After his political resurrection, candidate Beyer adopts high-minded approach

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, for which Beyer was campaign treasurer. Dean was seeking the Democratic nomination, not running as an independent. This version has been corrected.


Don Beyer is seen at his Alexandria home on June 12 after winning the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 8th District. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Don Beyer, the Democratic nominee in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, was talking about a list he writes every year titled “Lifetime Goals,” which includes entries such as hiking the entire 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.

“Don, just don’t,” interrupted his wife, Megan, from across the study in their grand Old Town Alexandria residence.

“A lifelong, strong marriage” is also on the list, he said.

“We want this to be about the race, dear,” Mrs. Beyer said between giggles.

Then there’s creating a computer game for children . . .


Don Beyer greets voters as another candidate, Bill Euille, second from left, stands by outside the Durant Arts Center as Virginia voters took to the polls in the state's 8th congressional district to choose a Democratic nominee in the race to succeed retiring Rep. James P. Moran (D). (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“Hon?” she said.

For years, Beyer’s wish list included becoming Virginia’s governor, but that ended when Republican James S. Gilmore III crushed him in the 1997 general election, a defeat that seemed likely to dispatch him to political obscurity.

Seventeen years later, Beyer has found an improbable second act. In his first race since that loss, he won this month’s Democratic primary to succeed retiring Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D).

If it’s understandable why Beyer would want another round in politics — to seek redemption for his fall, perhaps, or to become an elder sage in his party — it’s less clear why voters have embraced him.

In this enclave of left-leaning affluence a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, 8th District Democrats could have selected a new, more progressive course from their ballot choices, which included two openly gay candidates and two blacks.

Instead, they nominated a white man who just turned 64, a veteran of politics whose car dealerships are ubiquitous in Northern Virginia and who touts himself as a progressive, even though he was known as a pragmatist when he was the state’s lieutenant governor.

While allies praise his intelligence and disarming manner, Beyer has more experience as a centrist in the conservative Virginia of two decades ago than as the rostrum-thumping partisan his constituents are likely to covet.

He also must forge a new identity to replace the one crystallized by his defeat in 1997. During his concession speech that year, Beyer promised supporters, “We’ll be back,” even as many pronounced his once-bright political career dead.

“Don Beyer’s last foray into politics was cataclysmic,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran Republican strategist who was executive director of Virginia’s Republican organization that year. “At that point, you wouldn’t anytime soon think there would be a resurgence in his political career.”

High-minded approach

Beyer has long wanted to run again for public office, although opportunity and timing never aligned. He considered seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 2008 but deferred when former governor Mark R. Warner (D) said he would run.

The next year, President Obama, for whom Beyer had raised money during his 2008 campaign, appointed him ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

With Moran’s announcement in January that he would retire, Beyer found his opportunity for a comeback. In a heavily Democratic district that includes Arlington County and Alexandria, he is expected to easily defeat Republican Micah Edmond in November.

If he wins, Beyer’s ascension would occur as Virginia loses major clout in Congress, with the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) and the retirements of Moran and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), both of whom sit on the House Appropriations Committee.

At candidate forums leading up to the primary, Beyer demonstrated an easy grasp of foreign policy and the challenges critical to Northern Virginia’s economy, including a decline in defense spending and government contracting.

But as a House freshman, his influence would be limited.

Over a cheeseburger at an Old Town restaurant, Beyer and his wife cast him as an antidote to the gridlock-inducing warfare that now defines Congress.

“Don’s a healer,” Mrs. Beyer said between bites of guacamole.

“I love confrontation and conflict,” he said. “I want to heal. I aspire to be a healer.”

His fear, he said, is that Republicans will “see something deep and profound” in tea party candidate Dave Brat’s recent victory over Cantor “and be afraid to find middle ground.”

“I don’t want Republicans who won’t talk to me because I’m the devil,” Beyer said. “I want to be driven by ideas and facts.”

His approach, while high-minded, is “unlikely to be successful” because “it’s not fertile terrain in Congress for would-be compromisers,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor.

“There are so many partisan warriors on either side that the centrists can generate a lot of hostility towards themselves,” he said.“Certainly all of his diplomatic training will come in handy on the House floor.”

As lieutenant governor from 1990 to 1998, Beyer was known as an affable, thoughtful presence who mixed easily with Democrats and Republicans.

Still, his adversaries mocked him as “Donny-come-lately” because he flip-flopped on issues involving criminal justice and education. More recently, he switched positions on same-sex marriage, at one time saying it “wasn’t feasible or practical,” but later saying he was wrong.

