In Va., Congress, Davis Has Ruled From the Cen­ter

The Washington Post - - Metro - By Bill Turque

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.

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