U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said today he will retire from Congress at the end of the year, bringing to a close a 14-year stint in the House of Representatives during which he rose rapidly through the ranks of Republican leadership and championed such issues as D.C. voting rights and a vibrant defense-contracting industry.
"It's time for me to take a sabbatical," Davis said. "I would say 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, a self-described political wonk who has wanted to serve in Congress since childhood, said the decision was remarkably difficult. He said that even as some media outlets were reporting this week that he would retire, he had not made up his mind.
"Jeannemarie and I were still chewing on this last night," he said. He noted that he has had multiple conversations with employers and expects the opportunities for private work to be rich and rewarding. Davis said he plans to fill out his term and also stay in the area after stepping down.
Davis's career in Congress has come to a close with great swiftness, underscoring how uncertain political life can be. Just a few months ago, he was viewed as a natural contender to replace U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who also retires at the end of this year. But a series of events pushed Davis to withdraw from consideration and then, this week, to leave elective office altogether.
His years in the House were rich with activism and characterized by a steady ascension to power. As chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and, before that, chairman of its D.C. subcommittee, Davis championed the plight of the District. He 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 instate tuition at all state colleges. He pushed through the nation's first federally-funded school choice program. And he championed D.C. voting rights, although on that issue he did not succeed.
Also on the oversight committee, Davis led reforms of the government's procurement system, claiming to make it more efficient, save taxpayer dollars and help a boomtown of high-tech government contractors to grow up around the District. With that advocacy, Davis is credited with helping to fuel the prosperity and job growth that has characterized Northern Virginia's economy in recent years. He has also been criticized, however, for the volume of campaign contributions he has taken from defense contractors. And although he has said the charge is baseless, he has been accused of providing unique access to the head of his wife's consulting company, ICG Government, which advises clients on procuring federal contracts.
More regionally, Davis takes credit for securing funding for the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge and closing the Lorton prison and turning it into open space. And nationally, he is credited, as a past chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee, with saving Republican majorities in both 2000 and 2002, years when pundits wrongly predicted Democratic gains.
Davis's skill at the strategy of politics is legendary. He has been known to recite election results from decades-old presidential contests and to rattle off precinct results in his own district with the ease of a kindergartner reciting the alphabet. A former Senate page, he has spent years studying Virginia and preparing for a Senate race, nurturing down-ballot 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 own 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 of his own district, which encompasses such Fairfax County communities as 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.
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 opt-out of a Senate bid was spurred in part by an ugly battle within the Virginia Republican Party, which decided to hold 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 win over 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 was also motivated by the difficult reelection battle his wife was facing last fall. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis ultimately lost her seat in the state Senate, but not before her husband poured all his political acumen -- not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions -- into the campaign.
After the election, political observers began wondering if Davis would leave politics altogether. For one, his wife's overwhelming loss illustrated how much the 11th Congressional District has changed in recent years -- raising the specter of a difficult reelection campaign for him. And for another, friends and acquaintances observed, there wasn't much more Davis felt he could accomplish in the Democrat-controlled House.
Davis said he is certain he would have beaten any of the Democrats likely to run for his seat. But in the end, it was time for a change.
"We're just very tired," he said of himself and his wife. "We're going to kick back and have some weekends."
January 30, 2008; 1:04 PM ET
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