By Rachel Leven - 06/05/12 09:00 AM EDT
Walt Minnick has always blazed his own trail in Washington, and his new lobbying career is no exception.
The Blue Dog Democrat was briefly endorsed by the Tea Party, once served in (and resigned from) the Nixon administration and, as a freshman congressman, bucked his party on key votes on healthcare and stimulus. Now he will only represent clients whose views do not conflict with his own.
Minnick co-founded The Majority Group with his former chief of staff after serving in the 111th Congress. To stay in Washington, a decision his wife influenced heavily, the Idaho entrepreneur chose to start his second business — a lobby firm.
“At age 68 I didn’t want to work for a boss. And since I thought it was too late to start a business, lobbying is something that has a lot of variety to it,” Minnick explained.
Minnick earned M.B.A. and law degrees from Harvard University in the 1960s. He served as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and as economist on the Defense Department’s Vietnamization Task Force. He joined the Nixon administration in 1971 as a staff assistant on the White House Domestic Council and later worked as deputy assistant director at the Office of Management and Budget.
Minnick left a legacy in Washington and the nation through his work in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration while serving as Nixon’s staff assistant. Minnick still sees the agency as “a useful domestic solution to dealing with the drug issue.”
The DEA has, over the years, shifted its focus from treatment and prevention to law enforcement, he said.
Minnick explained that the agency used to “spen[d] $2 on treatment, prevention, and education … for every dollar that we spent on law enforcement reducing supply.” Currently, that ratio is reversed.
“As long as we have demand, drug-dependent users, there’s so much money serving that demand that no amount of law enforcement is going to prevent access,” Minnick said. “There is more bang for your buck educating kids … that it’s a poor lifestyle choice to become dependent, and if they do become dependent, finding ways to kick the drugs.”
Also during the Nixon administration, Minnick showed his independent backbone.
He was driving into the office on Sunday, Oct. 21, 1973, to finish a briefing book for a Monday drug policy meeting.
“I flipped on the WTOP news radio and [heard],” Minnick recollected.
Nixon, the evening before, had fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed by the attorney general to probe the developing Watergate scandal. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest. The incident has gone down in history as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Minnick also resigned.
“I pulled up to my parking place and as I was walking in I said, ‘There isn’t going to be any meeting tomorrow, and I can’t work for this president anymore.’ ”
Between his resignation and his return to Washington roughly 36 years later, Minnick ran the Fortune 1,000 high-tech forest-products company Trus Joist Corp. and co-founded SummerWinds Inc., a successful retail nursery company. He lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996 to Republican Larry Craig.
Minnick joined the House of Representatives in 2009, determined to vote for his constituents based on their needs and his own morals. His nonpartisan attitude made him a swing vote for both parties, he said.
The “highest-profile vote” Minnick heard from leadership on was the Affordable Care Act. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confronted Minnick on the House floor and asked what it would take to get him to vote for the bill.
“[Pelosi] wouldn’t have had that conversation with me if I were lockstep from the beginning, and she wouldn’t have thought seriously about the things I needed to have changed in the bill if ... she didn’t need the votes,” Minnick said.
Minnick ultimately voted against the healthcare act. He also voted against the economic stimulus package of 2009, a vote he said he “might have changed,” looking back.
“I was not opposed to the concept of monetary stimulus when you’re falling into a recession ... I was concerned that the bill was spending $700 billion, a huge amount of money, and there was nothing in the bill that would reform the system that caused the breakdown which required that money to be spent,” Minnick said.
“I thought the time to put in the markers for fundamental reform would’ve been that bill and we should have done it in that time of stress before we committed the money.”
Minnick sat on the House Financial Services and Agriculture committees, and contributed to and voted with his party on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, legislation that put in those markers he wanted.
The act would have been “tighter” and “better” if “industry hadn’t had a year and a half to lobby after they’d already gotten the bailout money,” he said.
Minnick cast a yes vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
“I knew I wasn’t coming here for very long and I knew it wasn’t a steppingstone to something else, so there’s no real reason not to be an independent — vote for what makes sense,” Minnick said.
Minnick’s independence lost him a Tea Party endorsement in his 2010 race, crucial backing in his conservative district.
Having originally received the conservative group’s endorsement, Minnick rebuked the Tea Party that July for a racially charged article authored by a Tea Party Express chairman, Mark Williams.
The group withdrew its endorsement later in 2010 and cited Minnick’s recent “pattern of behavior,” which it claimed was bending to Democrat leadership.
He lost the 2010 general election to the Tea Party-endorsed candidate, now-Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).
Minnick thinks Congress needs more members to work together and admires other centrists, like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). The current partisanship and lack of compromise in Congress is “pathetic,” he said.
“When I see that 14 percent of people have a favorable view of Congress, I wonder, ‘Where’s that 14 percent been? What’s wrong with that 14 percent?’ ” Minnick said.
America will see consequences soon, Minnick said, with sequestration cuts being a disastrous solution. A depression and weaker national security could be in the offing absent further work on the 2011 debt agreement.
Minnick’s personal future is focused on building his lobby firm from a staff of four to a staff of eight to 10 employees. He wants the firm to be small enough to specialize but big enough for people to take vacations and maintain enthusiasm for clients’ projects.
As for retirement, Minnick doesn’t see it happening too soon.
“Maybe I will retire sometime,” he said. “But my wife made it clear to me when I lost the reelection, as she did on past occasions, that she married me for life, and not for lunch.”