tom Davis Smiling?

He was one of the area’s most powerful pols—and maybe the most constructive. He helped make Northern Virginia a booming region and helped keep DC from going broke. Now he’s left Congress.

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.

Why did you become such a supporter of DC when your predecessors from Northern Virginia were not?

Joel Broyhill was part of the business community out there, but he was Old South. He was born down in Hopewell. They called him the Republican wing of the Byrd machine. He was there during the civil-rights era, and he voted against those bills. Stan Parris also loved to beat up on the city.

When you run a local government like I did in Fairfax, it changes your perspective. And I got a regional view as president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. I saw that the destinies of DC and the suburbs were actually intertwined. They weren’t averse to each other. I also was generationally very different.

I was handed a hot potato as chairman of the DC subcommittee when the city was in financial trouble. I talked to everybody about it, and we were able to figure out a way through it. I was the guy who introduced the financial-control-board bill and held the hearings and took the hits, but I had a lot of help and a lot of advice.

Had Eleanor Holmes Norton decided to hot-dog this thing for the city, it would have been ugly and nasty, with much different results. But she wanted to be constructive. Even Mayor Barry did. He knew he was going to lose power. My Republican leadership didn’t know what to do with the city. They gave me leeway to try to make some decisions that would work.

DC elected a different brand of leader in Tony Williams and now Adrian Fenty. These guys are taking on tough issues. They’re not just sitting around issuing press releases. They’ve stepped up to the plate.

What’s your biggest disappointment for the region?

Not getting DC voting rights through and, frankly, not having the Bush administration embrace it. I talked to the President about this. I don’t understand how you can think democracy in Baghdad is important and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on it and deny democracy in the nation’s capital. I understand the politics, but there are some things to me that are above politics. So I’m very disappointed. If President Bush had gotten behind this bill, it would have been marvelous. A great legacy for him.

Will it pass now?

I think in the next session, with Democratic majorities in Congress and Obama in the White House, DC will get a vote in the House. If DC were a Republican town, the Republicans would be screaming for a vote for DC, and the Democrats would be opposing it. Partisanship drives a lot of decisions that are made here. I was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee twice, so I know how to be partisan. But I think when it comes to legislation, when it comes to passing laws, it’s time to get this done. When the election is over, we should be grownups and try to work together.

Your biggest accomplishment for the region?

I think the Metro bill we just got through. That will be $1.5 billion over the next ten years. We’ve got local matching funds. We’ve got federal representation on the Metro board. We have an independent inspector general for Metro. All of which were needed. Also money for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Closing the Lorton prison was huge. Widening Route 123. Obviously, the DC control-board bill was important. DC College Access has helped thousands of kids from DC go to college at any of our nation’s public universities because they pay in-state tuition. Also, getting dental and vision benefits added for federal employees.

How has DC changed?

Back in 1979, when I was elected to the county board, nobody went to downtown DC. We didn’t have a baseball team. The hockey team and the basketball team were out in Prince George’s County. You did have the Redskins downtown if you were lucky enough to get tickets. It was a place becoming a hollowed-out shell.

Today downtown DC is vibrant. You’ve got the convention center, the Caps and Wizards, New York Avenue. There’s investment coming back in. It’s all redeveloping. We passed special tax breaks for enterprise zones. We gave first-time homebuyers a tax credit. The residential areas are coming back. The District has finally had a couple of mayors who understand economics. I think the city’s a very exciting place right now.

Why was DC in such bad shape?

The untold story of the 1980s is that it drove the black middle class out of the city to Prince George’s County. Marion Barry came in and taxed the heck out of people and redistributed income. As a result, you had a huge poor class, a very wealthy class, and almost no middle class. I think there was a 15-year period where they didn’t even open a new grocery store in the city. It lost its bond rating, and the place collapsed economically.

What do you think of Adrian Fenty’s performance?

The thing I like about Adrian Fenty is the fact that he handed the schools over to Michelle Rhee, and he stood behind her. The schools are the most difficult part of all the city’s problems to solve.

