The District’s worst nightmare has come true. A white, wealthy, suburbanite Republican holds vast power over the city. So what? Rep. Tom Davis’ middle-of-the-road politics are just what Washington needs.
On the dank, snow-melting afternoon of Jan. 18, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III leaves his Capitol Hill office, climbs into his Subaru Legacy, and heads for Fairfax County. It’s a familiar commute, past the sterile skyscrapers of Rosslyn and Ballston, through the scruffy, close-in burbs of Arlington, and into Fairfax County near the rumpled strip malls of Seven Corners.
Eventually Davis heads west, taking the Dulles toll road past Tysons Corner, the largest concentration of commercial real estate between Washington and Atlanta, and into the residential exurbs. At 7:30 p.m., right on time, Davis bounces over the speed bumps in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn. He’s in Herndon, a town only 20 miles, but a world away, from Washington. On the western end of Fairfax County, Herndon is the edge of Edge City.
Davis strides into the hotel and is led to an all-pastel conference room where 14 members of the Greater Herndon Jaycees have gathered. All eyes turn to the door when Davis enters, and a hush falls. He’s a good three inches taller than everyone else in the room, a dashing figure in his navy pinstripes. It’s a reverent and Republican crowd that will later kiddingly chide the Jaycees’ president for forgetting the opening Pledge of Allegiance and prayer.
Davis self-assuredly melts the group with a joke. (“I’m a former member of the Falls Church Jaycees. You talk about politics—now that was real politics.”) Then he slides into the silken speech of a House Republican, his cadence rising and falling perfectly over the vernacular of the new congressional culture: “…scored by the CBO…another government shutdown…the president’s plan versus our plan….” Davis wraps himself in the jargon of power. Two minutes into his mile-a-minute talk, you realize that he’s having a great time.
It’s commonly said in Fairfax and Prince William Counties, from which Davis’ 11th Congressional District is carved, that no one ever goes to D.C.—except, of course, to parachute in for work.
After all, fleeing Washingtonians account for a good portion of Northern Virginia’s astonishing growth over the last three decades. Fairfax’s population has nearly doubled since 1970, and it’s easy to see why. Suburban eateries and cineplexes provide plenty of entertainment, thank you, without parking problems, pothole problems, and murder-capital-of-the-world problems. For those in the 11th District who don’t work in D.C.—nearly 80 percent of Fairfax residents—the city might as well be on Mars.
Having campaigned in Fairfax for 15 years while he served on its board of supervisors, Davis speaks the lingo of suburban culture as well: He says, for example, that the Democratic representatives who don’t want to balance the budget “come from districts where they like the federal government spending money. Many of them are inner-city districts and the members there tend to be quite, quite liberal.”
And: “I didn’t think anything could be worse than getting appointed chairman of the District of Columbia [sub]committee.” A chorus of understanding chuckles rises. He says Washington has been chasing away its tax base for years, and now the city is paying for it. Recently, he says, “they couldn’t even get their snowplows out.” A woman sitting in the front row shakes her head in horror.
And yet Davis—the county’s most popular politician in years (and possibly its most popular Republican ever)—did ascend to the chairmanship of the Government Reform and Oversight D.C. subcommittee last year. Capitol Hill noted Davis’ appointment because it’s rare for freshmen to be given chairmanships.
But for District residents, Davis’ appointment was more than a historical footnote. Because the city has been teetering on the brink of default—and because fellow Republicans trust Davis, a local boy, to know what’s right for D.C.—he wields far more power over District affairs than any congressman in a generation. More than any other single person, Davis is responsible for the compromises that gave the city the control board, a chief financial officer, and an inspector general, but didn’t completely eviscerate home rule.
Davis inspires ambivalence. He’s a centrist, but he’s slick. He shouldn’t be running the District—no non-Washingtonian should. But if you accept the District’s status as a democratic stepchild, Davis seems like just what the city needs. As Mayor Marion Barry grandstands and conservative Republicans demand a receiver to rule the city, Davis’ savvy moderation might just save the District.
Last spring, members of Congress deadlocked over a key provision in the new control board law. Hard-line Republicans wanted to straitjacket District officials with a pair of control board–appointed officers who would have near-total veto power over D.C. Council bills and Barry administration proposals. As their militaristic titles suggested, the chief financial officer (CFO) and inspector general (IG) would act as de facto receivers.
