The Long Shot
Maryland Congressman John Delaney has spent much of his life taking risks that paid off. Now the Potomac resident is taking his biggest risk-he's running for president.
Photo by Skip Brown
In the mid-'90s, as his company, HealthCare Financial Partners, was poised to go public, John Delaney was in his Friendship Heights office on the fourth floor of 2 Wisconsin Circle, his loafers off as he made calls. He suddenly heard raised voices coming from down the hall. Someone had brazenly strolled into the unguarded office, grabbed a laptop and bolted as employees watched, paralyzed by the boldness of the theft.
Delaney scrambled out of his office in his socks, burst through the stairwell door and raced down three flights into the Metro station, looking for the thief. “He didn’t catch the guy,” recalls former business partner Edward Nordberg Jr. “Maybe it was better for the thief that he didn’t.”
Those who know Rep. John Delaney say he’s not a stand-around kind of guy. He interceded in brawls during college, abruptly altered his law school class schedule to match the one of a woman he liked, and once leaped into the swift current of an Idaho river to move a fallen tree while he was tubing. He built a business empire through three successive startups, which made him a favored son of venture capitalists and pushed his estimated net worth to $233 million. That success helped propel him into Congress, defeating his party’s anointed candidate and bucking the Democratic establishment along the way. Last July, Delaney announced that he’s running for president, more than three years before the votes are cast. A potential run for governor of Maryland seemed too timid a response to the “shock” of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.
“After Hillary Clinton lost, I viewed it as one of those moments when you have to think differently about everything,” he says. He started to wonder: What if?
Delaney’s friend David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, ascribes the congressman’s successes to his “velocity”— his sheer drive and ability to execute. “We used to take bets on how quickly John would respond to BlackBerry emails,” Bradley says. “Five of us sent messages at the same time to trick him; he got back to all of us within 30 seconds.” Delaney has a “striving gene,” Bradley says.
Delaney’s decision to seek housing on Pennsylvania Avenue, rather than Annapolis, surprised pundits as well as the public, but not those who know him best. “John is not someone who is serendipitous in his decision-making,” says longtime friend and business partner Jason Fish.
Bradley recalls a ski outing in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Delaney has a home, and the moment they approached a precipice along a difficult run. “The only expert skier among us said, ‘This is hard, but I think I can do it.’ I said I didn’t even want to try,” Bradley says with a smile. “John just plunged over the edge.”
Photo by Skip Brown
On a Monday this past October, Delaney sits at the head of a rectangular table in a town house he owns on East Capitol Street in Northeast D.C., surrounded by a dozen presidential campaign staffers. They talk about scheduling and strategies, then move on to social media. A recent video is deemed inadequate, mainly due to poor lighting. There’s banter about the upcoming annual dinner of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, a fundraiser formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, but renamed due to sensitivity about the presidential slaveholders. “Now it’s called Kennedy-Clinton,” a staffer advises, “but maybe it would be better if it was Kennedy-[Martin Luther] King.”
“I’m not going to tell them what to call their dinner,” Delaney jokes.
In politics, strivers and up-and-comers are cautioned to wait their turn. When Delaney decided in 2011 to run for Maryland’s reconfigured 6th Congressional District seat which includes Gaithersburg and Germantown, and parts of Potomac and Rockville—he acted against the wishes of Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democratic Party chief, who favored state Sen. Rob Garagiola. Delaney won the primary and then defeated 10-term GOP stalwart Roscoe Bartlett. At 54, the Potomac resident claims to be the only former CEO of a publicly traded company serving in the House of Representatives. In March 2017, Fortune magazine named Delaney one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” the only member of the House of Representatives to make the list.
Delaney’s wife, April McClain- Delaney, is a regulatory lawyer and the Washington director of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to educating families on social media, technology and digital literacy. They have four daughters, ranging in age from 10 to 25, are active in philanthropic circles, and enjoy a long list of friends across party lines. Most expected that a run for governor was next for Delaney, but a nine-figure nest egg—he’s the fourth wealthiest member of Congress—allows one to think big and skip a rung or two on whatever ladder is available. “April and I felt we were in a unique position to do this,” he says.
Delaney began considering a White House bid last April, and sought the advice of six close friends in Congress, whom he declined to name, as well as Bradley and his wife, Katherine. He also spoke to longtime friend Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to former vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. By June, Delaney decided to make the run, and he used a July 2017 op-ed in The Washington Post to define his platform. In it, Delaney wrote: “As a progressive businessman, I’ve made it a priority to be solutions-oriented and have been consistently recognized as one of the most innovative and bipartisan members of Congress. I’ve done this by simultaneously celebrating the power of our free-market economy while insisting that there is a role for government to set goals and rules of the road and take care of those who are left behind.”
In speaking about his friend’s long-shot candidacy, Klain notes that no one expected Trump to be elected, either. Veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor of the online newsletter Inside Elections, describes Delaney as “thoughtful, serious,” but says his candidacy is not viewed positively by campaign veterans because “he isn’t near the party’s ideological sweet spot, which is far to his left.”
“The Baltimore Orioles are more likely to win both the World Series and the Super Bowl next year than John Delaney is to win the Democratic nomination for president,” Rothenberg says.
Delaney, pictured with his congressional staff at the Longworth building on Capitol Hill, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012. He began considering a White House bid last April. Photo by Skip Brown
Delaney likes to tell a story about his mother’s father, who epitomized the persistence and can-do spirit Delaney respects and admires. In his native Durham, England, Delaney’s grandfather, Albert Wallis, played professional soccer despite having lost his left hand and wrist in a boyhood accident. In 1923, when Wallis attempted to enter the United States, he ran up against the Immigration Act of 1907, designed to limit the influx of immigrants by placing entry restrictions on disabled individuals and others.
“He appealed the decision,” Delaney recalls, “and found himself in a huge room on Ellis Island waiting for his 30 seconds with the judge.” As he fidgeted nervously in the back row of the packed room, Wallis vowed to prove that he could be a productive member of American society. Finally, the judge arrived, and as he adjusted his robe, Wallis noticed that he had but one arm. “It was at that moment,” Wallis told his grandson, “that I knew I’d be an American.”
Delaney grew up in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, a town in Bergen County encompassing only a square mile. His father, Jack, was an electrician and for n59 years a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Delaney describes him as a “tough guy” who’d work the job, punch out and join his buddies at the tavern for a beer or two. Jack expected his son to work, too, after school and during the summer at whatever construction gig was available. John sometimes helped his father collect spare pieces of copper wire that the elder Delaney would sell to make extra money. “My dad was very proud of me, but he thought about [the] world differently,” Delaney says. “He didn’t think in aspirational terms. My mother thought each generation had to do better than the one before.”