I think Rhee is doing a great job. The school system couldn’t even order textbooks on time for years. The roofs were leaking. The teachers were not trained. It’s like the automakers in Detroit—you need to turn it upside down and inside out. That’s what she’s doing. And Fenty stood behind her. He didn’t back off the first time people started picketing. The DC school system has been an embarrassment, and they’re putting it on the right track.

Who were your best friends in Congress?

Frank Wolf, David Dreier, Jim Moran.

Jim and I share baseball tickets, and our wives are friends. His son worked for me last summer. We’ve done some long-distance races together. Jim is a good runner, but we did one when he wasn’t in the best of shape. We started running together, but he said, ‘Go ahead, I’m holding you up.’ As we got farther behind and everybody was passing us, I told him we could not stop unless we get passed by the guy who runs a lot of these races while juggling. About two minutes later, the juggler passed us.

What’s the most important thing government should be doing?

Government spends too much time redistributing income and not enough time doing the basics. That means building highways and other infrastructure, investing in education, and research and development. Those are the future.

Will we have a problem replacing retiring federal employees?

It is a big problem. John Kennedy talked about asking not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, and that inspired lots of people to come to Washington to work in government. We’ve lost that by sitting up here and ridiculing federal employees as pointy-headed bureaucrats. They’re only following the laws that Congress passed. There are a lot of dedicated people in the federal government who are not 9-to-5. They’re working late; they’re underappreciated. They could have gone out in the private sector and tripled their salary.

Will Interstate 66 inside the Beltway be widened?

I think it ought to be widened. People have talked about it, but nothing gets done. The bottom line is Democrats are incapable of widening 66 inside the Beltway because Arlington is a Democratic enclave, and the political leaders in Arlington are opposed to it. So you’ll continue to get traffic jams. They give it rhetoric, but they have not done anything.

Would you favor ending the limitation on building heights in DC?

To boost economic development, I would remove the height limit. I wouldn’t do it along the flight path of the airport but certainly downtown.

Do you think it’s going to happen?

No. I just think there’s too much inertia.

What’s our biggest environmental problem?

The Chesapeake Bay. When John Smith came here in the 17th century, you could look straight down in the bay 20 feet or more and see the bottom. We’ve got to put restrictions on development around the edges of the bay to prevent runoff.

Are you bitter about being pushed aside by conservatives in the Republican Party for the Senate nomination?

Given the kind of election year it turned out to be, with the Democrats driving turnout, they probably did me a favor because it gave me a reason not to run. I think it would have been a much different, much closer race between Mark Warner and me. But “close” doesn’t get it; you’ve got to win.

I was running more out of duty than ambition. I’d chaired John Warner’s campaign; we were in the same mold. He was leaving. It was a natural fit. But the party was never comfortable with Warner. They wanted somebody more conservative. I just decided it’s time for me to do something else. But I’m not bitter about it. You take the hand that’s dealt you.

What do Republicans have to do to make a comeback?

They’ve got to be an open party. They need to be a welcoming party. Right now there’s almost a litmus test if you want to be a Republican: against abortion, against taxes. That may make you a nice private club, but it’s not going to allow you to win the majority, and ultimately parties are about winning elections.

Any regrets about retiring from Congress?

There are three ways to leave office, and two of them aren’t very pleasant. I’m leaving on my own terms, and that’s the way you want to do it. I don’t regret for a minute my decision to leave. Take a look at the change in the political winds. I’m not an obstructionist, which is basically what Republicans are going to be over the next couple of years. I’m almost 60—if I’m ever going to make any money, I need to get out now.

Any advice for the Nationals?

The dumbest thing they did was trade Brian Schneider and then sign Paul Lo Duca. Ryan Zimmerman is the most underpaid player in the major leagues right now, so he needs to be re-signed.

What have you learned?

First, there’s a lot I don’t know. You ought to be constantly asking questions.

Second, you need to take people as they are. Don’t try to change them; don’t try to wish they would do something. Just take them as they are and deal with them.

Third, up here on Capitol Hill, you’ve got to be patient, and getting angry is never beneficial.

This article is from the February 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.