The ‘normal’ life of Duncan D. Hunter

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) walks into his congressional office after a House vote, takes a look around, then leads a reporter and photographer back to a small, sparse room where he keeps his desk, a couch and a couple of chairs.

With a television on in the background, he sits down, opens a Diet Coke, takes a sip and answers the first question — What was it like growing up the son of 2008 presidential candidate and former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.)? — with one word.

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“Normal,” the 32-year-old freshman lawmaker says.

The “normal” occurrences of the younger Hunter’s life include: starting a Web design company while a sophomore in college in the mid-1990s, just as the Internet was taking off; abandoning a career in information technology in 2001 to become a Marine and part of the military’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; and, last November, winning his retiring father’s congressional seat while fighting the war in Afghanistan.

“There was nothing exceptional about growing up as the son of a congressman,” he says.

Hunter is now the congressman himself, with his own chance to bring a new look to the Duncan Hunter brand that his father managed for 28 years.

While he may be younger, taller and fitter, the only difference between the younger Hunter and his father, at least in the new congressman’s eyes, is their middle initial.

“Politically, we aren’t different, so it would probably be a correct assumption” for his new colleagues to view him as an extension of his father, Hunter says. “And frankly, I don’t think I would want to [differentiate myself], because I thought he was a great leader here in Congress.”

That means Hunter continues his father’s almost single-minded focus on defense issues, already having landed an assignment on the House Armed Services Committee, where the elder Hunter was chairman from 2002 to 2006.

“What I feel most strongly here being in Congress is kind of the burden — the good burden — of representing all of our military,” he says, bringing up his time as a Marine in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I’m the only one here of 535 who’s actually been there, and seen it and done it, and gotten dirty doing it.”

In that vein, Hunter feels no need to make a name for himself apart from his father’s.

“I’m secure enough in my own thing,” says Hunter, one of only three members of Congress who are Iraq war veterans. “I don’t need to dye my hair red to be different.”

Hunter might be comfortable being an appendage of his father’s political career now, but it was not so long ago that he made a pledge never to run for elected office. He said he and his wife, Margaret, decided to steer clear of politics — a pact that proved to be a portent for their future.

“We just didn’t like the lifestyle,” explains Hunter, a father of three young children. “Didn’t like the whole campaigning side of it. And then coming out here, being away from the kids a lot, traveling back and forth, kind of being at the whim of your constituents …”

Hunter’s frontline spot in the Fallujah battles in 2003 and 2004 changed that outlook. The way he sees it, those battles were mishandled because decisions were being made by Washington bureaucrats rather than the generals on the ground who, he believes, knew more.

“That got me interested a little bit into being able to help that change so that if we ever go to war [again], we can do it and not have politics be the deciding factor on tactical decisionmaking,” he says.

The opportunity to run for Congress arose when his father, upon withdrawing from the 2008 presidential race, also announced his retirement from Congress. Hunter was back from Iraq but still felt “a burden to serve.”

Hunter told his father about his decision in a way he would likely describe as “normal.”

“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to run,’ ” he recalls.

The elder Hunter’s reaction?

“He didn’t have much of one,” the younger Hunter says.

Several years earlier, Hunter delivered news of his abrupt departure from his business job to join the Marines in a similarly declarative manner.

The elder Hunter recalls going home from Washington to San Diego soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, driving to nearby Alpine, Calif., and stopping on the side of the road when he spotted his son jogging along the canyon.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I quit my job and joined the Marines. We’re going to get them,’ ” the elder Hunter recalls in a phone interview.

The elder Hunter began to see his son’s potential in politics when he helped him campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in South Carolina. Hunter and his brother Sam started stumping for their father in the lead-up to the state’s straw poll.

“I tied [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and [former GOP New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani at the top of that one,” the elder Hunter says. “At that point I began to believe that Duncan was better at this business than I was.

“You could see in his campaigning what he was doing for me — he was really putting a lot of energy into it, and he also had kind of come to the conclusion that this thing called politics was pretty important,” the retired congressman says.

His son’s recent congressional campaign, however, veered wildly away from normal. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Hunter was called to duty in Afghanistan, leaving his wife to become his campaign surrogate. Federal law prevented him from having any involvement in his campaign while fighting in the war.

“So I’d call home and talk about the weather, ask how the kids were, and that was that,” he says. “I would Google myself to try to see what my campaign was doing back in San Diego.”

Even if he sees his new job mostly as a continuation of his father’s congressional work, at least one of his new colleagues predicts Hunter might carve his own path.

“I assume he will be more confrontational,” says Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who first met Hunter in 1980 and recalls the then-preschooler having a broken arm or leg. Bilbray, whose district abuts Hunter’s, makes this observation because “his dad was such a darn Christian that he tried to avoid confrontation,” he says. (Bilbray is expecting a confrontation of his own with the new Hunter, calling for a “surf-out” between the two lawmakers after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said Bilbray may no longer be the best surfer in Congress.)

Where Hunter may stray from his father is on an issue he cannot help: his age. At 30, he comes to the Capitol as part of a new generation of lawmakers who are technology-savvy and more willing to question some of the institution’s traditions.

Hunter started Jones Hunter Web Design with a college friend during his sophomore year at San Diego State University. They sold the company, and he went on to work as an IT business analyst, but he remains interested in technology.

“New cell phones are my weakness,” he says, singing the praises of his latest — an iPhone.

He’s the de facto head technology guy in his congressional office — “You’ll see me on my hands and knees in here, plugging stuff in, showing my staff how stuff works” — but he does think there’s such a thing as technology overload. Hunter isn’t participating in the latest congressional fad, Twitter, mostly because he wonders whether anybody cares what he’s doing every moment of his day. He does, however, applaud his colleagues’ experimenting with that and other technologies.

On a recent congressional trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunter took a video camera with him. He filmed an excursion to a Baghdad video store, where he got a kick out of finding the Iraqi version of the popular video game “Grand Theft Auto,” the cover depicting “two Taliban-looking guys, and two al Qaeda guys, with this old Lincoln Continental in between them,” he recounts. He also filmed a foosball match teaming Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and himself against a group of Iraqi children. (The lawmakers lost, 2-0.)

Hunter is still getting used to life as a congressman. He has found it hard to adjust to the three-hour time difference when traveling back and forth from Washington to San Diego, but attempts to work out every morning. He lives on Capitol Hill, has a red-and-black 1983 Suburban in town, and considers it frustrating to find nearby places to eat other than the Capitol Hill Club, Tortilla Coast and Bullfeathers.

When in San Diego, he likes to “do things that most 30-year-old guys in San Diego do,” he says. That means surfing, snowboarding, skiing, off-roading and riding a motorcycle. To him, it also means continuing to live his normal life as a second-generation congressman.

“I don’t make a concerted effort to distinguish myself as Duncan D. Hunter versus Duncan Hunter,” he says. “I just do my own thing. That’s good enough for me.”