By Roger M. Williams ’56
“I am the product of two influences: my father’s problems with alcohol, and my education at Amherst.” So says former and longtime Congressman Tom Davis ’71 in a glowing tribute to the college and a powerful damnation of drink. Davis overlooks an equally strong factor: his superb instincts for the understanding and practice of politics, American style.
Tom Davis ’71
At the age of 2, when he left Minot, N.D. (“where many are cold but few are frozen”), Davis probably was not plotting a political career. But it does seem that way. Until he quit the electoral game a few years ago—for a normal workday and a big-time salary as a Washington “rainmaker”—Davis, a Virginian since preschool, was as close to a political lifer as one is likely to find.
More significantly, in this age of strident political partisanship, the Virginia Republican remained and still remains a near-model of bipartisanship and determination to deal with constituencies his party had been shunning, if not scorning. Exhibit A: the District of Columbia, the orphan, unrepresented entity dependent on Congress for funding and much else. As chairman of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and then of the full committee, Davis led a much-needed effort to straighten out the District’s finances and redevelop part of its downtown, even though its heavily African-American population votes solidly Democratic in local and national elections.
Davis’ careers as a candidate and a consultant exhibit two series of unbroken successes. Despite running for three levels of office in a solidly purple area of suburban Virginia, he never came close to losing a race. (“I retired,” he says, with typical dry humor, “undefeated and unindicted.”) In his Congressional re-election campaigns of 1998 and 2002, the Democrats did not even put up a candidate against him. As a consultant, he has long been recognized as one of the sharpest political minds in either party.
“Tom Davis is the best candidate I’ve worked for in 20 years of politics,” says John Hishta, who managed several of his campaigns. “He has an enormous capacity for political work. And as a Republican in Northern Virginia, he had great ability to practice the ‘politics of addition’—gaining a normally Democratic vote for himself while subtracting one from his opponent.”
Others praise, sometimes effusively, Davis’ empathy for constituents of all or no political stripes and his willingness to go to bat for them, his almost daunting memory and grasp of details (including the trivial) and his bipartisan collegiality that not only made him an unusually effective Congressman but also gained him lasting friends of other persuasions.
Says Larry Sidman ’70, a college pal who later lobbied Rep. Davis in behalf of public broadcasting, “To Tom, compromise was a craft, not a sin.” His style, adds Sidman, a liberal Democrat, was essentially the same in Congress as it had been at Amherst—even in the face of hostility over Davis’ support of the Vietnam War: “engaged, ready for discourse, always civil. He’s never changed, although his party has.”
Not all Democrats, to be sure, have been favorably impressed by Davis. Leslie L. Byrne, the incumbent whom he challenged in his first race for Congress, in 1994, says Davis very carefully calibrated his stances on issues, changing them as needed to appeal to different groups. “He would say or do anything to get you to like him. Running against him was like shadowboxing—very difficult to pin him down on anything.” It’s a mark of Davis’ personal appeal that Byrne delivered her critique with repeated laughs and referred to him as “Tom.”
Stripped to its essentials, Davis’ ascent of the political ladder looks like this:
- Served as a U.S. Senate page as a teenager. During that time, attended the United States Capitol Page School, where political chitchat was part of the daily fare.
- Was deeply embroiled in Vietnam-era controversy as a student at Amherst, where he organized the then-small number of Republicans on campus while also soaking up lots of non-ideological political wisdom.
- At the University of Virginia School of Law, ran numerous mock elections in behalf of candidate Richard Nixon and also presided over the school’s Young Republicans chapter.
- Thanks to an introduction from David Eisenhower ’70, scored a one-on-one session with President Nixon that resulted in highly instructive—and paid—White House internships.
- Worked briefly for the notorious Nixon-era CREEP (Committee for the Re-Election of the President) while in law school.
- Was elected to the board of supervisors in Fairfax County, Va., a relentlessly growing and politically divided suburb of Washington. Served as a regular member of the board for 11 years and for three more as its chairman.
- Defeated favored incumbent Byrne in Virginia’s 11th Congressional district, then the wealthiest in the nation. Won re-election six times, by large margins.
- Chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, raising, during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, a booming $170 million and heading a campaign that resulted in a very rare pickup of seats for the party holding the presidency.
Davis has strongly supported Amherst in unusual ways. He and his wife hold receptions for D.C.-area members of the incoming class and their parents. He periodically speaks at the college about national politics, including in 2009, when Amherst awarded him an honorary degree. And he and longtime House parliamentarian Charles Johnson ’60 have concocted a sort of intellectual tag-team on politics, batting around ideas on reapportionment, fundraising and other Congress-related subjects in front of Amherst audiences. Although the two frequently disagree, Johnson calls Davis “the most articulate person I’ve ever heard speak on those matters.” The Davis-Johnson show has had two performances for alumni in Washington and is scheduled for a third this May in New York City.
A few years ago Davis ran for a seat on Amherst’s board of trustees. He didn’t win, a result he attributes to heavy online voting, which tends to favor younger candidates. That remains the one defeat of his electoral career.
Tom Davis was one of five children born to a college teacher and his wife in Minot. Father Davis had graduated from Amherst (Class of ’38), after entering at age 16. (He went on to get a Ph.D. at 23.) One of Tom’s grandfathers had made his way from a small school to Harvard Law and gone on to become attorney general of Nebraska and, briefly during World War II, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tom’s family left Minot in pursuit of steady employment for his father, an alcoholic whose problem with drink plagued him—and the family—wherever he went. He served a number of jail sentences for drunkenness-related offenses. As a result, the family lived in near-poverty. When the senior Davis failed to hold a teaching job in Texas, Tom’s mother took the children to suburban Virginia in hopes of creating a stable life. Her relationship with Tom’s father was so unsettled that she ended up divorcing and remarrying him a stunning total of four times.
Achieving a stable life proved difficult for mother and children. “We had no money,” says Davis. “When I went to Amherst, our total family contribution was $50. We couldn’t afford more. We got so much financial aid that it was cheaper for me to go to private-school Amherst than as an in-state student to the public-school University of Virginia.” During one period, Mrs. Davis was simply unable to accommodate Tom in her home; he was obliged to live with neighbors, sleeping on their couch. (Later in life, her children grown, she became a prosperous businesswoman.)
Hindrances be damned, Tom Davis already had his sights set on a political career. He became a Senate page, serving Virginia’s two senators and attending the pages’ school. Despite having to show up for 6:30 a.m. classes, he calls the school “a great experience” that prepared him at least adequately for Amherst. He applied to Amherst for early admission. “I’d never been to the campus,” he says. Three weeks later, he got a letter of acceptance.
At Amherst, Davis was pretty much consumed by politics: the politics of the war but other kinds as well. He plunged into the turbulent waters surrounding Vietnam as an unabashed pro-war Republican in a sea of anti-war Democrats. Says Larry Sidman, “I’d be surprised if there were 10 students who’d have owned up to being Republicans.” Right, says Davis, “and a lot of them were afraid of being outed.”
Not Davis. Already an elected member of the freshman council, he started a campus Republican Club—not exactly the best time for that sort of venture, but the club persevered. He also sought out off-campus political experiences: “One day I went to Springfield, alone, just to observe a minor, nonpartisan special election.”
“Tom was definitely conservative,” Sidman recalls, “socially as well as politically.” For one thing, awash in bad memories of his father, he didn’t drink alcohol (and still doesn’t). “He was very, very straight,” Sidman adds, “a guy navigating the mid-20th century with 19th-century standards. But he was also very civil and polite. People tended to respect him, and despite our sharp political differences, I liked him a lot.”
It might have been different for Davis had anti-war sentiment at Amherst been nasty and explosive. Instead, Sidman observes, “the debate over the war, while vigorous, was not ugly or excessively aggressive.” Davis recalls the closest he came to a physical confrontation. Military recruiters—who then were pariahs on many campuses—came to Amherst, and Davis volunteered to escort them into the building where they would set up for their meetings:
“A line of my fellow students, big guys, was blocking the steps. I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, these are my guests. Please move.’” With a small smile that is one of his trademarks, Davis adds, “They didn’t move.”
