After spending much of the '90s as a sleep-deprived, frequent-flying technology guru for investment banks, Democrat James Socas says he's ready to transfer the skills he used taking companies public to the world of public policy.
With a personal fortune that clocks in between $7 million and more than $20 million, Socas, 38, is challenging Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) in the Nov. 2 election and angling to become the youngest member of Virginia's congressional delegation. He chose Thomas Jefferson's birthday to launch his campaign in the 10th District.
Before that, Socas had spent about a year -- until February -- as an aide on the Senate banking committee, where he also worked for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). The stint left him disappointed in what he called a shortage of analytical rigor on Capitol Hill -- and hungry to run himself.
"I was surprised at how much the legislative process was like a deal," Socas said. "You have to be ruthless in understanding how much leverage you have. That's something I did for a living."
Politicians have long adopted the language of business, employing such terms as metrics and synergy and promising they'll serve as CEO. But Socas has taken that a step further with his full-bodied embrace of the comparison between legislating and the at times brutal and hardhearted realm of investment banking. A word Socas comes around to frequently is "ruthless."
Socas points to his role as banker on the best performing U.S. initial public offering in 2000 to illustrate the way he would approach congressional business. The database software company Embarcadero Technologies of San Francisco beat out Krispy Kreme for the top honor.
"To do well, you have to be extraordinarily rigorous. You have to know your stuff. You have to know the details and the numbers," Socas says. "It's a pretty ruthless, high-stakes business."
Socas accuses 12-term incumbent Wolf, 65, of losing sight of the transportation issues that Socas says must top any 10th-District priority list. Wolf, who says he has been involved in every key transportation initiative in the region, dismisses that, arguing that Socas has little grasp of local history or issues.
"He doesn't understand the area," Wolf said, noting that Socas moved to Virginia last year from San Francisco. "He's a millionaire who moved from California who's literally making an effort to buy a congressional seat here."
Socas responds that people can't buy their way into Congress and calls such talk a diversionary tactic. In fact, he said, his business experience tells him money is not always a blessing. "The guys who had the most money stunk it up," he said.
Socas's stint as a congressional aide sharpened his concerns about soaring budget deficits and what he said is a lack of attention to helping U.S. workers prepare for global competition. The banking committee, he said, was also a revealing perch from which to view "the corrupting influence of money" in politics.
There was, for instance, the time a large multinational bank came calling with a proposal to change the tax code.
"It applied to one company, and it was their company," Socas said. "It's the way the game is played right now."
He would not reveal the company, saying he did not want to embarrass its leadership. The bill wasn't passed. Socas said he also was distressed to see tax policy decisions based on what he considered to be minimal information -- often a single sheet of paper listing only years and dollar amounts, not what the projections were based on.
"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.
"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.