And according to him, the president hasn’t changed much from their salad days in west Texas. “He was in great form, his quick wit and sense of humor were sharp as always,” Conaway says. “He teased quite a few of us in the room.”
Conaway met Bush just after the president’s unsuccessful run for Congress from the 19th District of Texas in 1978. When Bush decided to enter the oil and gas exploration business, Conaway audited his partnerships as a member of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm.
Four years later, Conaway joined Bush’s company as chief financial officer. “We were together five years and then sold out to Barton Energy in Dallas,” he says. “I then went into banking, moved to Dallas and went on to help his dad’s election in 1988. And we’ve remained friends since. He’s a good guy.”
Conaway plunged into politics himself in 2003, running in a crowded field of Republicans in a special election to succeed retiring Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas) in the 19th. He lost by 587 votes to Rep. Randy Neugebauer.
Enter the infamous Texas redistricting plan. After carving up the state along Republican lines, there was room for both Neugebauer and Conaway, the latter in the 11th District, an expansive zone of West Texas that includes Odessa, San Angelo and Bush’s hometown of Midland.
He says voters “fought like cats and dogs to not let it happen, or to have it happen in a way that was different than what it wound up. But once it was done, we had the 2004 election, it’s pretty much a nonevent in the state.”
He allows, however, that in “2010 and ’11, when we do it again, all of this ill will will resurface.”
Conaway’s relationship with Bush was another delicate issue in his campaign. “I was very careful about using that,” he says, “but when asked I would say, ‘Look I don’t know what impact it will have, but it can’t hurt a freshman congressman for the president to know him by his first name.’”
In his new job, Conaway undoubtedly brings some of his managerial and actuarial style to bear. As part of his fledgling constituent-service operation, his office is conducting consumer-satisfaction surveys and evaluations. He has held 19 town hall meetings on Social Security and is fond of poring through the text and rules of legislation (maybe the novelty has yet to wear off).
His left-brained tendencies apparently temper his immediate ambitions as well. “I’m a CPA by background, so I’m pretty realistic about what freshman congressmen can and can’t do,” he says. “I am not going to set the overall agenda for the House of Representatives. That’s not the role they let freshmen play. That would offend the Speaker, and you don’t do that.”
Conaway, in fact, has yet to introduce any legislation. But that’s not to say his presence has gone unnoticed. Quite the contrary. As reported in The Hill, he brokered the first bipartisan meeting among House members on Social Security, over the objections of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He is the only freshman to testify before the Social Security Subcommittee and the only freshman to pass an amendment to the House energy bill.
“What am I going to be 10 years from now?” he asks rhetorically. He’s “building a base, a platform to exploit whatever talents or opportunities I’m given.” So far, so good. He’s been named an assistant whip and a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee executive board. He’s also founded a PAC, called ConaPAC.
So he’s clearly growing comfortable professionally in D.C. But like many Western Republicans, he has mixed feelings about city life. Before being elected, he had only been here a few times, “dragging the sack around, trying to meet people and raise money from the various folks that you have to raise money from to fund a presidential campaign.”
But now that he is becoming more acclimated, he confesses, “I’m having more fun than is legal.”
His mostly rural district is 36,500 square miles — larger than Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined. “I have not developed the taste for commuting,” he says. “Three cars ahead of me at a red light in Midland, Texas, and you get a little antsy.”
He and his wife have a home at 13th Street and South Carolina Avenue S.E., so he only has to endure about a one-mile commute to work each day — a good bit shorter than his commute to Texas. It’s a two-leg flight, plus a drive, that takes “most of the day.”
“It’s a good time to use for study,” Conaway says. “There’s far more things to read in this job than you can possibly get around to, and blocking those six or seven hours twice a week … it’s a good time.”
Conaway never obscures the love for his hometown. How could he, when he’s part of its lore? Conaway played football for Permian High School in Odessa, which would later be featured in the book and movie “Friday Night Lights.”
“I played on the first big championship team that led to about 30-plus years of a dynasty at that high school, in terms of football,” he says. “That was one of the top programs any time of any era of the state. And it started in ’65, my senior year in high school.”
Of course, he adds, “I played there in the era when you didn’t have to be a mutant in size to be able to play.”