A political science major, Davis gravitated toward Hadley Arkes, then in the early stage of his long Amherst professorship. Davis’ goal: to learn the building blocks of political success. “Hadley instructed me on two very important subjects: voting patterns and how you build coalitions—the practical side of politics.” His senior thesis dealt with Congressional reapportionment (the redistribution of seats on the basis of census data) and realignment (the emergence of new political coalitions, issues and pluralities) in Virginia, and he went on to become a recognized expert on the subjects. On the night he won election to Congress, one of his calls went to Arkes.
Despite his Republicanism and stance on the war, Davis characterizes his relationships on that fractious Amherst campus as harmonious. “My feeling was that all opinions should be heard, that I’d meet with, talk with, anybody at any time. That’s been my conviction, and my political stance, ever since. After all, Jesus ate with the Pharisees.”
In all, at Amherst, “the education I got lifted my vision as to what was possible and desirable,” he says. If that sounds high-flown and hackneyed, Davis also learned more practical lessons: “In negotiating anything, think, ‘What does the guy on the other side need out of this?’ Not, ‘What does he want?’— ‘What does he need?’”
In personal style, it’s easy to imagine Davis the undergrad looking pretty much as he does today: a bit shambling, à la Amherst of decades ago, with white button-down shirt and conservative tie, no friend of dark three-piece suits or tassel loafers. A GQ type he never was, friends say; he was more likely to be walking down a Congressional corridor with his shirttail half out of his trousers.
Davis recalls his first race: “I rang doorbells every night and on weekends.”
After University of Virginia law school and marriage to a UVA medical school graduate, Davis returned to Fairfax County. He paid little attention to offers from “a few” New York law firms. He was intent on running for office as soon as feasible and figured his adopted area was the place to do it. Needing an income to undergird his political ambitions, he took a job with a small law firm, did low-level work (“I wasn’t very good and spent little time at it”) and methodically prepared to launch himself into the electoral world.
He started halfway up the ladder—declaring in 1979 for a seat on the county board of supervisors. Breaks came his way: he had no opposition for the Republican nomination, and the popular incumbent, a Democrat, pulled out of the race. Still, the 100,000-strong electorate, heavily Democratic at the time, seemed sure to support the incumbent’s replacement on the Democratic ticket. Older political heads advised him to move elsewhere and run there.
Davis persevered, with almost maniacal energy. “I rang doorbells every night and on weekends. I read up thoroughly on all the issues; so many candidates know only their own talking points. And I got people incentivized to vote.” Although he put “Republican” on his campaign literature, he made certain not to emphasize it. And when he met voters, which seemed to happen every five minutes, he wrote down key information gleaned from them. So if he met them again, he would mention one of those factoids, right down to the name of their dog. People, he learned early, love to be remembered, even by politicians.
“Nobody thought I could win,” Davis recalls of that long-ago race. “I had no endorsements—none—and I got outspent heavily. But this was my shot. If I lost, I figured, I might have to do something other than politics.
“I made my share of mistakes. In my first campaign brochure”—he laughs—“I talked up limiting the federal government—when my constituency was loaded with federal employees! But my own phone banking was showing positive results. So I worked even harder, and so did my family. My wife and mother walked our precinct for me.”
Davis wound up winning 63 percent of the vote. He was 30 years old, and instinct, hard work and his favorite part of his Amherst education were already paying off. The post of supervisor was principally a route to the next rung on his ladder: chairman of the board of supervisors, the county’s top position. That in turn positioned him for Congress.
“All through the supervisor years,” says John Hishta, his former campaign manager, “Tom stuck to some basic Republican principles. He continued to see the world through the prism of opportunity and a strong economy. But he was a very practical guy. He dealt with issues in a way that took them out of an ideological context. And he loved doing that. For him, nothing compared to a good zoning or school-boundary issue.”
Nothing, that is, other than campaigning. “He never saw a crowd—even a voter—he didn’t like,” says Hishta. “He’d stand for hours outside a Giant [supermarket], working the crowds like he was the president on a ‘rope line.’ He’d even help shoppers carry groceries to their cars. That wasn’t just in the local races—in the Congressional ones, too.”