Sympathetic Democrats and D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), wanted the mayor—not the control board—to have authority to both hire and, if necessary, fire them. “What we wanted to do was leave the District with just a little dignity and yet do the job,” says Norton.
But Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) and other Republicans said that allowing the city to hire and fire the CFO and IG would emasculate the positions. A rock-ribbed conservative, Walsh chairs the House D.C. subcommittee under the Appropriations Committee. “I wanted a control board with an emphasis on control,” Walsh says gruffly. “Norton and her people didn’t want an independent CFO and IG.”
Enter Tom Davis. “Davis suggested the compromise—that the mayor hire and the control board be able to fire these positions,” says Walsh.
It was one of a hundred deals Davis brokered last year for D.C., and the city needed all of them. When Republicans took control of Congress, fearful Democrats warned of nightmarish conservative experiments planned for the D.C. laboratory. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, teamed with the excitable ideologues of the freshman class and GOP veterans yearning to win D.C. battles they had long lost, seemed capable of trampling home rule with impunity. Lorton would be sold, every municipal function short of police protection would be privatized, kids would get city money to go to private schools—a GOP Disneyland.
And even Davis’ appointment as chairman of the D.C. subcommittee seemed suspect, since it created a potential conflict of interest. While his Fairfax background gave him broad knowledge of D.C. issues, it also meant that on matters where the 11th District and the District of Columbia clashed, Davis wouldn’t hesitate to put the county “first and foremost,” as he puts it.
For example, he guffaws at any mention of a commuter tax, which is about as popular as the flu in his district. But even with less– weighty decisions, such as how to manage the frail Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant—which serves both D.C. and Fairfax, among other jurisdictions—Davis’ loyalty to home could hurt D.C.
“[A commuter tax] would never come up, anyway,” acknowledges Norton. “It’s the smaller issues that come up that you worry about, and so you figure that, well, your best bet is to have somebody on the committee who has no ax to grind and couldn’t conceivably have an ax to grind.”
And it seemed unlikely that Davis could ever have much street cred in D.C. His family, for example, is everything most District families aren’t: The three children, Carlton, 14, Pamela, 10, and Shelley, 8, have two married parents, both professionals (Davis’ wife, Margaret “Peggy” Davis, is a gynecologist). Only 10 percent of the District’s families are married-couple families with kids.
After growing up in Northern Virginia, Davis worked as a lawyer and executive with PRC Inc.—a high-tech firm in McLean—until leaving for Congress. He hails from a district whose median household income, about $54,300, is 75 percent higher than D.C.’s. The city’s population is 65 percent black; the 11th District’s population is 7 percent black. And as Davis himself puts it, his constituents “didn’t move to the suburbs to be near the city; people move to the suburbs to be away from the city.”
Davis plays up his own suburban lifestyle for political advantage. “He’s very pleasant, outgoing, committed to his family, that kind of thing,” says Christopher Bright, who worked for Davis on the board of supervisors. “His son’s Little League, his daughter’s dance classes—he talked about those things, and they connected with people. He’s much what you would expect a typical suburban father to be—they have a station wagon, the whole bit.”
In addition, Virginia has long been home to D.C. haters like former Reps. Stan Parris and Joel Broyhill, Republicans who were infamous for their racially charged tirades against the city, going back to the ’60s. As late as 1984, even Davis swiped at the city, to his constituents’ delight: “I know [Fairfax County] people who never set foot in D.C.,” he told the Washington Post. “Why should they? We have everything here. They go to Baltimore before they go to Washington. At least [Baltimore] has the Orioles.”
Virginia is a different state today, and Davis says his 1984 remark doesn’t reflect his current feelings toward Washington. “You end up growing in the job,” he says.
Moreover, Davis says he was right for the job. “There are issues in which the interests of the suburbs are adverse to the interests of the city, even though we are more intertwined. But you have to look at it this way: [Do] the city and the suburbs want somebody presiding over this committee who gets on a plane and [leaves the region] on the weekend, and doesn’t care what happens here over the weekend, or if things blow up, or whatever? Do they want that, or do they want somebody who recognizes the interdependency of the parts, even though, when push comes to shove, their constituency base is going to pull them toward the suburbs versus the city?”
In the end, of course, it’s a moot question. Davis serves on the subcommittee at Gingrich’s pleasure, and what the District wants doesn’t matter.
