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Boehner on cusp of power but still that small-town Ohio boy

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READING, Ohio » John A. Boehner, the House Republican leader, laments that the America he grew up in has been "snuffed out" by Democrats. Yet Boehner’s hometown seems virtually untouched by the decades that have passed since he lugged kegs of beer around his father’s bar, tossed a Friday night football and frightened a driving instructor by burning rubber in a GTO.

The same Cape Cod houses dot the roadsides, among a smattering of family businesses. On the hill where Boehner grew up with 11 siblings, there are remnants of the fence that kept cows at bay. Boehner’s sister tends the bar his family ran through much of the last century.

With Republicans increasingly confident that they will capture the House in November, Boehner stands poised to become speaker and to lead his party’s effort to turn the nation in a new direction after two years under President Barack Obama and the Democrats. It seems that almost everything about him stems from this spot at the southern tip of Ohio.

It defined his political viewpoints, shaped by his working-class Roman Catholic family. It formed his passions (golf, football, more golf), kindled his love of sharp clothes (and his caustic commentary about others’ wardrobes) and presaged his political trajectory, one influenced by his experience as a businessman and largely ignited by a lobbyist who became his patron and the first of many lobbyist-friends in his orbit.

Boehner — now Obama’s Gucci punching bag — has by his own account and those of people who know him remained as unchanged as Reading, a town just outside Cincinnati.

"He’s been conservative, he’s been consistent and he’s been tan," said Bob Hagan, an Ohio state representative who served with Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) in the Statehouse in the late 1980s.

For Republicans who hope to recapture the House, the challenge is to shift the focus from Boehner’s country club image and tangerine hue back to his Midwestern conservative resume, which they hope will attract a frustrated electorate.

But the effort by Democrats to portray Boehner, 60, as lazy and retrograde (speak loudly and carry a large cocktail) is equally arduous. He is a man who paws through large briefing books for committee meetings, Democrats who have worked with him acknowledge. He can foil challengers with his charm, as his opponents in his first congressional race found out. He is surprisingly emotional, given to occasional waterworks during House speeches or three-hanky stops on the campaign trail.

Boehner explains his rise from a childhood with little money to the congressional leadership by recalling his ambition to improve his life.

"I was determined, I was miserable and I didn’t have anything," he said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, as he pulled on a series of Camel cigarettes (filtered). "I was trying to make something out of nothing."

Boehner’s parents were Democrats, and politics did not define his upbringing, nor even really infuse it.

"We were lucky to know who the president was," said George Luning, a high school classmate of the congressman. "His dad owned a bar, and I think being around older people who had their opinions about this or that all day made it so when he got home, he didn’t much want to talk about that stuff."

The culture wars that would later define the Republican Party were also far from the minds of the boys of Reading.

"There just weren’t as many issues then," said Jerry Vanden Eyden, Boehner’s closet childhood friend. "You didn’t know anything about gays, you didn’t know anything about abortion, you didn’t know anything about a lot of the social issues they got today. We didn’t hear about it, didn’t worry about it, didn’t talk about it, didn’t think about it."

It was work and taxes that politicized Boehner.

"Growing up, we were probably Kennedy Catholics because we were a strong devout Catholic family," said Bob Boehner, the congressman’s older brother, who like all his siblings eventually switched party allegiance. "But the first time you get a real job and get your paycheck, you look down and you wonder, where’s the rest of your money, and they explain to you that that’s the tax you have to pay to the government, you start thinking more and more about becoming a Republican."

The second-eldest of 12, Boehner began his career as a leader by pressing his younger siblings into housework. His family was supported by the income from the bar — split among Boehner’s father and his father’s twin brothers. As a teenager, Boehner suffered a back injury, possibly hoisting crates of pickles. Yet he and his friends managed to scare up fun, picking up odd jobs for drive-in and burger money and, in Boehner’s case, grooming.

"Boehner always seemed to have good perfume," Vanden Eyden recalled. "Well, I guess you call it cologne."

Boehner graduated in 1968 from Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, where working-class boys in shirts and ties got a Catholic education, procured with a hard smack for infractions and a sense of great expectations. There, Boehner met the first in a series of male role models, Gerry Faust, who built the school’s football program and later coached at Notre Dame. Faust’s passionate pregame disquisitions on the nature of winning, friends say, made a lasting impression on Boehner.

College, for Boehner, was only a remote notion. A series of low-paying jobs were unsatisfying, and two tries at joining a trade union failed, which Boehner attributed to not having the right connections.

