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Falls Church’s Don Beyer Off To Switzerland as U.S. Envoy

Donald S. Beyer, Jr., who resides in Old Town Alexandria, has an uncanny way of ingratiating himself with just about everyone he meets, from the car mechanics he hires at his family’s car dealerships to the high officials who have kept on him for years to run again for high Virginia office.

(Editor’s Note – Falls Church businessman and former Virginia Lieutenant Governor Donald S. Beyer, Jr., this month begins his service as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland. A former president of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, Beyer’s ties to Falls Church, home to the flagship of his and brother Mike Beyer’s Don Beyer Volvo dealership, have always been close. This article originally appeared on Localkicks.com)

Donald S. Beyer, Jr. of Old Town Alexandria has an uncanny way of ingratiating himself with just about everyone he meets, from the car mechanics he hires at his family’s car dealerships to the high officials who have kept on him for years to run again for high Virginia office.

“We need good people like Don Beyer to stay in the fight. Let’s hope he plans to run for something again soon,” Gov. Tim Kaine (D) gushed at an election-eve political rally last year for Barack Obama.

Sorry, Governor, you’ll just have to wait.

Beyer’s resume has been snapped up by the new President, who appointed him Ambassador Plenipotentiary to both Switzerland and Lichtenstein in early June, representing United States foreign policy initiatives in Western Europe. Beyer was confirmed by the full Senate last week, and leaves for Bern, the Swiss capital, this weekend.

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Don Beyer at home in Old Town Saturday. He paused from his packing for this portrait for Alexandria Living Legends initiative, sponsored by Local Kicks and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. Photo by Nina Tisara/Tisara Photography

“To serve my country overseas is in my blood,” Beyer, 59,  told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his July 16 confirmation hearing. “I am deeply honored to have been nominated by President Obama to serve as his personal representative, and I am grateful for the confidence of the President and Secretary Clinton.”

Clara Beyer, his grandmother, was a federal civil servant for 50 years, Beyer said. From 1938 to 1953, she served as an advisor to the annual International Labor Organization conference in Geneva, and during her last 15 years, she worked with USAID, traveling to dozens of countries to consult on economic development.

Otto Sternoff Beyer, his grandfather, served as chair of the National Mediation Board for President Roosevelt. In 1948, he was appointed to represent the United States in securing the cooperation of employers and unions to stimulate production under the Marshall Plan, Beyer said.

Beyer was born in Trieste, Italy, the son of U.S. Army officer Don Beyer, Sr. After graduating from West Point, Beyer’s father served in Korea and then in Trieste, Italy, helping to keep the peace along the disputed Yugoslav-Italian border.

“This is where I was born in 1950,” said Beyer, the eldest of six children. “When I came home to the United States at age two, I spoke only Italian, a gift from my first overseas experience.”

Beyer was raised in the District, graduating from Gonzaga College High School in 1968, where he was salutatorian of his class. In 1972, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College, with a degree in economics.

A resident of Alexandria for two decades, Beyer and his family attend Christ Church in Old Town, and says he enjoys reading, exercise and hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Meeting Beyer for the first time, as I did 12 years ago at a country pig roast, is a free lesson in Dale Carnegie. After Beyer fixes you with a warm smile and commits your name to his photographic memory, he’ll quickly discern what brand vehicle you drove to the event, and will often jot down notes for his service department if, say, the alternator’s been acting up.

After stepping down as President of the Virginia Senate in 1997 with two ceremonial gavels and the memories gathered during eight years as presiding officer, Beyer quipped, “‘I could sell some cars with this gavel.”

While principally a car dealer by profession, Beyer’s un-secret passion is politics.

Judging by his Senate Foreign Relations testimony last month, politics has been kinder to Beyer lately than cars, which most would chalk up to the severe recession.

“So, Mr. Beyer, why would you want to leave a very successful automotive dealership to become an ambassador?” Sen. John Kerry (D-MA.), the committee chair, quizzed him.

“Senator Kerry, have you looked at the automobile business lately?” Beyer shot back.

The stern committee room erupted into laughter. The nomination was his to lose.

A ‘Responsibility’ to Public Service

“I believe I have a personal responsibility to public service,” he said. “In the eight years I served as Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, I used that platform to advance important policy initiatives on a wide range of issues.”

Indeed, even to critics Beyer’s legacy as President of the Virginia Senate from 1990-1998 was widely seen as one of the most thoughtful and most effective of the 20th century. He served as a Democrat during the gubernatorial administrations of Democrat Doug Wilder and Republican George Allen.

During his tenure, Beyer was widely credited with writing the original welfare reform legislation in Virginia and chaired Virginia’s first economic recovery commission.

A co-founder of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, an outgrowth of the Chamber of Commerce, Beyer was active in promoting high-tech industries, and lead the fight to eliminate disincentives in the Virginia Tax Code to high-tech research and development.

From welfare reform to sexual assault issues, from child support enforcement to addressing the challenges of Virginians with disabilities, from high-speed rail to education infrastructure, Beyer was known to master the policy positions and fought for the best of these programs in Richmond’s General Assembly.

“If confirmed, I look forward to leveraging these skills to advance U.S. policy in Switzerland and Liechtenstein,” Beyer told the Senate.