Davis’ power is immense. As chairman, he can almost single-handedly decide which issues come before the subcommittee, and thus which areas of D.C. governance Congress will attack next. He has to sign off on any budget bill and any controversial D.C. initiatives. (Davis, for example, is already hinting that Congress will kill a new city provision that would prevent Virginia and Maryland taxicabs from picking up D.C. passengers after bringing suburban passengers into the city.)
In a sense, Davis represents the unexpected and unlikely fulfillment of a conspiracy theory embraced by some Washingtonians in the 1970s—that whites were devising “The Plan” to steal the District back from black leaders. In part, the phrase played off old cultural references to “The Man.” These theorists weren’t taken too seriously, but Davis might just be a nice-guy version of The Man.
Even so, Davis turned out to be the best that home rule advocates could have hoped for in the Republican climate. Even liberal District officials acknowledge that Davis, especially by comparison to other Republicans, is “a friend of the District,” as Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. (D) puts it. “Without him, I don’t know where we would be,” Thomas gushes.
Council staffers, who tend to be more candid, confirm that councilmembers were pleasantly surprised by Davis. “He’s not as awful as we thought he might be,” says one.
“Sure, it’s a rich, suburban county, and we’re a poor, urban component of the region,” says a Barry administration official. “But right now, our problems are the kinds that require cooperation.”
Norton praises Davis for “respecting home rule” and for working with her to disentangle operations of the District government from stalled federal budget negotiations.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous (D) says Davis’ popularity with D.C. pols lies in his moderate approach. “He’s not a zealot. He’s not just bashing D.C. for the sake of it, and he could get away with that in his district,” Chavous says. “He’s a far cry better than Stan Parris.”
Part of Davis’ appeal undoubtedly derives from his furious networking, a basic political skill that both raises his visibility and maintains his reputation among friends and opponents alike as a sweet guy. (Like another famous Southern politician, Davis began his schmoozing early: His college friendship with David Eisenhower helped him snag a Nixon White House internship.)
District officials say they can count on Davis to return their calls. “While I don’t always agree with the Republicans as a whole and with Davis in particular, I must applaud the way he approached dealing with District officials,” Chavous says. “It would be unheard of in a Democratic administration, but Davis and his staff made [themselves] accessible.”
Davis says he thinks this genial openness is key to achieving consensus, perhaps the most important word in his political bible. Last summer, he took Norton to Baltimore for her first baseball game. (“I ate lots of junk food and had a great time,” she says.) A few weeks ago, he invited Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (D) to lunch at a Baileys Crossroads Chinese restaurant. And Davis had Barry out to his well-appointed home, near Lake Barcroft, for his 1994 Christmas bash. A Barry staffer says the mayor has visited the 11th District “two or three times” since and “truly has a great respect for [Davis].”
“I think it’s important sometimes to get to know people outside of just the harsh political bounds,” Davis says. “It allows [a] relationship where you can talk and get to know each other, what the boundaries are, and get things done.”
Never were Davis’ charm and political acumen more critical than in last year’s congressional struggle to halt the District’s financial plunge. A dozen people who watched the maneuvering, both from the outside and the inside, say Davis battled left and right to reach a workable settlement.
A moderate by temperament, Davis shied away from stomping the District into fiscal responsibility, according to these sources. He also sympathized with local governments, having served as the top official of Fairfax County, the largest local jurisdiction, for three years. And Davis says his three years on the board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments taught him the importance of the District’s health to the region as a whole.
Still, Davis yearned to impress his House colleagues and fellow Republicans, who were eager to teach the chronically mismanaged District a lesson. Vaulted from county supervisor to congressional subcommittee chairman in less than a year, he couldn’t ignore veteran hard-liners hoping to bulldoze the Wilson Building. And Davis feared spending too much time on D.C. issues, lest he anger his constituents.
These forces jostled Davis squarely into the center, a place he’s quite comfortable. The “boomlet” crying for receivership (as Norton calls it) and those defending the status quo both had to live with a compromise: the control board. (Receivership would have meant that a congressionally appointed officer or group would “receive” the city government and manage it until the fiscal crisis was over. A receiver would have answered only to Congress, rendering elected city leaders powerless.)
In the end, Congress granted the control board extensive but not unlimited authority to handle financial and management affairs of the D.C. government. The mayor and the council were left power over nonfinancial matters and over the implementation of control board–authorized changes.
