February 28, 2024

DealBook: For Jim Himes, Wall Street Ties Swing From Asset to Liability

Representative Jim Himes, right, at Norden Systems, a division of Northrop Grumman, at its campus in Norwalk, Conn. Mr. Himes worked at Goldman Sachs for 12 years.Josh Haner/The New York TimesRepresentative Jim Himes, right, at Norden Systems, a division of Northrop Grumman, at its campus in Norwalk, Conn. Mr. Himes previously worked at Goldman Sachs for 12 years.

Jim Himes, a second-term congressman from Connecticut, is a surviving member of one of Washington’s most endangered species: a Democrat with Wall Street ties.

A former Goldman Sachs banker whose district includes the hedge fund capitals of Greenwich and Stamford, Conn., Mr. Himes understands the world of high finance better than most of his Congressional peers. And lately, as a series of contentious regulatory and tax proposals has brought the moneyed class under fire, he has been playing the part of a Wall Street whisperer, trying to bring well-heeled Democrats in the financial industry back to the party that has made villains of them.

“I do hear anger,” Mr. Himes said in a recent interview. “Many of them know me from my previous life, and they do call me and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”

Mr. Himes, 45, once benefited from his Wall Street past. His 12-year career at Goldman played well with voters near his Greenwich home during his first campaign in 2008, and he brought in more than $500,000 in donations from the securities and investments industry, nearly $150,000 of which came from individuals at Goldman.

Shortly after he beat out the incumbent, Christopher Shays, to win the seat, his expertise landed him a plum assignment on the House Financial Services Committee, where he helped write the House version of the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial regulatory overhaul. Christopher S. Murphy, a fellow Connecticut Democrat, recalled seeing Mr. Himes giving impromptu economics lessons on the House floor during debates over the contentious bill.

“There was always a crowd around Jim,” Mr. Murphy recalled. “He very quickly became a safe harbor for moderate members who wanted to make sure we corrected the abuses of Wall Street without killing the markets.”

But this year, Mr. Himes’s financial background went from asset to liability. During the debt ceiling debate this summer, President Obama took aim at bankers and hedge fund managers, characterizing their tax rates as unfairly low and calling for an end to corporate tax loopholes. Mr. Obama repeated those calls in the budget debate this month, and recently proposed a minimum tax rate for people making more than $1 million a year, a provision he called the Buffett Rule, after the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett.

For Mr. Himes, whose district has one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the country, each new instance of fiery rhetoric meant more phone calls and e-mails from financiers angry about their status as left-wing punching bags.

“I like Jim, but I feel sorry for the guy,” said one hedge fund manager in Mr. Himes’s district, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging his relationship with the congressman. “Every time Obama says ‘fat cat banker’ and ‘greedy hedge fund manager,’ I’m sure he cringes.”

With a neat side part, a sharp jaw and the trim physique of a former Harvard lightweight crew captain, Mr. Himes, a Rhodes Scholar who once modeled for Ralph Lauren, still looks every bit the financial executive. In 2002, he left Goldman to take a job at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing nonprofit, where he stayed until running for office in 2008.

Asked about his time at Goldman, Mr. Himes said he thought the company’s culture had changed between 1990, when he joined it as a junior banker in its Latin American division, and when he left it nearly a decade ago.

“When I joined it was a firm of 4,000 people, and when I left it was a firm of 22,000,” he said. “When it was a firm of 4,000, all the partners knew each other, and if somebody screwed up, it meant you were going to hurt your friends. Now that it’s a corporation, you’ve lost that sense of family.”

Mr. Himes, who was born in Peru during one of his father’s stints abroad as an executive with the Ford Foundation, is not eager to become known as the big-bank congressman, despite his fond memories of working at Goldman. He has fanned out his political interests in recent years, working on legislation on energy-efficient housing and early childhood education. And last week, he held a rally in Norwalk to celebrate the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for openly gay service members.

As Mr. Himes prepares to run for a third term, his focus on issues beyond Wall Street may be a nod to the current mood toward the financial services sector.

“I don’t know that any politician, let alone a Democratic politician, is going to score points with his constituents by talking about his connections to the hedge fund industry,” said Bruce McGuire, the president of the Connecticut Hedge Fund Association.

But Mr. Himes also said that the emotions stirred up by the financial crisis had made reforming Wall Street using his preferred method — logical, Spock-like analysis — nearly impossible.

“You don’t always feel it in Greenwich or the Upper East Side, but there’s a huge emotional dislocation out there,” he said. “Americans think this is an unproductive sector, and it’s a little hard to talk about capital formation in the context of the emotion.”

Mr. Himes, who wears a blue woven bead bracelet given to him by a Zen master, has been trying to calm the furor surrounding Wall Street by staking out middle ground in many of the financial issues facing legislators. He favors regulating some kinds of derivatives, the exotic instruments that Mr. Buffett once called “financial weapons of mass destruction,” while leaving others intact, like crop futures used by farmers to hedge against price swings.

He also has a tempered view on the issue of carried interest, the type of income earned by some hedge fund and private equity managers that is taxed at lower rates than ordinary income. Mr. Himes favors a blended rate that would tax carried interest above the lower capital gains rate but below the rate paid on ordinary income, to accommodate the different kinds of risk taken on by investors.

“The good news is, I can talk about alternate swap-execution facilities,” Mr. Himes said of his approach to legislating. “The bad news is, my whole being is about having a fairly cool conversation about what’s happening. I don’t throw bombs. Michele Bachmann is a lot more fun than I am.”

But if Mr. Himes’s conciliatory streak has hurt his image, it has also made him an asset to moderate Democrats who are looking to reform the markets without resorting to vitriol. And as 2012 approaches, his ability to speak the language of the ultra-rich may come in handy for Democratic politicians — the president included — who have seen their Wall Street campaign donations dry up.

“Look, there are some Wall Street guys who are never coming back to the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Murphy, Mr. Himes’s colleague in Congress. “But Jim is a committed Democrat who can also show the financial world that not all of us have two horns.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6002e512551f9442467120b8597037e2

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