“No one wants to be described as a flip-flopper,” Beyer said, acknowledging the shift. “On the other hand, I want to be adult enough to grow.”

At the start of the 1997 gubernatorial race, Virginia’s political establishment considered Beyer the front-runner over Gilmore. But the race’s dynamic changed when Gilmore proposed abolishing the state’s car tax.

At first, Beyer dismissed Gilmore’s proposal as irresponsible. Then, as his standing began slipping in the polls, Beyer suggested his own, less generous version of relief, one adversaries lampooned as “No Car Tax Lite.”

LaCivita recalled that Republicans viewed Beyer as a “nice guy but kind of hapless.” His campaign was “just so funny, desperate, silly and target-rich. It was like taking candy from a baby.”

The embarrassments included the refusal by L. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic governor during Beyer’s first term as lieutenant governor, to endorse him. Gilmore won by more than 10 percentage points as Republicans swept all three statewide races.

Recounting the disappointment, Beyer said, “It was like missing a two-foot putt — you move on.”

Megan Beyer, a vivacious, irreverent former television reporter to whom he has been married for 27 years, said they learned the importance of crafting a “really good message and sticking with it.”

“We were for education!” she said, laughing. “Who wants that?”

Her husband, as is his habit, gleaned a positive lesson, saying that Gilmore’s victory set the stage for Warner to win in 2001.

His wife smirked.

“Thank you, Don,” she said. “It was part of the plan. We did it for Mark.”

Making a list

A conversation with Beyer can meander in any number of directions, the result of his fluid intellect and range of interests. At one point, he talked of his aspiration to achieve the rank of Life Master in bridge. At another, he mentioned “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a self-help book he read long ago that influenced the way he thinks about fulfilling his ambitions.

“When you write something down,” Beyer said, recounting a main principle, “it’s halfway to getting there.”

He started keeping his “Lifetime Goals” list in the early 1980s. One of his longest-surviving aims, he said, is completing the Appalachian Trail, of which he has hiked 1,079 miles. Another is scaling the 14,600-foot high Matterhorn — although he’s not sure he’ll get around to that one.

The oldest of six children, Beyer’s parents raised him in the District, where he went to Gonzaga High School and got near-perfect scores on his SATs (800 on the math section; 780 on verbal). After graduating from Williams College, he considered medical school but instead joined his father’s car dealership. In the mid-1980s, he and his brother, Mike, bought the business and infused its advertising campaigns with a wry touch.

One radio ad, which Don Beyer helped write, included a string of vegetable puns, encouraging listeners to “turnip for a kale” (translation: turn up for a sale). Another ad wove in a litany of Latin phrases, such as, “Don Beyer is the nolo contendere dealer.” One proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am rolling in a Don Beyer Volvo.”

Once at a party, Beyer recalled, he was introduced to then-U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who asked, “Who writes your radio ads?”

In addition to business, the Beyer clan has been steeped in government service. Beyer’s grandmother, Clara, was close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and worked in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Labor Department.

Beyer’s own early forays into politics included working on Gerald L. Baliles’s successful 1985 gubernatorial campaign, after which Baliles appointed him to a state transportation board. Four years later, Beyer surprised Virginia’s Democratic establishment by running for lieutenant governor and defeating state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw in the primary.

After his 1997 defeat, Beyer returned to his family’s business, but his name remained ever-present to the public, as he and his brother expanded their number of car dealerships from two to nine and sponsored an annual marathon that draws thousands of runners.

He stayed active in politics, working as campaign treasurer for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, then assisting Obama four years later.

While serving as ambassador in Switzerland, where he would occasionally slip and refer to the U.S. Embassy as “the dealership,” Beyer and his wife met many Europeans who expressed disbelief over the partisan brawls defining American politics.

Over and over, he said, people told him, “It breaks our heart to see the American government so broken.”

As his four-year tour approached its end, Beyer said he considered his options.

“You don’t want to just play golf,” he said. “Is it going to be enough to sell cars?”

Aware that returning to the campaign trail after a long absence could be challenging, he said he was heartened to learn that he was not the first to try. John Quincy Adams, he said, was elected to the U.S. House after serving as an ambassador (and president).

Already, Beyer said, he has calculated that the commute between his home and the Capitol is “18 minutes in rush hour.”

Megan Beyer, perhaps sensing that her husband may have sounded overconfident, pointed out that there’s still a general election to be won.

“Let’s not count our chickens . . . ” she said, her words dissolving into laughter.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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