Reaching that compromise brought enormous pressures. Davis worked constantly, fueling long days with can after can of Diet Coke. “During the development and passage of the control board bill, he was just all over the place, negotiating with staff and members,” says a well-connected Republican staffer. “He would go see 15 people, then call them, then go see them again. He was convinced that he could find a consensus.”
Of course, the control board law had its critics. For example, statehood activist Lawrence Guyot, who may run against Norton this year, calls the bill “slave legislation.” “How do we differ from Germany in 1939, when fear was the order of the day?” he rants. “How in God’s name can we restore faith in politics…when we offer seriously for re-election Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mr. Davis?”
And then there’s Progressive Review Editor Sam Smith, who foolishly calls for a taxicab strike to protest Davis. “Taxicabs would disappear at random times on Capitol Hill….Or how about a D.C. Sunday in the park—except we all go to Fairfax County parks, since ours have been taken over by drug dealers?”
Less hysterically and less publicly, some Republicans on the Hill grumbled quietly that Davis had given too much ground. Occasionally these intraparty tensions flared in public, as when Walsh complained that “micromanagement is better than no management”—a repudiation of Davis’ conciliatory style.
The control board episode underlines the advantages of occupying the middle ground, advantages Davis has reaped all his political life. With impractical D.C. activists on his left and hungry Republican wolves on his right, Davis seems reasonable. As a top Barry administration official puts it, “We have things to compete about [with Davis]. But Jesus, compared to Walsh?”
Ask Tom Davis how he feels about abortion, and he’ll give you a long answer, desperately clarifying every sentence. “It’s a tragedy whenever it occurs. The government should do nothing to encourage it, and as a general proposition, I don’t believe in federal funding for abortions—as a general proposition. I think there are certain exceptions,” he says. But he wouldn’t outlaw it. But he does “agonize over it.” Yes on parental notification; no on ending abortion counseling at overseas medical posts.
Though hedging, it’s the answer that most Americans—and probably most 11th District residents—would give. In fact, his beliefs nicely match those of most voters on most issues. He favors gun control when it means banning assault weapons but not when it means arduous restrictions on handgun purchases. He opposed the wholesale reform of health care proposed by the Clintons but favors more limited measures to help cover the uninsured. Adoption for gays? Yes. Gay marriage? “Oh, I’m not ready for that,” he says with a sheepish grin.
In 1995, only 29 of 236 House Republicans voted more often than Davis with the president’s stated position, according to Congressional Quarterly vote studies released last month. And only 15 voted with a GOP majority less often than Davis, who supported his party 83 percent of the time. Davis’ independence stuck out, since party-line voting reached an 85-year high last year.
But no one back home was surprised. His entire public life, Davis has hewn to a middle course. Long a haven for Democrats, the Mason District of Fairfax County that repeatedly elected him to a seat on the board of supervisors is one of Fairfax’s most economically and racially diverse. In a nonstop blitz of door-to-door visits in his first campaign in 1979, Davis convinced Mason voters that he was a centrist who understood middle-class family pressures.
As a supervisor (from 1979 to 1994) and as board chairman (from 1991 to 1994), Davis generally supported growth—for example, he voted in 1984 for a huge expansion of Tysons Corner—but he also believed developers should pay much of the cost for road expansions and other improvements around their developments.
Davis surprised some Republicans early in his board career by pushing for affordable housing legislation and a homeless shelter. But he could also be quintessentially suburban: After carefully polling his constituents in 1984, Davis successfully crusaded for an ordinance requiring nonsmoking sections in restaurants.
Davis has profited from the same political dynamic that makes him look so reasonable on D.C. matters: The noisy extremists of both right and left complained about him. Virginia political analyst Mark J. Rozell recalls that conservative Christians derided Davis in his 1994 congressional campaign as just another “liberal Democrat.” One conservative, lawyer Steve Armstrong, opposed him for the Republican nomination.
Armstrong rallied abortion foes and “pro-family” conservatives to his side, although he says he and his supporters knew he wouldn’t win. “He hacked me off….He’s supposed to be a Republican,” Armstrong says. Instead, “Tom is a pragmatist, and I’m a realist. Pragmatists have no theory of ethics. What works is good.” Armstrong says he got about a quarter of the nominating convention votes.
