New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 10, 2012
WASHINGTON » As a fundraiser for a local college scholarship program, Rick Nolan understands how much it costs to send children in northern Minnesota to technical school. Having run a sawmill, he can speak like a logger.
"I know what you can get for 1,000 board feet of lumber," he said recently. "I know what you have to pay for stumpage."
But there is another piece of Nolan's biography that, until recently, few voters wanted to hear about and few politicians would dare own up to: the three terms he spent in Congress 30 years ago.
In fact, his success in Washington became one of his most marketable traits when he decided to make another run for office this year.
"It's time to get something done," Nolan declared in one of his ads.
He beat his opponent, who was elected in the tea party upheaval of 2010, by 9 points. And when he takes his seat as one of 84 new members of the House of Representatives (49 of them Democrats, 35 Republicans) in January, Nolan, D-Minn., will be one of the many who were elected despite their histories in politics and government.
The 2010 election, with its throw-the-bums-out, anti-government furor, swept into office a host of people who had no government experience. There was an exterminator, a dentist, a youth minister and a pizza man. But this year voters sent many of those people packing.
In their place will be a class of career bureaucrats and policy wonks who, after two years of intransigence and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, make up what could be characterized as the anti-antigovernment wave.
These members, many of whom ran on a promise to break the seemingly endless impasse in Washington, will face their first test early.The new Congress will almost certainly inherit complicated tasks like raising the nation's borrowing limit, revamping the tax code and making adjustments to social welfare programs, issues that are not expected to be entirely resolved as part of the negotiations to head off the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1.
The new House will include nine people, like Nolan, who have already been in Congress. It will also include a former congressional chief of staff, a decade-long member of a local water board, an assistant secretary for veterans affairs and even a Kennedy.
In some cases, voters opted for nonpoliticians, albeit ones who sold themselves as more capable of handling the country's problems.
In Florida, voters rejected Allen B. West, a retired Army colonel who became one of the most visible faces of the tea party movement. His replacement, Patrick Murphy, is a former accountant for Deloitte & Touche.
"The substance, I think, prevailed over the rhetoric," Murphy said. "Having a financial and accounting background, I know how to look for waste, inefficiencies and fraud."
The makeup of Congress has not been this volatile in 20 years, a result of shifting political tides and redistricting. The number of House seats that changed hands in 2010 and this year — 96 and 84, respectively — is the highest since the early 1990s, a period of turnover not seen in nearly half a century.
First came the 1992 election, when district lines redrawn after the 1990 Census and a House scandal led to a class of 110 new members. In 1994, two years into President Bill Clinton's first term, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party seized control of the House, wresting it from Democrats for the first time since the 1950s. In that Congress, there were 86 freshmen.
But now, two years after voters shook up the Capitol, many of them seem to have cooled on the notion that a new group of citizen legislators can fix the country's ills. And for aspiring politicians waiting in the wings — many of them given an advantage because of favorable redistricting — this year presented a rare opportunity.
"If the incumbent looks vulnerable, that's when the ambitious career politicians decide it's time to run for Congress," said Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on congressional races and a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "That's when you get the mayors, city council members, state legislators emerging. And usually they're pretty shrewd."
Take Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. Duckworth first ran for Congress in northeastern Illinois in 2006 to fill the seat held for more than 30 years by Henry J. Hyde. She lost but was tapped later that year to lead the state's Veterans Affairs Department. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her as assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs.
Then late one night in April 2011 when she was at her desk on the ninth floor of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a spot with postcard views of the White House, she decided to run for Congress again. A budget stalemate had nearly brought the federal government to a halt, and Duckworth said she was fuming.
"I was sitting in my office at five minutes to midnight waiting for government to shut down," she recalled. "And there was my congressman boasting about how he had brought Washington to a standstill. That's when I thought we've got to stop this."
She beat her opponent, Joe Walsh, a Republican who had never held elected office before, by 9 points, a margin no doubt cushioned by district lines redrawn in Democrats' favor.
Sean Patrick Maloney, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and two New York governors, defeated tea party darling Nan Hayworth, an ophthalmologist with no history in government, to represent a district about 30 miles north of New York City.
Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a former alderwoman in East Moline, Ill., and communications executive for a health care company, defeated Bobby Schilling, a Republican who, after being elected to office for the first time in 2010, had to suddenly decide who could run his popular pizza parlor.
Even although government experience may have helped some of this year's winners, they all seem too eager to maintain their distance from Washington.
Asked the other day to reflect on his experience in learning the ways of Washington, Alan Grayson, a former one-term Florida congressman who was defeated in 2010 but prevailed after running again this year, said, "Oh, I don't think I fit into that category. I wasn't elected to anything the first half century of my life."
But Grayson, who, along with a fellow incoming congressman, Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., can claim three Harvard degrees, acknowledged that being able to navigate the federal bureaucracy is something constituents value.
"Wouldn't you want somebody in Congress who actually knows how to do that stuff?" he said.
Nolan, who, during his first stint in Congress was named by columnist Jack Anderson as one of its most respected members, agreed that the extra knowledge he and others acquired from their previous stints in Congress would be a guide.
"Because in Minnesota," he joked, "maybe with the exception of Michele Bachmann, no one talks directly to God."