By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008
U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said yesterday that he will retire from Congress at the end of the year, closing a 14-year stint in the House during which he rose rapidly through the Republican leadership ranks and used his clout to champion local issues, including reviving a nearly bankrupt District and rebuilding the Springfield Mixing Bowl.
"It's time for me to take a sabbatical," Davis (R-Va.) said. "I'm not ruling out future public service, but it's time to be refreshed, to see what it's like in the private sector. That doesn't mean I will or won't come back."
Davis, 59, whose years in the House were rich with activism and characterized by a steady ascension, spent much of his career championing the District and securing money for major highway projects, such as the Mixing Bowl and the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
While on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he led for a time, Davis established the D.C. Financial Control Board to improve the government's financial solvency. He pushed through the D.C. College Access Act, which allows District graduates to qualify for in-state tuition at all state colleges. He also steered the nation's first federally funded school choice program. And he championed D.C. voting rights, although not successfully.
"Tom was like a good neighbor who saw that his neighbor was being treated unfairly," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said of Davis's leadership on the voting issue. "He took it to the brink, and he worked on it as a priority issue when most in his party did not agree with that view. That's the essence of a person who has a deep, principled sense of fair play."
Davis led reforms of the federal government's procurement system, claiming to make it more efficient, save taxpayer dollars and help a boomtown of high-tech government contractors sprout around the District. He is credited with helping to fuel the prosperity and job growth in Northern Virginia's economy in recent years, but he has been criticized for the volume of campaign contributions he has taken from defense contractors.
Davis takes credit for securing funding for the Wilson Bridge and closing the Lorton Correctional Complex. Nationally, he is credited as a past chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee with saving GOP majorities in 2000 and 2002, years when pundits wrongly predicted Democratic gains.
Davis said the decision to retire was difficult. Even as some media outlets were reporting this week that he would retire, he had not made up his mind, he said. Ultimately, he and his wife, former Virginia state senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, decided it was time for a rest.
Davis said he has received several unsolicited inquiries from potential employers. He plans to remain in office through the end of the term and to remain in the area.
Davis's decision triggers a potentially contentious race to replace him in the 11th Congressional District. Democrats Leslie L. Byrne and Doug Denneny have announced plans to run, and Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he will probably jump from the exploratory stage to start a campaign in the next week.
Byrne, a former congresswoman and state senator, and Connolly, the front-runner in the financial race, will be formidable opponents on issues including Iraq war funding, foreign policy and the Dulles Metrorail project.
On the Republican side, three candidates have emerged: Keith Fimian, an Oakton business owner; Steve Hunt, a Fairfax County School Board member; and Skip Dale.
Davis said yesterday that the GOP has a chance to hang on to his seat. But recent elections make it clear that the district is leaning Democratic, and without Davis's record and name recognition, a Republican will face a difficult time.
Davis's announcement yesterday reverberated through Congress, where he became the fifth veteran House Republican in the past week to say that he will not seek reelection this fall. Since losing their majority status after the 2006 elections, House Republicans have endured 28 retirements or resignation announcements, and many have occurred in competitive districts such as Davis's.
Davis's career in Congress ends with a swiftness that underscores how uncertain political life can be. A few months ago, he was viewed as a natural contender to replace U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who is also retiring at the end of the year.
Republicans and Democrats praised Davis and commended his moderate approach to expanding the economy and attracting transportation funding.
Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D), who is running for the U.S. Senate seat that Davis chose not to seek this year, said: "Tom Davis is a friend, and he's been a solid partner, reaching across party lines as we worked on issues ranging from transportation to military base closings to making sure the state kept its fiscal commitments to deliver services."
Davis's skills in political strategizing are legendary. He has been known to recite election results from decades-old presidential contests and rattle off precinct results in his district with ease. A former Senate page, he has spent years studying Virginia and preparing for a Senate race, nurturing candidates near and far, contributing money and fostering relationships with party leaders in outlying parts of the state.
Davis is steadfast in his belief that his moderate politics, focused more on economic growth and less on divisive social issues, is the right direction for the state GOP. The steady lean toward Democratic candidates in his district, which encompasses Fairfax County communities including Vienna, Oakton and Annandale as well as a sliver of Prince William County, shows that hard-core conservatism doesn't work anymore on statewide ballots, he said.
But Davis didn't count on the vehemence with which the GOP's conservative wing would resist his efforts to move the party to the middle. His decision not to run for the Senate was spurred in part by an ugly battle in the state party, which held a convention instead of a primary to choose its nominee. The decision favored former governor James S. Gilmore III, a more conservative candidate viewed as likelier to attract the party faithful who typically attend conventions.
"I'm not at all bitter," Davis said. "I'm just disappointed. We have such an opportunity to put together a coalition that's good for Virginia. Instead of opening up the party to people who agree with them on many issues, they've decided to have an admissions test [on abortion and taxes]. And that's not a winning formula for them or for Virginia."
Davis said he didn't know whether he would have defeated any of the Democrats likely to run for his seat. But in the end, it was time for a change, he said.
"We're just very tired," he said. "We're going to kick back and have some weekends."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.