Stamford — Rep. Jim Himes is one of Washington’s tightrope walkers, trying to balance the fiscal concerns of his wealthy district with the core principles he holds as a Democrat.
“I’m a moderate and independent Democrat,” Himes said.
And that may be, at least when compared with the four other Democrats who represent Connecticut in the House. They are less eager than their Fairfield County colleague to cut the federal budget.
This is a defining year for Himes. If he wins re-election, he’ll move up in seniority on the House Financial Services Committee, a key panel for a congressman representing a district that’s home to so many financial service executives it’s nicknamed “Wall Street on Long Island Sound.” Another electoral win will also cement Himes’ hold on a fickle district whose representation in Congress has swung between the parties since 1859.
Unlike Connecticut’s other incumbent House members — except Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who is running for the U.S. Senate — Himes is in a competitive race this year against Republican businessman Steve Obsitnik of Westport.
Yet Himes shrugs off the challenge from his rival, a political neophyte.
“Steve Obsitnik isn’t ready for prime time,” Himes said. “So I think about him less and less.”
Himes, 46, has represented the 4th District since 2009. He’s in office because he’s been able to win the support of Democrats and undecided voters — and maybe even some Republicans — in a swing district. He defeated Republican Rep. Chris Shays in 2008 by the narrowest of margins, less than 1 percent, but easily won re-election in 2010, a year many freshmen Democrats in swing districts lost their seats.
About 31 percent of the voters in Himes’ southwestern Connecticut district register as Democrats, 28 percent register as Republicans and nearly 41 percent as unaffiliated or independent.
“The reason he plays out so well in his district is that he’s very hard to pinpoint,” said Sacred Heart University political science professor Gary Rose. “Nevertheless, I don’t put the 4th District in the ‘safe’ column.”
Himes has split with the majority of Democrats on several important issues, including last year’s budget deal that imposes “sequestration,” or automatic cuts, if Congress doesn’t come up wiith about $100 billion in savings by New Year’s Day. Himes voted with a majority of Republicans for the bill.
When Rose’s book, “Connecticut’s Fourth Congressional District,” was published last year, Rose said he sent Himes a copy.
“He read it thoroughly and then called me up,” Rose said. “He wanted me to know he is more of a centrist Democrat than he was described as in the book.”
Himes’ greatest credential as a moderate is his support for a budget proposed by former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. It calls for budget cuts and tax increases and reforms of Medicare and Social Security, long considered the third rail of politics.
The Simpson-Bowles plan never got a House vote because it failed to win enough votes in a special budget panel. GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan was one of the “no” votes. But a similar plan proposed by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, was put to a test on the House floor.
It failed miserably in the 435-member House of Representatives. Only 38 lawmakers, including Himes, voted for it. LaTourette quit Congress in disgust.
The vote earned Himes an “Economic Patriot” award from the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to shrink the federal deficit.
Obsitnik has cast Himes’ support for the deficit reduction bill as a symbolic vote aimed at disguising his backing of the $787 billion economic stimulus bill and other costly legislation. To help propagate this view, Obsitnik has established a website, www.himesreportcard.com.
That website also accuses Himes of “suffocating the banking industry” with his vote on the Dodd-Frank bill, which set new regulations on the financial industry after the economic meltdown of 2008.
“He believes in central planning,” Obsitnik said.
Himes is now dancing around about the Dodd-Frank act, named in part after former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, saying it could be improved by easing regulations on the smaller banks and equity firms.
“He’s been very strategic,” Rose said. “Unlike other Democrats, he’s been able to raise funds from Wall Street.”
Himes said Wall Street executives “see me as different from the president” when it comes to their concerns.
“That community says President Obama vilified them, but I don’t vilify them,” he said.
While Himes disparages the appeal of rival Obsitnik, he said he “will never and can never take my constituents for granted.”
Himes is using the congressional recess to stump across the district, canvassing voters and looking for support everywhere, including among local Hispanic officials.The Himes campaign has also scheduled a “Women for Himes” rally Saturday in Norwalk featuring Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and state Democratic Party Chair Nancy Dinardo.
Himes recently visited Cytec Specialty Chemicals in Stamford, where he donned safety glasses and a lab coat. The lawmaker listened intently to scientists explain Cytec’s operations. Then he asked what he could do for them.
“I have to work very hard to know what people need,” he said.
Himes was born in Lima, Peru, where his American parents were working for the Ford Foundation. His parents separated when he was 9 years old, and Himes moved to the United States with his mother and sisters. He attended Harvard and Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
“He’s one of the brightest people in the building,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
But Courtney said that Himes, despite his inclusion on the Hill newspapers’ “50 Most Beautiful” list this year, “is not really your central casting kind of a congressman.”
“He’s not super gregarious,” Courtney said.
Himes worked for 12 years for Goldman Sachs, becoming a vice president of the investment firm. Then he switched gears to work at a nonprofit that created affordable housing in New York.
He became involved in the town he lived in with his wife Mary and his two daughters, becoming a commissioner, then board chairman of the Greenwich Housing Authority. He also joined the town’s Board of Finance.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3nd District, said Himes’ has an “amazing combination of experience” that’s a good fit for his district.
“Sometimes we agree on issues, sometimes we don’t,” said the more liberal DeLauro. “But I respect where he’s coming from.”