Moreover, Beyer added, he worked in business for 35 years, leading his family retail automobile business chain, and chaired the Alexandria-based American International Auto Dealers Association, representing the interests of 10,000 independent businesses.

“These years gave me an extraordinarily broad perspective on business issues — from the importance of serving every individual with integrity, respect, and excellence to the responsibility of managing large dollar daily cashflows with precision and foresight,” Beyer said.

Beyer said he looks forward to representing U.S. interests in Switzerland, which he said are linked by a shared history as federal republics, a reliance on market-based economic systems, and a strong commitment to human rights and democracy.

“U.S.-Swiss political relations are strong, covering a wide range of important areas of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, from human rights to regional stability,” Beyer said.

In 2006, the United States initiated a new bilateral framework for senior-level political discussions that Beyer said has “regularized our dialogue in many areas and helped us to identify and act on the most promising areas of cooperation.”

As the largest and most vital private banking center in the world, Beyer said that the Swiss have become  central partners with the U.S. to combat terrorist financing, money laundering, corruption and the financing of weapons of mass destruction.

“That said, the U.S. government’s current legal case regarding Swiss banking giant UBS, as well as the negotiation of an amended U.S.-Swiss tax information exchange agreement, remain important challenges in the bilateral relationship,” he added.

Switzerland is a Tier 1 country in the State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report. “With its long history of democracy, Switzerland also regularly provides asylum to thousands of refugees escaping tyranny and war,” he added.

Switzerland is among the nation’s largest trading partners, with Swiss investments in the U.S. providing jobs for 400,000 Americans, while U.S. firms and individuals employ roughly 75,000 persons in Switzerland.

“Despite the ongoing global recession, there is no sign that U.S.-Swiss investment flows are slowing down and in fact, if anything, they appear to be accelerating,” Beyer said.

Beyer will also serve as Chief of Mission to the Principality of Lichtenstein, a postage stamp-sized principality which has long been one of the world’s most important banking centers, managing about $150 billion in client assets.  “We cooperate closely today on a range of financial issues from fighting terrorist financing and money laundering to banking reform,” Beyer said.

U.S. officials recently signed the tax information exchange agreement to allow for the exchange of information on tax matters which Beyer said will provide the U.S. with accelerated access to information to enforce U.S. tax laws.

An Early Obama Supporter

In a White House statement, President Obama said that Beyer’s “talent, experience, and dedication will be invaluable as we continue to strengthen America’s partnerships around the world and confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

Beyer was among Obama’s earliest and most vigorous supporters in Virginia, raising more than $500,000 for Obama during last year’s presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

In the early days of Obama’s campaign, Beyer moved his wife Megan and teen daughters Grace and Clara to the hustings of Iowa to manage a get-out-the-vote field office there for Obama. The family left their home in Old Town the day after Christmas 2007 to set up their mini campaign headquarters in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Beyers donned long johns and snow boots to go “streetwalking” for Obama in America’s heartland.   “Everybody wanted to go to Des Moines, but we asked to go to a small town where we could really make a big difference,” Beyer said at the time.

Over a ten-day period, the Beyers knocked on hundreds of doors, handed out flyers and made scores of get out the vote calls.  On the morning of the caucus Jan. 3, the Beyers started their day at 7 am in two degree temperatures to hold signs on street corners for the morning rush.

Obama’s key win in Iowa did not surprise them. “We knew things were looking good for us, because when we went into neighborhoods, the only people out were Barack supporters like us,” said Megan Beyer, who Don met when she covered the political beat as a broadcast journalist for a Richmond TV station.

After their close friend and Old Town neighbor Mark Warner suddenly left the presidential race in 2006, the Beyers grappled over whom to support. “It was a struggle between the head and the heart; Hillary appealed to the head, but Barack was in our hearts,” he said.

When the Beyers finally met Obama, they found him warm and natural. “I put out my hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you senator, but he just threw his arms around me and asked me to call him ‘Barack,'” Don Beyer recalled.

The Beyers wasted little time in getting on the campaign train. They held their first fundraiser for Obama in March, 2006, which raised $250,000, and motivated other friends to host events in Northern Virginia. Don served as Mid-Atlantic Finance Chair for the campaign and Megan served on the steering committee for Women for Obama, both volunteer positions.

Three Decades of Community Activism

Beyer was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1997, but lost in the general election to Republican James S. Gilmore III, of Old Town and Richmond.

Since then he has remained  politically active, as finance chair of Mark Warner’s political action committee, “Forward Together.” He also served as national treasurer of the 2004 presidential campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who later became DNC chair.

During three decades of community activism in the region, Beyer has taken leadership roles on the boards of scores of philanthropic and public policy organizations, including the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and the American Cancer Society.

He most recently chaired the board of the Alexandria Community Trust, the city’s philanthropic foundation, and sits on  the board of Jobs for Virginia Graduates, the state’s largest high school dropout prevention program.

“As a car dealer, what incentive is there for me to fund teen pregnancy prevention programs, other than it’s the right thing to do,” Beyer said at a recent Spring for Alexandria event.

“‘History is full of individuals who lose elections but went on to do very important things in their lives,” Beyer said in 1997 after his gubernatorial loss.

Helping to manage the often prickly bilateral relations between the United States and two vital Western European nations may prove to be Don Beyer’s best second act.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Green.

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