The accidental politician

Some are born for a career in Congress, others have one thrust upon them. Few find their way to Capitol Hill along as circuitous a route as did freshman Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.).

A singer with the rock band Orleans, with whose members he co-wrote such 1970s hits as “Dance With Me” and “Still the One,” Hall was focused on running a record label and performing when a single night in 2005 turned his life upside     down.

After a concert in Florida, Hall and his drummer were backstage, discussing the war in Iraq. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) overheard Hall’s outburst and saw potential in Hall’s passion; as a member of the DCCC’s candidate search committee she approached him about running for Congress. A couple of dinner dates back home with Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) clinched it, and Hall entered a tough race against New York GOP Rep. Sue Kelly.

“I love learning new things,” Hall said, whispering through a case of laryngitis, as he explained his openness to Wasserman Schultz’s suggestion. “I went through a phase in my late 20s and early 30s when I studied a lot of dance. Jazz, ballet and modern,” Hall said, quickly adding, “never for performance.”

While Hall’s victory was narrow, he defeated a six-term incumbent — he’s a man whose political experience had been defined as school board hearings, one term in the county legislature, and a protest of his neighbor’s illegal junkyard. Hall helped to upset the balance of power in Washington.

It turned out 2006 was the year of the accidental politician.

While cynics might dismiss the story of the plucky citizen whose indignation catapults him to the Capitol as just another lullaby from civics class, the volatility of the November elections created an environment wherein challengers without deep political r鳵m鳠could win long-shot races.

Of the 110th Congress’s 54 freshman-class members, 19 have no prior elected-office experience. An additional eight have some degree of local or county service, but have no statehouse record. And while many of these new members aren’t quite “regular guys,” they are an eclectic bunch. If Congress lost a florist last fall (Kelly), it gained a pro-football quarterback: Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). An exterminator, Tom DeLay (R-Texas), was swapped for a mortician, Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio).

For those who worry that Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) — the not-quite-official street magician of the House — took the rabbit home with him when he lost his seat, the 110th Congress is also seating this rich gallimaufry of characters: a wind engineer (Jerry McNerney, D-Calif.), a sheriff (Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind.), a former Tae Kwon Do instructor (Vern Buchanan R-Fla.), the publisher of a Kentucky-based golf magazine (John Yarmuth, D-Ky.) and a cable news allergy consultant (Steve Kagen, D-Wis.).

Interviews with freshman legislators, most of them political greenhorns, revealed that not only are they surviving their crash course in how business is done on the Hill, they’re also finding camaraderie within their ranks. And those without statehouse experience? They’re finding that other backgrounds can prepare you for success in Washington.

Some people organize their lives with a view to politics; Rep. Tim Walz’s (D-Minn.) life was his exploratory committee. A high school teacher and football coach from Mankato, Minn., Walz’s story contains so many twists and turns that staffers call him Forrest Gump.

Walz’s political odyssey is a study in strange timing. The thought of a career in Congress “never would have crossed my mind,” the National Guard sergeant major said, if he hadn’t been hustled out of a 2004 rally for President Bush for defending a student there who was wearing a John Kerry sticker. Angered by the event, Walz got involved in the Kerry campaign, making connections that ultimately prompted his race against Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R), whom he beat by six points.

“I never planned to run for Congress, but I believe my life has prepared me well for it,” Walz said.

At the core of this self-assurance are lessons in hard work Walz learned as an educator: He holds a master’s degree in genocide studies and has taught in schools from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to Foshan No. 1 High School in Guangdong Province, north of Hong Kong.

Why China?

“China was coming, and that’s the reason that I went,” said Walz, who was then a rare Westerner in a society only starting to open up. His Chinese students nicknamed him “Fields of China.”

“‘Because your kindness was as big as the fields of China,’” his students explained. They also called him “big-nosed one” and “foreign devil,” though neither, he believes, was uttered with malice. Upon returning stateside, Walz and his wife set up a company, Educational Travel Adventures, to coordinate summer trips to China for American high-school students.

Walz may well be the truest example of a Mr. Smith in this Congress. Does that myth have any meaning for him?

“It gives hope,” he said. “The ones who come from state legislatures come with habits. I don’t have any bad habits. I’m not expecting anything, because I don’t know what to expect. It’s very liberating.”

Perhaps delighted that Walz and fellow majority-changers have returned the Democrats to power, senior members haven’t made the Minnesotan feel like a pledge in the D.C. frat house.

“I’ve heard from old hands that if you were a freshman, it was ‘Be seen and not heard,’” he said. Such has not been Walz’s experience. “People are taking care of us, people are taking us under their wing.”

While the symbol of the citizen politician is a seductive one, the question remains whether those who have missed the boot camp of state politics are prepared for life on the firing line.

“Everyone is in love with the idea of the ordinary man going to Washington,” a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant, Kevin Spillane, said. “It’s a PR boon. But in terms of long-term political effectiveness, it leaves them with a lack of experience and savvy that is important to being effective in Congress.”

While many lawmakers new to politics struggle, neither Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a former nurse, nor Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a dairy farmer, particularly did when they arrived, they said. Both reached into their pasts for guidance.

McCarthy is now in her sixth term in office, Nunes in his third.

“Growing up on a dairy farm, you’re ready for anything,” Nunes said. “What do the people back home want me to do?” is the mantra that grounds Nunes’s approach to his job.

McCarthy called her lack of political experience an asset “because I didn’t know a lot about government. I was a lot more open-minded.” McCarthy said she was free to choose issues according to local priorities.

When asked for advice to impart to newcomers, McCarthy didn’t hesitate. “Find a mentor, an older member of the House,” said McCarthy, who credits Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) with showing her the ropes. Of equal importance is the need to find a fundraiser, and start banking a war chest. “It’s the most horrible part of the job,” McCarthy said. “But you need to start early.”

While nurses do make it to Congress, 14 of the 54 freshman lawmakers are trial lawyers, suggesting that certain careers better clear a path to Washington than others. Nunes said he wishes there were more farmers.

“I don’t mean to pick on lawyers, but we’d be a lot better off with less lawyers here,” Nunes said. “It’s good to have people here who have legal minds, but we also need guys who have gotten their hands dirty.”

Lifestyle adjustments accompany a move to D.C.

“Do you have young kids? Are you going to move them to Washington? Are you going to set up in Washington? This takes some adjustment for people new to public life,” a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, Norman Ornstein, said.

“It’s like trying to drink water out of a fire hose,” Ohioan Charlie Wilson said when asked about his first days in office. “But the excitement of doing all you can to help people’s lives, that helps considerably.”

When someone says being a mortician is good training for a job on Capitol Hill, you wait for a punch line. However, coming from Wilson, who grew up in the family-run funeral business he went on to take over, there’s no comic ring. Ten years in the Ohio House and Senate may have made Wilson’s political bones, but it was in attending to the grieving that Wilson learned to serve people.

“My job as a young funeral director was to help people through difficult times, help them with some difficult details,” Wilson said.

Like Wilson, Hall doesn’t think working in Washington means forgetting what you learned along the way.

“A candidate is a product,” Hall said, “a blend of personality and marketability.”

Of course, it’s not good to take it all seriously.

“There’s a lot of jokes about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle,” Hall said. “That one album cover where we all have our shirts off, I get ribbed on that one, it seems to pop up all the time.”

But now that Hall is no longer touring with Orleans, will the music play on?

“I don’t have a guitar in Washington yet but I think I’ll bring one down this next time,” he said. “For my own sanity. Hide it under the bed and play it in the middle of the night.”