Can Va.'s Davis Team Divorce Themselves From Politics?
He's Out of the Race. She Lost. What Now?

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Theirs is a partnership of politics and ambition that formed a decade ago and grew into something more.

He was a powerful congressman. She was a fledgling state candidate with promise. A master politician with a national profile, he took her under his wing and found his life's love.

They both craved the game, and they both sought power. When he moved on to the Senate, she could run for his seat, or perhaps a statewide office in Virginia. Together, they made a life centered around these ambitions.

And then Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the seven-term Republican from Fairfax County, decided last month that his dream job, the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, had slipped out of reach. And on Tuesday, the Democratic tide that rose in Northern Virginia swept out of office his wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a 10-year incumbent.

The rising arc of the Davis brand fell back to earth. Elections are cruel that way.

Now, the man who first came to the Hill as a Senate page and became a leading advocate in Congress for the affairs of the District, suddenly has to contemplate a future away from it all. He probably won't run for reelection unless he concludes it is a path to the Senate in 2012, say his associates.

"He saw a lifelong goal disappear," said Republican Gary H. Baise of McLean, a friend of the Davises. "He saw very methodically how he could get there; he would be the natural heir to John Warner. But all of a sudden, events spun out of control. He could no longer control them. So he devoted everything to helping his wife. And so there was just an enormous amount of prestige, power, perception, and his future tied up in his wife's race."

The story of how the Davises' success became interdependent is not hard to trace through those who have watched the political romance blossom over the years. Both declined to be interviewed for this article.

Davis entered politics in 1980, first as a Fairfax County district supervisor. He went to Congress as part of the Republican revolution of 1994 and rapidly rose through the ranks.

Devolites Davis is a native of Arlington who majored in math at the University of Virginia. A self-described Oakton soccer mom to four daughters, she caught the bug for politics in the mid-1990s. She brought a remarkable energy to her new career that she had previously applied to a statistical consulting business and to Girls Scouts and the PTA.

She ran twice, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors against Democrat Gerald E. Connolly. But when Davis met her through political circles, the congressman saw a chance to advance a Republican woman in Virginia politics. He urged her to run for a seat in Richmond and he offered to serve as her campaign manager.

"Jeannemarie was part of the Tom Davis team," recalled David B. Albo, a Republican delegate from Springfield and a personal friend of the Davises. "There were a number of us for whom Tom Davis is our mentor. . . . He got us into politics. He introduced us to people who knew how to run campaigns. He taught us how to door-knock."

When Connolly faced Devolites Davis in the 1990s, "she was inexperienced," the Democrat said. "The sum total of her community experience had been as a Girl Scout leader. But Tom groomed her and counseled her and helped her, and she became a very skilled, articulate public official."

In a video produced during the 1997 election, Devolites Davis appeared in her family kitchen with her four daughters and then-husband, John A. Devolites. Sprinkled throughout is footage of her with students, Girl Scouts and senior citizens. At the end, she strolls with Davis along a sidewalk, and then it is just Davis, speaking to the camera, averring what an "extraordinary" delegate his acolyte would make. (He also testified to her "deep faith in families," a declaration that later became the subject of some ridicule on the blogosphere.)

Most friends and associates of the Davises won't talk openly about when the romance began. Tom and his first wife, Peggy Davis, a Fairfax County gynecologist who, by most accounts, despised politics, were divorced in the fall of 2003, just a few months before the new couple declared their plans to wed.

"Jeannemarie is Tom's perfect soul mate," said Baise. "Peggy was not. I think everybody sort of sees that. They live, breathe and love the action."

John and Jeannemarie Devolites filed for divorce in 2000 but remained united as parents. They appeared together in court in 2002, when their daughter, Ashley, then 20, was sentenced to a nine-year prison term for her role in a series of armed robberies in Fairfax City.

After their wedding, the new Davises moved quickly to forge a marriage that seemed inseparable from their public life. They did joint speaking engagements and campaign events. They scheduled a vacation once with a return date timed so both could attend the Vienna Day Fourth of July Parade -- and later bragged about it to friends. During Virginia's winter legislative sessions, the Davises started a tradition of reserving Mondays for "date night." He would meet her at the Capitol in Richmond, say hello to their Republican colleagues, and have dinner alone with her before heading north for the busy week on Capitol Hill.

"They seem infatuated with each other," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), also a Davis recruit to state politics. "He is the congressman, he is the more influential, powerful person. But" -- and Rust chuckled here -- "she treats him as her husband, if you know what I mean. It's an equal partnership."

Davis often seemed to defer to his wife in public. He hovered near her at the state Capitol. He even agreed to a joint photo session wearing matching light blue shirts and white slacks, his fair hair nearly as coiffed as hers, and their two white Maltese dogs on their laps.

After walking away from his own ambition, Davis used every page in his playbook to save his wife and, at the same time, the Republican majority in the state Senate. He brought in his own seasoned staff and arranged for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to join Devolites Davis at a campaign event and praise her votes for gun control. As she flashed her white smile and flipped her always-perfect dark hair, her husband watched from the back of the room, his dual roles of doting husband and tactical genius in full effect.

It was a pure Davis move, helping his wife court Democrats in an increasingly left-leaning district and offering Bloomberg the prize of heavy media coverage.

But it wasn't enough.

Davis's investment in his wife's career clearly has come to be about more than politics. But his strategy to mentor as many Republicans as possible has been good for the party. "This is one thing people forget: Tom Davis is one of the biggest reasons why we got the Republican majority eight years ago," said Albo. "He helped devise the strategy. He also raised a ton of money."

Able to name every member of the House by the time he was in seventh grade, Davis is renowned as a gifted statistician whose brain contains a virtual almanac of political and demographic data. And he has seen for some time that the Republican Party was headed for trouble in Virginia. The GOP lost eight seats and control of the state Senate in Tuesday's election. He has also believed that as a moderate Republican with a long record appealing to both Republican and Democratic voters in rapidly urbanizing and diversifying Northern Virginia, he could play a key role in forging a path for the GOP's future.

And so it was all the more embittering to Davis to watch the Republican State Central Committee last month opt for a convention instead of a primary to nominate its candidate for U.S. Senate. The choice gave a big advantage to conservative former governor James S. Gilmore III, who has more support among the party activists who populate state conventions. Davis viewed it not only as a slap in the face but as political suicide for the party, given how poorly he believes Gilmore's conservatism will play against the pragmatic moderation of the likely Democratic nominee, former governor Mark R. Warner.

"He's clearly disappointed," said Michael W. Thompson, a longtime friend who is president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a center-right think tank based in Virginia.

Thompson believes that Davis chose to throw himself into his wife's reelection campaign not to salvage his own political career but out of love. Others believe it was a little bit of both. Had he helped Devolites Davis to victory, he and she would likely have promoted the win as a huge vindication of his political potency.

Even Thompson conceded: "If he had won it, there would have been all sorts of celebrations." But he added: "Jeannemarie's race was the equivalent of winning the lottery. It was a long shot. Just because she lost it doesn't mean he's a eunuch."

But it does mean both husband and wife are at a crossroads, adapting to an abrupt shift in the balance of their personal relationship. Should they plan for him to try for Senate next time? Should she regroup and try for office again? Should they both ditch it, Tom when his term is up, and make a new and more lucrative life for themselves in the private sector?

"That is the $64,000 question," said Baise, the couple's friend from McLean. "If he truly believes that he cannot achieve his ultimate goal of being U.S. senator, then my money would be on him taking one of these jobs and hanging it up."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company