U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) hasn't faced a serious challenge from a Democrat since 1986, by both parties' accounts. That could change this fall when Democratic candidate James Socas goes head-to-head with Wolf.
Although he's never held a political office, the 37-year-old Socas has already beaten the record for second-quarter fund-raising totals by all previous challengers to Wolf's seat. With more than $230,000 in the bank — mostly from individuals plus $1,000 from the Democratic National Committee, making Socas the only congressional campaign the party has contributed to in this cycle.
Sitting in the McLean Family Restaurant on a recent Thursday morning sipping a cup of coffee with lots of cream, Socas, a former investment banker, looks the part of a politician. He's got the oxford shirt, the angular jaw, the careful hair and the measured talk of someone with a message — someone who's got big plans. He's "a young Mark Warner," as Loudoun County Democratic Committee chairman Steve Deak put it.
"I think the whole country is going through a huge change and nobody is Washington is focused on it," Socas said. He sees the 10th District, despite it conservative voting history, as deceptively diverse and growing more so with each influx of new families. It's a place where, he said, "people care about the same things that people across the country care about."
SOCAS WAS BORN in the Bronx in 1966, the grandson of Argentinean immigrants and the son of an inner-city schoolteacher. He attended the University of Virginia, where he was the University's Honor System chairman. He simultaneously worked Wall Street and garnered an MBA from Harvard Business School. But after making significant sums on Wall Street during the mid-'90s boom, Socas decided it was time to reevaluate.
"The right thing to do with my life is not to stay and make money," Socas said. "The right thing to do is to try to give back."
Socas and his young family moved to McLean in early 2002. Working as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, Socas learned first-hand about one of Northern Virginia's most visible woes: traffic. It would become one half of Socas's two-pronged political platform. Since 1980, Socas said, the average commuter's annual travel time has increased by over 40 hours.
"People have lost a week of salary to sit in traffic," he said. "You miss the dinner with the kids. You don't see them when you get up. People are ready to have a revolt in the streets over lack of progress in transportation."
Socas claimed that transportation issues are not "a priority" for Wolf, despite the fact that Wolf is credited with bringing the possibility of an extension of Metro services to Dulles International Airport closer to reality. Earlier this month, Wolf's office announced the addition of video detectors to the section of Route 7 between Tysons Corner and Leesburg. The detectors will measure patterns and help engineers ease the heavy traffic flow.
If elected, Socas vows to bring more federal dollars to Northern Virginia road improvements. With several federal facilities in the district, "we could make a good argument that we deserve more than other districts get," Socas said.
THE OTHER HALF of Socas' platform is public education, and the story is similar to transportation. The 10th District, Socas said, just isn't getting its fair share of federal funds for education.
"I think people are concerned about educational opportunity, because they know educational opportunity is the key to lifetime opportunity," Socas said.
According to a study released by the Socas campaign that draws on statistics from the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, 10th District public schools receive, on average, 34 percent less federal funding than other Virginia schools.
Socas is confident about his choice of platforms. "You don't have to do a fancy poll," he said. "People care about education and transportation."
Democrats in the district are confident about Socas' chances. "He sees issues very clearly as they pertain to today," said 10th District Democratic Committee Chair Eve Wilson. "You're talking about a younger generation. He sees the issues that are going to be facing them, their children, the economics of it, the consequences of spending hours in traffic."
Deak shares Wilson's sentiments. "It's a tough area, but with all the stuff nationally, that will help James," he said.
Both Wilson and Deak shrug off the biggest criticism levied at Socas so far — that he's not "local" enough. Socas got his undergraduate degree at UVA and spent time working for Perot Systems in Reston after graduation, but his relatively recent move from New York to McLean just under two years ago is what sticks in some critics' minds.
"This is where he calls his home," Deak said.
Wilson, who has lived in Loudoun County for almost 40 years, was philosophical. "Almost everyone here has come from somewhere else," she said.
Socas himself is quick to point out that Wolf lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Northern Virginia. Wolf took his seat as a congressman in 1980; he moved to the area in 1961.
MEANWHILE, THE REPUBLICANS are gearing up for the usual campaign, according to Wolf's chief of staff Dan Scandling.
"[Wolf] is going to run on his record, talking about the things he's accomplished, not things he promises to accomplish if elected," Scandling said.