To his left, Democrats like 1994 opponent Leslie Byrne try to link Davis with the Republican revolutionaries. Byrne, the one-term, fiercely pro-Clinton incumbent, tried—with almost zero success—to convince voters that Davis was a goose-stepping Gingrichite. Even today, Byrne, who’s running a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination to unseat Sen. John W. Warner (R), jabs at Davis for his near-perfect voting record on the Contract With America. She calls it “the Contract With Newt Gingrich.”
County Democratic officials grasp at rhetorical straws to bash Davis. They say he is vulnerable this year because he voted to slice the Environmental Protection Agency budget and because he voted with most Republicans on the broad budget bills that led, after Clinton’s vetoes, to the unpopular government shutdowns.
But the Contract With America was full of bread-and-butter 11th District issues—easing regulations, reforming welfare, and enacting loser-pays court reform. And Davis did oppose one contract provision, a tax cut, along with just 10 other Republicans. (Mindful of the large federal employee presence in his district, he opposed the cut because it required government workers to pay more into their pension funds.) And while he voted yes on the other contract measures, Davis is careful to condemn the shutdowns in local speeches.
All these moderate stances—and Davis’ windy, ass-covering explanations of them—are uncannily Clintonian. And like the president, Davis suffers from the waffle problem. (Just as Garry Trudeau uses a waffle to symbolize Clinton in Doonesbury, a conservative at the 1994 Republican nominating convention stapled actual waffles to an anti-Davis placard.) “[Davis] has an extraordinary ability to be all things to all people,” says Byrne. “There’s this yin-yang thing going on with him all the time.” In our interview, Davis uttered the most Clintonlike line not actually written by President Eggo: “Look, you can be pro-life and not a pro-lifer; you can be pro-choice without being a pro-choicer.”
(He also delivered the second-most Clintonian line: “I think that most people, most voters, are not conservative or liberal or can say, ‘I’m conservative,’ ‘I’m a liberal,’ ‘I’m a moderate.’ Pollsters ask them, to try to pin them down—‘I’m a Republican,’ ‘I’m a Democrat.’ They’re people, who go about trying to live their lives and bring up their families and pay their mortgage payments.” Clinton/Davis in ’96?)
Davis has acknowledged other similarities with the president: Both men overcame childhoods with alcoholic and occasionally abusive fathers. Both men are Baby Boomers. Both are charming.
Both men also have been known to erupt in anger when confronted by detractors. Last year, for example, Davis supported S. Yvonne McCall, a former Fairfax teacher and principal, in school board elections. But when the county GOP committee voted not to endorse her, Davis grew belligerent, according to witnesses. He apparently screeched at Patrick Mullins, the Fairfax GOP chairman, and at a college student who had once interned for Davis, that they had betrayed him by voting against McCall. (Mullins says he and Davis merely “exchanged a few words.” The college student couldn’t be reached.)
And as with Clinton, Davis’ greatest strength and weakness is his love for the give-and-take of old-fashioned, consensus-based, nonideological politics. “[Davis] is just a consummate politician,” says Ed DeBolt, a Republican adviser and president of DCM Group, a consulting firm. “People say he’s just reflecting the polls and mores of his district, that he doesn’t come with a rudder of his own. I personally like that, but there’s a lot of people who feel that you should come to the game with an ax to grind.”
Davis’ relationship with the District underscores his nettlesome impulse to double talk. For instance, when Davis spoke to the Herndon Jaycees, he took great pains to downplay his critical role on D.C. issues. He had wanted a seat on the civil service subcommittee, he explains, not the D.C. subcommittee. But because one area moderate—Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.)—was already on civil service, Gingrich offered Davis D.C. instead. Davis is careful to point out that Gingrich was offering him a chairmanship: “We haven’t had a freshman to chair a subcommittee in 50 years—would you be interested?” Gingrich supposedly asked.
“My comment was, ‘Well, what does the District of Columbia [sub]committee do?’ ” says Davis. “And the answer—I’ll never forget—the speaker said, ‘Well,’ he says, ‘not much. It’s a quiet, sleepy, backwater committee.’ ”
It’s difficult to believe that either Davis or Gingrich thought the subcommittee would be sleepy. And it seemed to Norton and other District officials that Davis sought the chairman’s job. “It was my impression when he came to talk that he was trying to become the chairman,” Norton says, recalling a visit Davis made before he was appointed. “Perhaps he was just making a courtesy call.”