"They wouldn’t have me," said Boehner, no friend to unions today.

But in 1971, a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, who was mentoring Boehner on refereeing local sports, pressed him to go to college there. After six years, while juggling several jobs, Boehner got his degree.

Soon after, he settled into suburban life with his wife, Deborah (she would eventually work as a real estate broker after raising their two daughters). He took a sales job at Nucite Sales, a small plastics distributing company that he would end up running soon after the company’s owner died.

The owner left him his golf clubs, inspiring Boehner’s life on the links. He has since played the most exclusive courses in the nation. At home, he is a member of a country club where he holds campaign fundraisers.

His political life began modestly. After moving to an upscale suburb of Cincinnati, he was persuaded by a neighbor to get involved in the homeowners’ association. His interest in local politics blossomed, and he became a Union Township trustee from 1982 to 1984, when he decided to run for the Ohio legislature. Owning his company made Boehner attuned to regulatory issues and other business concerns, which would become his enduring interests as a politician.

Jim Webb, a longtime business associate of Boehner’s, met him at a golf outing in 1984 and saw his potential. At the time, Webb was a lobbyist for Armco Steel, now known as AK Steel, which was the biggest employer in the county.

"I was looking for someone from Armco to continue our legacy in the Statehouse," Webb said, "and John said, ‘Would you consider supporting me?’"

Webb said he helped Boehner, then in his mid-30s, get to "know the right people" — primarily business people in the region. Webb became a steady contributor to Boehner’s political campaigns; for more than 20 years, AK Steel and its employees have been among his biggest donors.

Boehner won his race handily but found it was hard to be effective; Democrats significantly outnumbered Republicans in the legislature. Boehner took pro-business stances, even when they occasionally put him at odds with Armco.

"We were self-insured, so we were anxious to see our people wear seat belts, and at that point John was in the ‘Let’s leave the government out of things’ stage," Webb recalled.

(Boehner did eventually vote for a law requiring seat belt use.)

Hagan, the state legislator, who served with Boehner on a labor and commerce committee, said, "He thought there was no reason for organized labor."

After a few years in the Statehouse, Boehner realized that his political career was taking more and more of his time. Webb helped him out by making an unusual deal: He would run the plastics company as president, while Boehner remained the owner. When he went on to Congress, they became partners; Boehner played no active role in the business but continued to share in its profits for a decade — a deal hashed out in 30 minutes on a golf weekend. (Webb became sole owner in 2003.)

The money from the business took Boehner a long way from his humble roots; he listed his minimum net worth at $2.4 million in 1995, although for last year he said it was $1.8 million.

In 1990, a sex scandal made the incumbent Republican House member, Donald E. Lukens, vulnerable, and Boehner saw his opening and pulled off a surprise victory. Within months of arriving in Washington, he had joined a band of rabble-rousers known as the Gang of Seven, a group that taunted the entrenched Democratic leadership under Speaker Thomas S. Foley over a check-bouncing scandal at the House bank.

When Republicans took control in 1994, Boehner became chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking job. Just as he had in Ohio, he formed close ties with industry and developed a tight circle of advisers, many of whom have moved on to become lobbyists. Boehner’s taste for parties and fine wines also soon became evident; his Republican Convention-related soirees are a legend.

Perhaps incongruous considering his reputation for being a tough insider, Boehner can be emotional during floor debates.

"There are just some things that tug at me," he said in an interview, "and there are times here when we have been involved in some big fights and you get tired and the emotions move up closer to the edge of your skin."

Boehner lost his leadership position in 1998 after his fellow Republicans decided to clean house after losing seats. While other politicians might have quit Congress, Boehner instead focused his energies on his committee work. After George W. Bush was elected president, Boehner helped write the No Child Left Behind act, which he cites as evidence of his ability to work across the aisle, a claim Democrats reject.

While in leadership exile, Boehner watched as top Republicans struggled to deliver legislatively. The majority leader, Tom DeLay, got caught up in ethics inquiries. In 2006, Boehner replaced him, only to see the House slip over to Democratic control that November, denying him a chance for the speakership he covets.

The prospect of taking that gavel now no doubt seems particularly redemptive.

Boehner recalled what he told his top aide as they exited the room where he was ousted from the leadership in 1998.

"We are going to smile, we are going to work hard," he said quietly. "And earn our way back."

Eric Lipton contributed reporting from Washington.


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