‘Bullheaded’ and a Rhodes Scholar, and Now Headed to Capitol Hill

By David M. Halbfinger
New York Times

Fresh from defeating Representative Christopher Shays, the 10-term Republican from Connecticut’s Fourth District, Jim Himes is cautioning against expecting any miracles during his freshman term in office.

“I’m not under any misapprehension that Jim Himes is going to unilaterally reform the health care system,” he said on Friday, in between thanking supporters and fielding calls from reporters in Peru, where he was born.

Then again, it was not out of an abundance of caution that Mr. Himes, 42, a Goldman Sachs investment banker-turned-financier of low-income housing, decided to challenge Mr. Shays early last year. The district had been carried by the Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, but Mr. Shays had fended off tough challenges in his last two races. And no one in February 2007 was counting on an Obama landslide.

“The consensus was that it would be hard, but not impossible,” said the square-jawed Mr. Himes. “I thought, O.K. — hard but not impossible I’ll do.”

His friends say that Mr. Himes, a Rhodes scholar who was captain of the lightweight crew team at Harvard, has plenty of experience pulling off daunting feats. There was the time when, in the Northeast blackout of 2003, he could not reach his wife and daughters. He put on a pair of sneakers and walked home — from Union Square in Manhattan to Cos Cob, Conn., a 31-mile trek that took nine hours.

From a safe remove, Mr. Himes tosses this off to his “bullheaded stubbornness, mixed with a little bit of unhinged.” But Don Carlson, who met him at Harvard and later followed him to Goldman Sachs, said he had seen what he called Mr. Himes’s “rower’s look” several times.

On 9/11, he said, Goldman Sachs workers were told not to leave the building, but Mr. Himes, who had volunteered in the rescue squad as a teenager in Lawrenceville, N.J., headed out to help. “When he sets his eyes to something and is really determined, there’s no stopping the guy,” Mr. Carlson said.

In the same way, in his race against Mr. Shays — one that Mr. Himes turned from a long shot into a tossup through his early fund-raising, assiduous organizing and focused messaging — Mr. Himes “just decided he was 5 points behind” in the final weeks, even when his aides believed they were winning, Mr. Carlson said. “He’d never give up hope, but he’d never stop pushing as hard as he could.”

Mr. Himes won by nearly 5 percentage points, rolling up big margins in cities like Bridgeport and even carrying Shelton, where voters split their tickets to vote for John McCain. Mr. Shays warned voters that Mr. Himes would raise their taxes, but Mr. Shays’s biggest wound was self-inflicted, when he echoed Mr. McCain’s defense of the economy as “fundamentally sound.”

Mr. Himes was born in Lima, Peru, where his father worked for the Ford Foundation, and spent his early childhood there and in Bogotá, Colombia. When his parents divorced, he and his two sisters moved to New Jersey with their mother, who worked as an administrator for nonprofit groups like the Aspen Institute and for the State Board of Higher Education.

Being engaged in the world was not a matter of choice for Mr. Himes, said David Earling, a childhood friend: “That dinner table was where, as a 10-year-old, you’d better have a view of what’s going on and what the headlines were.”

Mr. Carlson, who wrote Mr. Himes’s recommendation for the Rhodes Scholarship, called him “a remarkably reflective guy.” When Mr. Himes proposed writing a college paper on homelessness, Mr. Carlson invited him to spend a night at a shelter where he worked. “But he went out and spent the night on the street with the homeless, and wrote a beautiful and poetic paper that shared their perspectives.”

After his Rhodes scholar experience at Oxford, where he earned a degree in Latin American studies, Mr. Himes said he pursued jobs at the State Department and on Capitol Hill before Goldman lured him to join its new Latin America group. He soon wound up crunching numbers and traveling the world selling investors on the landmark privatization of Telmex, the Mexican telephone company.

Goldman disbanded the group after the 1994 Mexican peso crisis. Mr. Himes later worked in mergers and acquisitions and in a technology group. But when the dot-com boom went bust, Mr. Himes, already rattled by 9/11, did not like his options at the firm. “Between that, and a newborn and 3-year-old I never saw,” he said, “I’d had enough.”

In Mexico, he had become interested in ways of fighting poverty with business-oriented solutions. With that in mind, he found his way to the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit financer of low-income housing, which commissioned him to study personal finances and predatory financial services in the Bronx.

“It was a real eye-opener to spend time with people you don’t often meet at 85 Broad Street,” he said, referring to Goldman’s headquarters.

Rafael Cestero, who hired him at the Enterprise Foundation, said it was not the first inquiry he had received from a restless Wall Streeter. “But most of the time, they never call you back,” he said. “With Jim it was different.”

When Mr. Cestero joined the Bloomberg administration as a senior housing official in 2004, he named Mr. Himes to replace him. “He picked up the business of Enterprise that takes most people years to learn in months,” Mr. Cestero said. “Frankly he understood it better than some of us who’d been there a long time. He’s an incredibly quick learner.”

At the foundation, Mr. Himes helped conceive a $230 million acquisition fund to give developers of lower-income housing an edge in competing with market-rate developers to buy scarce city land. Mr. Himes had the insight, Mr. Cestero said, to figure out that banks would embrace it if their risk was shared with philanthropic foundations and the city. The fund is designed to finance purchases of enough land for 30,000 of the 165,000 units of housing that Mr. Bloomberg has promised. Mr. Cestero said, “Jim was the leader that drove this.”

At home in Greenwich, Mr. Himes said he got involved in Democratic politics after President Bush’s election because he saw “some pretty awful policies” on the horizon. After helping a friend’s campaign in town, he won a seat on the board of the housing authority, which he helped restructure, firing consultants and hiring a new director.

It even completed four units, an accomplishment in a town where the prevailing attitude is not Nimby, Mr. Himes said; it is “Banana — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”

Mr. Himes was a board member of the Greenwich Alliance for Education, which supports public education, and his daughters, now 9 and 6, attend the public schools.

Kevin Cameron, who roomed with Mr. Himes at Harvard and who lives in Greenwich, said Mr. Himes would have credibility on environmental issues: He drives a Prius, commuted by bike and train and keeps his house so cold in the winter that guests know to wear sweaters.

In the campaign, Mr. Himes’s résumé proved fortunate; the financial crisis played to his background as an investment banker who had spent years in housing finance. His Wall Street experience also made him a safe choice for the moneyed voters of Fairfield County, said Art House, a Democratic leader. “They weren’t afraid of him the way they would be of a classic liberal,” Mr. House said.

Mr. Carlson warned that Mr. Himes could turn out to surprise people, not only in his district but in Washington. There was that time, he said, a winter or two ago, when Mr. Himes fell through thin ice while skating. But he had two screwdrivers in his pocket to pull himself up — just in case.

“In the classic Jim way, he was completely prepared,” Mr. Carlson said. “He’s confident, resourceful, but pushing the edge. He loves to push the edge.”