Once in the thick of District issues, Davis again left different people with different impressions. In press accounts last fall, it appeared that Davis was helping block a raft of amendments to the District’s budget. These amendments would have challenged laws passed by the D.C. Council, including the city’s rent control provisions. Hill staffers and District officials alike believed that Walsh was responsible for adding a list of 40 such challenges to the budget bill.
But Norton and other sources say Walsh told a meeting of House members and District officials that he wanted “a clean bill,” without the added controversial provisions. That left responsibility for the “40 home rule violations,” as Norton calls them, on Davis’ shoulders. “But then the Davis people said the Walsh people were doing it, and the Walsh people said the Davis people were,” says one staffer who was present at the meeting.
Norton says she still doesn’t know who pushed the list of 40 measures, which were the subject of a “Save Home Rule” rally she helped stage. “If you want to know one thing that happened in 1995 that I am completely mystified about,” she says, “that’s it.” While Norton won’t admit it to a reporter, others say she felt betrayed by Davis.
District supporters also were angry. Curious about Davis’ behavior, WAMU (88.5 FM) political analyst Mark Plotkin rooted around Federal Election Commission filings and found that Davis accepted contributions last year from real estate interests. Landlords have wanted to scuttle rent control for years.
“We had never seen” the list of 40 meas-ures, Davis says today, adding that it came from Walsh’s staff. And he points out that Norton received real estate contributions as well. (Norton, however, supports rent control.) For his part, Walsh would only say, “We all agreed we’d put all the reforms in—rent control, privatization, Lorton, all those things.” In the end, Gingrich said most of the issues should be decided by the control board, and many of the provisions were removed.
Davis is hunkered over a telephone in his spacious House office. He sits on a couch next to a table covered with little elephant sculptures. Young, well-dressed, earnest-faced staffers rush in and out with documents and messages. He guzzles some Diet Coke and then punches in a phone number.
When I ask what’s going on, Davis flashes a school-boy grin and gurgles, “I’m a whip!” Assistant whips like Davis form the lowest rung on the congressional party leadership ladders; there are 39 Republican assistant whips. As such, Davis has to make periodic “whip checks” to see whether his half-dozen or so Republicans support certain bills. It may sound boring, but Davis is clearly enjoying himself.
“Hey, this is Tom Davis! Is the congressman there by any chance?” he says into the phone. “I got everything here on the final package of the [continuing resolution],” he continues when Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) answers. “You’re OK with it? You’re OK….Yeah, everybody else is OK on it.”
Jones apparently asks if there are any points of contention. “Not that I see,” answers Davis. “Not that I see. I think that thing about eliminating tobacco shouldn’t be controversial.” Ha ha. Jones is from tobacco country. A congressional joke.
Davis hungered for years to be able to make such jokes. He first came to Congress as a Senate page. As a student at Amherst and then University of Virginia Law School, he became a full-fledged political junkie. Over the years, for instance, he became an expert in the study of election returns. (His memory is extraordinary. When I tell him I’m from Arkansas, he not only gives me the name of Bill Clinton’s first political opponent—former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt—but the name of Hammerschmidt’s first opponent, which Hammerschmidt has probably forgotten.)
Davis still keeps clunky volumes of America Votes in his office, in a case next to a huge wall of fame: In photographs showing him shaking hands with various political leaders—among them Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and Reagan—Davis progresses from cute, awkward high schooler to rugged, assured fortysomething. On another wall, a photo shows a thin sliver of Davis’ face as he once stood next to Clinton and Newt Gingrich. “And we’ve got [Yitzhak] Rabin coming soon,” he chirps.
“The thing that strikes me about Tom Davis more than anything else is how consumed he is with the process of politics,” says DeBolt, the Republican adviser. “He knows who [has] given to him and exactly how much. It’s almost legendary how much he knows.”
“He has a long-standing affinity for and attraction to Congress,” says former Davis aide Bright. “It is truly the culmination of a lifelong dream.”
Republicans and Democrats alike needle Davis for his ambition. At a roast last fall, Fairfax Republican Chairman Mullins told his favorite Davis story. Mullins took Davis and his wife to Davis’ first horse race a few years ago, the Preakness. “He asked how you bet, how you know which horse to bet on, that sort of thing,” Mullins recalls. “Well, Tom goes up and bets $2 on a horse, and that horse wins the race.” When Mullins asked Davis how he picked that horse, Davis silently opened his program and pointed to the horse’s name—“Senator to Be.”
