For Maryland’s John Delaney, a tricky transition from business to Congress awaits

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post - When John Delaney was chief executive of a commercial lending firm, he closed a billion-dollar deal in 10 weeks. He may soon find out that things don’t move as quickly on the Hill.

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When John Delaney was chief executive of a commercial lending firm, he closed a complicated $1.8 billion deal that allowed a health-care firm to buy 120 long-term care facilities.

It took him 10 weeks.

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But as Maryland’s newest congressman is about to find out, almost nothing moves that fast on Capitol Hill.

On average, a bill takes seven years to pass. Committees mull and debate and mull some more. Resolutions to name post offices might pass with ease, but more-involved legislation, especially in these hyperpartisan times, can take ages.

Having ousted veteran Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R) this month from a redrawn suburban Maryland district, Delaney (D), co-founder of the Chevy Chase firm CapitalSource, is set to make the tough transition from the business world to the legislative world.

“I think he’ll find, as I have, that the legislative process is painful,” said Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who founded auto dealerships in Hampton Roads before being elected to the House in 2010. “It’s excruciatingly slow if you’re a . . . Type A personality, a person who wants to really move forward and gets things done.”

In the current House, more members list “business” as their primary occupation than any other category, narrowly edging out “public service/politics,” according to Congressional Quarterly. (In the Senate, “law” is the occupation most often declared.)

Like countless other businessmen-turned-politicians, Delaney, 49, campaigned as an outsider, saying his business acumen was needed to help cut through all that clutters Capitol Hill. “I am not a professional politician,” he says in a video on his Web site.

And his private-sector credentials suggest that he is as impatient as he is ambitious. By 40, he had founded two companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Since then, he has founded a nonprofit group focused on job creation and economic development.

“Frustrated by Washington’s inability to solve the jobs crisis, John wants to bring the perspective of an entrepreneur to a grid-locked Congress,” Delaney’s Web site says.

In the private sector, you “can do a lot of creative things very quickly” said Brad Fitch, head of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, who noted the seven-year average for passing a bill in the House.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a former venture capitalist and telecommunications executive, spoke to Delaney several times before Delaney decided to run.

Warner said Delaney would probably find Congress to be “more hierarchical and slower-moving” than the private sector, a common complaint among new members.

Still, Warner said, “I think it’s helpful for the system to have more folks who’ve run businesses, particularly those who are running as Democrats.”

In an interview during orientation activities for incoming lawmakers, Delaney acknowledged that he faced a steep curve.

“There’s a lot of new subject matter to learn,” he said. “You start slowly peeling the onion and start figuring out how the policy and the politics intersect.”

Delaney said that he thought it was “overstated how individually decisive CEOs are” and that leading a company requires a lot of the same consensus-building skills needed in politics.

“You can’t really yell, ‘Charge!’ and hope to have your team behind you unless they agree that the hill you are trying to take is a hill you should take,” Delaney said.

Fitch and Rigell both said business leaders do have an advantage when it comes to establishing a congressional office and hiring staff, because they are more likely to know how to manage a complex organization.

After Rigell was elected in 2010, he told his staff that he considered private-sector experience to be just as valuable as past congressional service. “My first day in office here, I said, ‘Let’s be clear: Some of you have had experience on the Hill. I consider that an asset and a liability,’ ” Rigell recalled. “ ‘Some of you have never served before. I also consider that an asset and a liability.’ ”

Delaney said he was not sure what committee seats he will request, although he is likely to look for assignments related to financial and economic policy. He has decided to join the New Democrat Coalition, which attracts relatively moderate, business-friendly members.

Delaney is known to colleagues as a hands-on manager, but one who readily delegates responsibility. “John relies on people that he has around him,” said James Pieczynski, chief executive of CapitalSource. “Because of his ability to have faith and confidence in the leaders that he’s chosen, he really allows people to shine and excel.”

When Pieczynski joined CapitalSource 11 years ago to run its health-care finance division, he said Delaney gave him the power to develop the unit as he saw fit. Pieczynski and his team originated about $3 billion in loans over eight years.

“John wasn’t sitting there and second-guessing everything that was being done, rather he was saying . . . ‘I trust you to run the group in the right way,’ ” Pieczynski said.

Over the years, Delaney has become a key figure in the Washington area business community. He teamed with former Treasury adviser Lee Sachs to form the asset-management firm Alliance Partners; he launched a cooperative for community banks called Banc-Alliance; and he sits on the board of Bethesda-based Congressional Bank.

In 2011, Delaney helped found Blueprint Maryland, a nonprofit group focused on job creation and economic development.

One of the organization’s first moves was to release an analysis of the effect of federal spending cuts on Maryland, making the case for leveraging the Port of Baltimore and other transportation assets to revive manufacturing.

The nonprofit advocates workforce development and infrastructure improvements to enhance the state’s economic competitiveness, a position that Delaney has incorporated into his congressional agenda.

“I think I have a real feel for the industries that are being successful and where opportunities are, and the big issue that I really care about is U.S. competitiveness,” Delaney said.

 
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