Stepping up to a Congressional candidacy was no big deal for Davis. Except for a small chunk of adjoining Prince William County, the district largely overlapped with the one that had elected him chairman of the supervisors. Leslie Byrne, the incumbent, in office only two years, was a relatively soft target. Davis leavened his usual intense campaigning with a humorous slogan. “If you like me,” he told crowds, “send me to Congress. If you don’t, just send me to Washington.”
A thorny problem: Oliver North, a much-publicized figure in the Iran-Contra scandal several years earlier, was running for U.S. Senate from Virginia. North was a fiercely conservative Republican, and under a party oath, Davis was obliged to support him. “I did not speak out against him. But when he was campaigning in my district, you couldn’t find me with a search warrant. And when reporters pressed me on the issue, I said only, ‘I support the Republican candidates,’ never mentioning his name.” North lost a tight race; Davis won comfortably.
In Congress, with its 435 members and constant flow of new issues, it’s easy for a newcomer to get lost. But Davis quickly separated himself from the herd. He began sponsoring bills and never stopped; during his career, he sponsored more than 100 that became law. Davis became one of the first freshmen in a half century to be given a subcommittee chairmanship—the one dealing with the District of Columbia. Almost immediately and throughout his Congressional career, he showed extraordinary concern for the problems of the beleaguered District.
“People said I was stupid to take that position, and as a white guy from the suburbs, I did have to be careful”—about retribution from his district’s voters, for one, and about being ignored by D.C. leaders. But with D.C.-Congress struggles often in the headlines, Davis knew the exposure would be good. More important, he realized that if D.C. prospered, so would suburban Virginia. In 2003, with the GOP controlling Congress, he moved up to chairman of the entire committee.
Of several significant pieces of pro-D.C. legislation introduced during his tenure, Davis lost on only one: a creative effort to secure for the District a voting representative in Congress (sure to be a Democrat) by adding one to Utah’s delegation (sure to be a Republican). Davis marshalled plausible arguments for the measure and lined up support among balky conservatives. The first year, the legislation passed in the House; the second, it passed in the Senate but died in the House because, Davis says, conservatives attached amendments that would have abolished most of the D.C.’s tough anti-gun laws.
His greatest achievement with regard to Washington, D.C., was the creation of a financial control board that rescued the city from a fiscal morass. In fiscal years 1995 and 1996, the District racked up a deficit of $700 million, and with the disgraced Marion Barry newly reinstalled as mayor, the prospects for reducing that were next to nil. Davis’ legislation gave the board’s five members, all distant from city politics, the power to oversee D.C. finances and override decisions by the mayor and city council.
The city’s established power brokers were predictably angry, and, says Davis, “there was pressure to replace me [at the controls of the rescue].” But Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s veteran nonvoting delegate to the House, lent Davis her support, and in a move that showed élan as well self-assurance, the young Virginian called Barry, the weakened mayor, to smooth their relations. Under the control board, D.C. achieved a balanced budget in 1998, and three more before ending its oversight in 2001.
Davis shepherded through or supported a series of other measures that addressed festering problems in the District: the lack of a four-year public college or university, with D.C. now subsidizing residents’ tuitions at institutions anywhere in the country, and much-needed capital investment for the Metro system and for an aging bridge that serves as a major commuter link. He also gave a push to a local issue dear to conservative hearts—the expansion of charter schools. On the matter of statehood, a perennial though hopeless cause with D.C. activists, he has been resolutely opposed, though he’s in favor of the House voting on the issue.
Davis’ work on the committee illustrates his commitment to working with, rather than shutting out, opponents. When he took over the chairmanship, he succeeded Democrat Henry Waxman, a strong-minded liberal. Davis went out of his way to establish good relations with Waxman, soliciting his input on legislation before the committee. Davis did that, he says, partly because of convictions bred at Amherst and partly because Waxman’s own predecessor as committee chairman, an Indiana Republican, had kept Waxman at arm’s length.
