"I was struck by how few people on the Hill had deep business experience and deep managerial experience," he said. "Using a spreadsheet to me is like drinking water. I was amazed how few people on the Hill used spreadsheets. . . . You would never sell your company if I gave you a simple piece of paper."
Socas said he was drawn to business out of necessity. He attended Groton, a Massachusetts prep school, on a scholarship, and then the University of Virginia, where he was head of the Honor Committee, and Harvard Business School.
10th District candidate James Socas, who is challenging Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), addresses supporters at a campaign rally.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
Born: Oct. 5, 1966, in New York.
Education: BA, history, University of Virginia; MBA, Harvard University.
Career: Senior investment banker at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette; managing director at Credit Suisse First Boston; aide, Senate banking committee.
Family: Wife, Devereux; three sons.
Campaign Theme: "It's time to prepare our families and our country for the new economy."
"I had no money. My family had no money. My dad's a teacher. It tends to focus the mind," he said.
His introduction to campaigning came during a brief turn as assistant to the chairman of H. Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign. Later Socas joined one of the Texas billionaire's electronics companies before leaving to launch a medical software company. That venture failed. But his background in technology and finance left him primed to take advantage of the 1990s tech boom.
"In life, sometimes you're lucky," he said.
He became a senior investment banker at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, then a managing director at Credit Suisse First Boston, where he advised clients on raising capital and mergers and acquisitions.
"There was a lot of money on the line, a lot of people's lives on the line, and we made things happen," he said, citing long hours of scouring fine print. "I will -- and this is not true for everyone on the Hill -- read the bills I vote on. You learn that in business, to read details."
Socas's hard-charging style can veer toward pushy on the stump, a tendency he tries to check with the odd self-deprecating quip or wisecrack. Of his afternoon speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention, he deadpanned: "It was a prime time address -- if you lived in London."
On a recent afternoon, Socas, wearing American flag cuff links, was downing a cheeseburger special and multiple Cokes in a flowered booth at the McLean Family Restaurant, not far from the home he rents with his wife, Devereux, a former Clinton administration official, and his three sons.
Spying the candidate, a fellow diner came over to offer her support. Judy Weiss said she met Socas when he helped push her car out of the snow. "We met him being a good Samaritan," she said.
"I'll drop the money off tonight," Socas joked.
Socas, who has augmented substantial campaign donations from former business associates by dipping into his savings, said he still recalls when money was tight.
"I had to borrow money from my wife to pay for our honeymoon," he said. The cost of their Caribbean retreat came to $3,500, and Socas said he made good on his debt.
"Come on. I was head of the Honor Committee," he said. "Looking back, I said, 'That was a pretty good investment you made.' "
Socas acknowledges that his own investment of time and money in a Virginia House race comes with some risk. The 10th District was drawn with a Republican majority after the 2000 Census. But Socas said the area's swift growth and shifting demographics help keep it in play.
"Obviously, if this were the easiest thing in the world to do, there would have been 18 people lined up to do it," he said. "I looked at the numbers, and I thought it was a winnable race. I thought I could do it and beat the odds."
And if he fails, Socas said, he'll be looking to seal the deal two years out, again addressing issues of traffic, education and job training.
"I don't think these problems are going away in the next six months," he said, "but they need to be addressed quickly."
A profile of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) can be viewed at washingtonpost.com.