On Aug. 3 last year, a floor debate raged in the House over an amendment offered by Rep. Gerald Solomon, a far-right New York Republican. The amendment would have blocked federal money from going to colleges where student fees automatically fund political groups such as Public Interest Research Groups, environmental organizations founded by Ralph Nader.
Only one Republican, Tom Davis, spoke against Solomon’s amendment, which was defeated. Some 11th District conservatives were livid. One, Kevin Gentry, first vice chairman of the Fairfax Republican Committee and executive vice president of a conservative think tank, confronted Davis.
“On the floor, he said it was a states’ rights issue. Then I raised it with him, and he said, ‘I had to do that.’ The Nader people were having a meeting within his district, and he said he didn’t want to be beat up by them,” Gentry says. “He’s so candid and so frank about it that it’s sort of endearing. But when you back up from it, you have to wonder if he’s just a weather vane.”
Gentry isn’t alone. For years, Fairfax conservatives have complained that Davis sacrifices Republican principles on the electoral altar.
“He wasn’t quite as proactive in protecting children in the libraries as I would have liked,” says Karen Jo Gounaud, founder of a group called Family Friendly Libraries. “I think he’s just a very careful man. He doesn’t do anything without thinking.”
Davis angered Gounaud in 1992, when she led an effort to ban the Washington Blade from county libraries. The Blade episode probably marked Davis’ nadir with local conservatives. After his appointee to the county library board refused to support any restrictions on the gay paper, Davis ignored demands that he force her to resign.
“He knew a majority of the county wanted to restrict it from children,” Gounaud says. “He just thought it might hurt him. I was seen as a homophobic, right-wing extremist. And he didn’t want to take any chances that he might not be elected.” (Still, Davis did vote in 1994 to abolish the seat of another library board member who supported open access to the Blade.)
But Davis never entirely alienated social conservatives, in part because he’s something of a square in his personal life. A teetotaler, he never serves alcohol in his home. A Marine Corps Marathon veteran, he runs or uses a stair-stepper at home after work. His extracurricular passion is baseball. (For several years, Davis has helped lead an effort to bring a major-league team to Northern Virginia.)
And he can talk the talk, even with social conservatives who disagree with him. “He didn’t do what we wanted always, but he kept the wolves from the door,” says Gounaud. “Last January , before he left [the Fairfax board], he said, ‘My son is about to turn 13, and I don’t like the idea of a librarian telling me I can’t see what he’s reading.’ He says things like that, and I believe him.”
In May 1994, Davis removed several inverted triangles from campaign literature after religious and social conservatives complained that they could be interpreted as promoting gay rights. And Davis had the name of his street changed from Gay Lane to Juniper Court a few years ago; according to the Post, he said at the time that he did it for a neighbor.
In short, Davis has purchased some conservative credentials at a low cost. Consequently, conservatives leaven their critiques with understanding. “He has bucked the tide of the revolution, but of course, he represents a moderate district,” says Mark D. Siljander, a conservative Republican congressional candidate in 1992. “My gosh, Tom Davis, we agree on six or seven out of 10 issues—that’s not bad.”
“Tom is a moderate, and I am a conservative, but we both campaigned for each other,” says Michael Paul Farris, the Christian activist defeated in the Virginia lieutenant governor’s race in 1993. “The one lesson that is crystal clear is that when there’s a united Republican Party, we generally win. When there’s a divided Republican Party, we generally lose.”
The religious extremists also know that Jesus Himself couldn’t beat Tom Davis for Congress this year. Polls show that county voters, by large margins, support fiscal conservatism but dislike the religious right. Davis understands this intimately. Oliver North, he says candidly, was “radioactive” in the 11th. “The suburbs are tough for Republicans. You cannot take it for granted, and…you [can’t] move too far off the center.”
Davis knows this from endless months of campaigning. Aides say he connects with voters very quickly, often with a stable of jokes he recycles time and again. (“I can recite them by heart myself,” says one.) His jovial, self-deprecating attitude has won him friends. “He is kind of the prototypical hometown boy,” says Bright. “He grew up not far from that Mason area. The little old ladies in the district just loved him.”
Davis is also a master fund-raiser, and always has been. As early as 1983, he raised one-third more than he spent in his supervisor race. In 1994, he received more PAC money than any other congressional challenger. And according to his year-end Federal Election Commission filing, he has $261,000 in cash-on-hand as he heads toward a likely uncontested nomination.
