In Va., Congress, Davis Has Ruled From the Center
Tom Davis was just 30 when he ran his first race in 1979 for a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that Democrats had held for almost a decade.
The lawyer, who had grown up in Arlington County, was a bred-in-the-bone Republican. His grandfather was undersecretary of the Department of the Interior under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nebraska’s GOP senators made him a page at 14. While at the University of Virginia law school, he toured college campuses to debate professors on behalf of President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 reelection effort.
As a first-time candidate almost three decades ago, he crushed his opponent in the Mason District by placing himself firmly in the center.
“There is no liberal or conservative approach when it comes to neighborhood problems,” Davis said at the time.
He announced yesterday that he will retire from Congress at the end of the year.
That message set the tone for his career in Fairfax
County and Washington. Moderate, pragmatic and canny, Davis was willing to puncture party orthodoxy and reach across partisan lines to get things done.
“To me, Tom is what I think Republicans ought to be,” said Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). “People who believe in limited government but who also believe that there is a role for government.”
Critics on the left said his moderation was often equivocation and his bipartisanship a veneer that covered a voting record largely faithful to President Bush and the Republican leadership. His close relationship with Northern Virginia defense and tech contractors, who lavished him with campaign contributions while they prospered on his watch, also raised flags.
The right wing of his party viewed his rise with suspicion because of his left-of-conservative mainstream positions on issues in- cluding abortion and gun control.
But Davis saw himself as a peacemaker, a tiller of common ground, and he often was. As Fairfax County Board chairman in the early 1990s, he tried to steer a middle course on growth and land-use issues between politically potent developers and neighborhood groups.
When he worked for congressional passage of the D.C. Financial Control Board Act, which temporarily stripped the Washington of its selfgoverning powers, he called it “tough love” for the unraveling city government. He also worked for years, albeit unsuccessfully, to create a voting seat for the District in the U.S. House.
Davis has never disputed the idea that his compulsion to please stretches to a childhood spent as the family peacemaker, dealing with an alcoholic father prone to spasms of domestic violence and stretches in jail.
A political life in the middle, although not nearly as turbulent, comes with its own risks.
“It’s a very fine line between having 80-20 popularity to having 20-80 when you’re in the center,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “You are only a couple of decisions away from reversing the numbers.”
Davis’s numbers remained good for a long time.
He brought federal meat and potatoes to his district, including money for the Springfield Mixing Bowl. Along with U.S. Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (DVa.), he led the push to close the District’s Lorton Correctional Complex.
He raised buckets of money for House Republicans and mentored young politicians, trying to imbue them with his 24-7 passion for grassroots politics — exceeded only by his passion for baseball.
“He was kind of the political godfather of Northern Virginia politics for a long number of years,” said Fairfax Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (RSpringfield).
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) was running his first race for the General Assembly in 1993 when a heavy snowstorm kept him at home.
“Davis calls me and asks what’s up. I tell him I’m watching TV,” Albo recalled. “He said, ‘That means everybody’s home! Get out there and knock on some doors!’ He was right. Everybody was home.”
Colleagues said Davis’s mastery of electoral history is nothing short of preternatural. “He can tell you what the margin was for some race in North Dakota in 1956,” Wolf said. “I don’t know anyone who knows more about government and politics, and he loves it.”
As head of the National Republican Campaign Committee in 2001, he cut a redistricting deal with California state Democrats that kept the number of seats for each party the same at a time when Democrats were expecting big gains. “He knew the [district] lines, the towns and counties, the whole nine yards,” said former chief of staff John Hishta.
That year, Davis worked with Wolf and Moran on how to draw congressional district boundaries best suited to protecting their seats. Moran recalled the meeting in which Davis gave him a portion of the diverse Route 7 corridor for his district.
“He said, ‘Jim, this is a mix of blacks, browns, immigrants, Muslims and gay activists and everything else. They’re your kind of people. You’re going to love them.’ ”
Although Davis became a national party figure, he played local kingmaker with limited success. In 2003, he mentored and helped subsidize Republican Mychele B. Brickner in her unsuccessful race against thenProvidence Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D) for the Fairfax County Board chairmanship. Same for Prince William Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton’s unsuccessful bid in 2005 for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
And there was the defeat last year of his wife, former state senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (RFairfax), who was unseated by J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen in Northern Virginia’s rising Democratic tide.
With a year left in office, Davis faces the prospect of leaving behind major pieces of unfinished business. His work toward a congressional vote for the District has come to naught. And he and other members of Northern Virginia’s congressional delegation have been unable to navigate the proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport through the Department of Transportation, which said last week that the $5 billion link would probably not qualify for federal funding.
Supporters said they understood Davis’s decision to retire but were happy to hear that he left the door open. “It’s kind of hard to imagine politics in Northern Virginia without Tom,” said Frey, a Fairfax supervisor.
Just as difficult, he said, as imagining Davis without Northern Virginia politics.
“If they’d let him be shortstop for the Nationals, I can see him giving up politics. Other than that . . . ”
U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said that he will leave Congress.