As the 2008 elections approached, Davis explored a race for U.S. Senate. He concluded that too many factors were stacked against him: Northern Virginians almost never win statewide races; former Gov. Jim Gilmore looked to be a formidable opponent; and the nomination would be by convention, rather than primary, favoring Gilmore’s conservative forces. Says Hishta, “Tom knew he couldn’t win.”
The 11th District seat again beckoned, but Davis decided not to run. “I was termed out as committee chair and didn’t want to go back to being a backbencher. Also, the place [the House] had become dysfunctional. There were better uses of my time.” In addition, the prospect of earning multiples of his House salary outside government was tempting.
Five years before he quit Congress, Davis and his wife divorced, and he soon married another Virginia Republican officeholder, Jeannemarie Devolites. She had won two terms in the state House of Delegates and one in the state Senate—in the process establishing “firsts” for women in Virginia politics—before losing her bid for re-election in 2007; Davis managed her initial campaign. In 2013 she made an unsuccessful try for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.
The couple disagrees on a few issues. On the death penalty, he’s what she calls “a big supporter”; she has reservations. She categorically opposes abortion; he simply opposes government funding for the procedure, and he favors stem-cell research.
On gun control, Davis espouses what he calls “nuanced views.” He favors background checks of gun purchasers. But otherwise, he pretty much lines up with the National Rifle Association, whose headquarters is in his old Congressional district. He opposes gay marriage but says “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be illegal.” On labor matters, Davis comes across as flat-out conservative. He favors “right-to-work” legislation and opposes the so-called living wage. “I’m not even a minimum wage guy. Government ought not tell private companies what they should and shouldn’t pay people. And raising the minimum doesn’t help workers much.” Asked about race relations, Davis comments in terms not of equity or inherent rights but of “respect” and winning votes. The Democrats, he says, “have developed a construct of identity politics. It’s worked for them. The Republicans haven’t caught on.”
Is Davis uneasy with Tea Party Republicans? Yes and no. “I was somebody who wanted to govern, get the job done, and too many of them are ideologically rigid. But I do think the Tea Party’s calling attention to the national deficit is a good thing.”
He entertains what, for an elected official, are deep thoughts: for example, how to keep big money from completely overrunning the politicians who receive it, and how, given partisan ascendancy, to keep Congress from imitating Britain’s parliamentary system, “with our minority party becoming an opposition party.”
In Washington, smart, likeable and well-connected pols are always in demand when they signal their intentions to switch to “the private sector,” and Davis was in more demand than most. “If I’d been at an earlier point in my life,” he says, “I might have tried something entrepreneurial, a start-up of some kind.” As it was, picking the consulting firm Deloitte was an easy choice. He could have gone there for the seven-figure salary alone. But Deloitte had other pluses: a relatively relaxed schedule (he often works from home); a number of employees who were acquaintances; and, most important, a job that suits his talents and experience.
Although the company is not overtly political, its Federal Government Service manages operations for many U.S. departments and agencies. Davis’ job is, in essence, to use his own abundant contacts, name recognition and political savoir faire to pave the way for Deloitte’s heavy hitters to talk with top government and corporate officials. His title: director of government relations.
Davis’ office at Deloitte is surprisingly small—probably fewer square feet per $100,000 of income than anybody’s in Washington. “Everybody’s office here is like that,” he says dismissively. Dominating almost an entire wall is an ancient artifact—a whiteboard with names and numbers incompletely rubbed out.
There seems to have been little letup in Davis’ passion for chatting on the phone with politicians. Members of both parties come calling. Thanks to appointments from the last Republican governor, he serves on the boards of Virginia’s George Mason University—an up-and-coming public institution a modest distance from his home in the D.C. suburb of Vienna—and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Late-night and weekend grinds at the Capitol have given way to season tickets for the Washington Capitals and Nationals games.
The prince of bipartisan politics seems to be relishing his scaled-back, senior status, poring over nuts-and-bolts political publications, pondering this or that arcane statistic from campaigns past, waiting for another campaigner to call: “Tom, remember me? I’m in a tough race out here, and I’d really appreciate your advice….”
Roger M. Williams ’56 is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist.
Portraits by Brooks Kraft.