Davis hasn’t officially said he will run for re-election, but it’s almost certain he will. (“Maybe we can give [you] an exclusive,” Davis jokes.) No Democrats have yet announced they will oppose him. The chairman of the 11th District Democratic committee, Vienna lawyer Daniel S. Alcorn, says he’s considering a race but is trying to persuade an elected Democratic official to oppose Davis. Good luck.
Davis remains something of an anomaly in Fairfax politics. The Fairfax GOP hasn’t been able to translate Davis’ success into victories for other county Republicans. The board has had Republican majorities only twice this century, once when Davis was re-elected supervisor in 1984, and once when Davis was elected chairman in 1991. In the chairman’s race last year, Democrat Katherine Hanley defeated Gary L. Jones, county school board chairman, despite the assistance of Davis’ chief of staff and political wizard, John Hishta. And last year’s school board elections left Democratic-endorsed candidates with an 8-4 majority.
Davis is characteristically straightforward about the Jones defeat. “Kate had really not done anything wrong,” he says. “It’s hard to fault what she’s done so far with the county. I mean, her test will come this year with the budget, but she’s a very capable lady.”
Hanley and Jones’ desperate attempts to seem more Davislike than each other underscored Davis’ prominence. But Davis may have difficulty broadening that popularity outside the 11th District, should he seek a statewide office. Virginia’s Republican Party doesn’t entirely welcome its moderates, as John Warner and state Sen. Jane H. Woods can testify.
Warner refused to support Farris and actively campaigned against North. Both lost. As a consequence, party officials tried unsuccessfully to push him into a nominating convention (which he could well have lost) instead of an easier primary. (Conventions are usually dominated by hard-right partisans in Virginia; a convention nominated North, for example.)
Like Davis, Woods is a moderate Fairfax Republican. After she opposed a state Senate reorganization last month to give Republicans more power, the party retaliated by denying her an expected committee seat. “To be a consensus builder in Virginia, as I am, and I think as Tom is, you’ve got to deal with ideologues who just do not accept that consensus is the way a legislative body works,” says Woods, who is in her second senate term. “It’s a tough atmosphere.”
If Davis ran for the U.S. Senate (his next logical seat), he would have to find a way to please downstate conservatives while retaining his Northern Virginia base. “I can’t see him being a good fit in the Virginia Republican Party as a whole,” says Rozell, the analyst. “The state nomination contests are usually dominated by social conservative activists, and believe me, Tom Davis does not appeal to those people.”
Davis would likely strike a political balance by maintaining a moderate voting record but not openly challenging the conservative wing of the party, as Warner and Woods have. (In 1994, Davis said that as a Republican, he supported all his party’s candidates, including North. But Davis refused to campaign with North.) Like most politicians, Davis is coy about his plans for higher office. “We don’t rule it out, and it’s a long way off,” he says. “And I don’t think that we would even do
anything for a while, maybe six years or something.”
Warner’s 69th birthday is this weekend, and in six years he may decide he’s had enough. Davis might conveniently slip into Warner’s moderate niche. And if not in 2002, Davis still has time. He’s only 47.
Until then, Davis will continue to be the fulcrum between urban and suburban, just as he is between Northern Virginia’s moderate and conservative Republicans. In a perfect world, someone like Davis—someone who doesn’t live in the city, who doesn’t look like the city, and who isn’t elected by the city—would have no say over the city. But in this most imperfect of cities, we’re stuck with Davis.
That’s not such a bad fate. Ironically, Davis’ ambition—in the Republican Party, in the suburbs, in Virginia—could be the salvation for this Democratic, blighted, disenfranchised substate. Though he’s not accountable to District voters, he knows that his success—as a subcommittee chairman, as a Republican player, as a moderate consensus-builder—will depend on the success of his efforts to lift D.C. from the morass.
Davis will need his strengths—his moderation in a polarized climate, his nonideological focus on consensus—to overcome a mayor who knows that a gold mine of votes lies in opposing change. (Just last week, Barry won cheers at a control board hearing in which he unrealistically demanded more money from Congress.) While Norton is a powerful and realistic thinker, she has no vote. Other Republicans, like Walsh, are too extreme and too far removed from local issues to work effectively with the city. Davis is the best hope Washington has.
Sure, Tom Davis is The Man. But as one District politician might put it, get over it.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.