An aunt's advice: Sage wisdom helps lawmaker through tough times

Whether a lawmaker gives up his seat by choice or force, the consequences, for many, are the same — a complete life change and a melancholy that can set in like poured concrete.

So it was odd to hear a chipper note in Rep. Ric Keller’s voice last Friday. Exactly two weeks have passed since the Republican who represents Orlando, Fla. — yes, the Happiest Place on Earth — lost his race by 25,000 votes. Yet he’s dripping with optimism.

{mospagebreak}What’s his secret?

Aside from a supportive wife and old law partners who dragged him out for beers after the loss, he heeds an old piece of advice from an aunt who once told him: “If something bad happens to you — your girlfriend dumps you, you lose your job — you have three days to be sad and then it’s time to move on and be positive.”

So he’s moving on. Like other lawmakers who are leaving or who have lost their races, he must pack up and leave by Nov. 25. “I’ve taken that sage advice for girlfriends that have broken up with me and the job,” he said. “Neither one is easy.”

What Keller will do next is anyone’s guess — but he has options, potential offers through an old law partner and at least one meeting this week with a mystery TV executive. Whatever happens, he’s sure of this: “I’m going to make enough money in the private sector to put my four kids through college.”

Even after losing reelection, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) seemed to still be campaigning, as opposed to grieving. “I worked long and hard on hunger issues, and I’m certainly going to continue to be involved,” she said.

She counted her work for North Carolina’s military bases, personnel and families among her biggest accomplishments.

She said she would miss her involvement in addressing hunger. Dole frequently visited D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit food and job-training organization near the Senate.

Dole struck a genuine tone instead of a defeated one as she said that she’ll miss her “colleagues on both sides of the aisle” and her “excellent Senate staff, for sure.”

She was coy on future plans.

“Oh, I’m going to just take a little time to catch up on things I’ve put off,” she said. “My heart is certainly in making a positive difference in the lives of people. To me, it’s important to continue to find ways to be of service to others. There are many great ways of giving back.”

For Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who decided to retire, leaving has been an emotional upheaval.

“I compare it to divorce,” she said. “It’s like leaving behind my whole life of 16 years. You know your whole world is going to change and you’re not sure what it’s going to look like.”

{mospagebreak}She reflected on the trials she has lived through while in Congress, naming a failed marriage and the death of her 9-year-old daughter among them. “I have gone through a lot of change and trauma and have felt supported by this body,” she said.

She admitted, “I’m going to hate to leave.”

But she also acknowledged the joy of leaving to care for her daughter, Mia, whom she adopted six years ago. “I really missed a lot of my first daughter’s childhood,” she said. “I promised her [Mia] that I would be there for her.”

Keller’s upbeat attitude may be spiritual. “Before every election I always have a prayer,” he said. “I don’t pray for victories or losses. I pray for God’s will to be done.”

What he’ll miss: the camaraderie with colleagues in the gym and lunchroom. (“I’ll keep in touch,” he said, “but it won’t be the same.”)

What he won’t: fundraising calls.

The Florida lawmaker said he’ll always remember his first trips on Air Force One and meeting heads of state such as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The two best speeches he heard in Congress: those of England’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair and exercise guru Richard Simmons.

Unlike Keller, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who lost by a 51-48 margin, still sounds broken up by his loss. “Still wrestling. Disappointed. No regrets, and lots of gratitude,” he said last week. “That really defines how I feel. I felt that my staff and I were at the top of our game, so it’s difficult to leave at a moment when you think you’re at your very best and had more to contribute.”

He warns his Republican colleagues: “You have to figure out how to take your conservative views and appeal to people in the Northeast. This party will have no party in the majority if there is no member in New England and three members in New York out of 29. That’s a recipe for a lifetime in the minority, truly.”

Shays says part of his “healing process” is to avail himself of all opportunities and not close the door on anything. He says he never anticipated loss. “I never allowed myself to think, ‘What happens if I lose?’ because that is one sure way of losing,” he said.

But now that it has happened, he’s getting emotional and welling up in odd moments when he sees a campaign logo or an American flag. He is also, however, allowing himself the pleasure of thinking about how life will change for the better.

“I have been in public life 24 years,” he said. “I will look forward to my privacy. I will look forward to having a more normal life.”

What will “normal” look like?

“Well, I don’t know yet,” he said. “But a more normal life. I was on duty 24/7 for 21 years. I had calls in the middle of the night.”

One he remembers distinctly was the Christmas Eve phone call from a father begging for help because his son’s plane was missing and he couldn’t get authorities to send out a search party.

Shays spent much of the evening trying to connect with the Federal Aviation Administration. “Finally I got a hold of someone who said, ‘Sir, this is Christmas Eve.’ ” Shays was appalled. “I said to them, ‘I think what we’re celebrating is the birth of the Messiah and I think, the message of love. This father needs some love.’ ”

The FAA sent out a search party but, tragically, the bodies of the son and other passengers were found six months later.

After the incident, Shays wrote legislation to put transponders in all planes. “Those are some of the things you do that very few people are aware of,” he said.

What is most pressing on the lawmaker’s mind, though, is how long it will take him to adjust to such a drastically new way of life. He has been calling up lawmakers and posing the question.

Since Nov. 5, he has had several emotional moments as he packs up and prepares to say goodbye to his staff. “I am not their best buddy,” he said, “but we were close.”

As for what’s next, Shays is not broaching that just yet. “I’ve had people who have said, ‘Let’s talk,’ ” he said, sadly. “I haven’t gone there yet.”

Keller, meanwhile, is already looking on the bright side:

“One door closes and many others will open.”