Lost but not out


Tim Mahoney is building a backyard kitchen patio by his swimming pool.

Tom Feeney is watching more of his 17-year-old’s high school football games than ever before.

And Steve Chabot is chairman of a local Boy Scout council.

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Unanticipated change isn’t always an easy thing to cope with, but many of the two dozen members who didn’t return to Congress after losing reelection bids one year ago have found silver linings. Leaving politics, though not of their own volition, has given them new leases on life.

“People tell me all the time, ‘Wow you’re a lot more fun to be with,’ ” said former Rep. Mahoney (D-Fla.), reached by phone at his Florida home. “I’m not being interrupted at dinner two or three times, and I’m much more engaged in whatever I’m doing, whether that’s playing golf or at a barbecue.”

Although he’s landed in a comfortable place, Mahoney said the transition wasn’t easy.

“It was a little bit of an, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do with my day?’ ” he said. “You find that you now have control over your life and [are] not going from event to event to event. It’s a hard change, because you get used to that pace [in Congress] and you have a staff of people there to support you so that you can achieve that efficient schedule.”

Many of the former lawmakers whom The Hill spoke with have a similar feeling of freedom and greater involvement in their personal lives now that they’ve left Capitol Hill.

Former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) got to witness moments he might have missed had he won a third term.

“I have been able to be present for family occasions in ways that the Senate schedule made impossible,” he said in a phone interview from his new job as president of the National Association of Broadcasters. “The greatest importance of those occasions was the birth of my first granddaughter.”

Former Rep. Feeney (R-Fla.) said he’s had similar feelings. He’s been able to regularly catch his children’s sporting events. Feeney resumed his former profession as a lawyer and has found the work to be more family-friendly, he said.

“It’s not that I work less,” he said in a phone interview while waiting for his flight back to Florida from Reagan National Airport. “I probably work the same 70 or 80 hours a week in general. But I have a lot more flexibility about when I’m working and where I’m working,”

Feeney was back in Washington in his new role as a senior visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Occasional travel to Washington has also afforded him the opportunity to get together with nearly 75 of his former staffers and colleagues over the past month, he said.

Many former members make it back to the nation’s capital with some regularity, if for no other reason than to catch up with the folks they once saw more than their family.

“I’m still getting phone calls from colleagues asking me what my thoughts are on certain pieces of legislation,” said Mahoney, who still has an apartment in Washington.

“It’s text messages, phone calls during call-time and advice if there’s anything I can help them with or help them raise some money,” he said. “I’m still very much in weekly contact with my former colleagues.”

But the ability to leave that life at any given moment and escape is an advantage that comes with losing an election, said Mahoney, who at the time of the interview had just come back from returning a piece of furniture for his new backyard kitchen. For example, he said he’s spent the past three of four months fly-fishing at his second home in Calgary, Alberta.

“In Congress, your life is not your own,” he said. “It’s like being back at St. Theresa’s in third grade — the bell rings, and you drop everything and you run across and you vote.”

Mahoney, a former businessman, is sticking with what he knows, doing consulting work for Fortune 500 companies in his spare time. Others have taken a break from their past and ventured out anew, like former Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) and his wife, Sandy.

“No one likes to lose, and I did lose,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. “But one of the things that settles in pretty quickly is that you’re no longer a member of Congress. You are on your own, and you’ve got to decide what you want to do.”

Knollenberg sits on at least three different boards for groups that work with the blind and people with bipolar disorder and dyslexia. He also does consulting work for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

He said he’s constantly asked by friends and family to consider running again for Congress. But the 75-year-old former lawmaker is happy with his new life, he said. Knollenberg exercises more, goes to the opera with his wife and even makes it to the community library fairly regularly.
Some of 2008’s election victims, however, are not finished with Capitol Hill. Former Rep. Chabot (R-Ohio) has reopened his law practice, but is making a run to regain the seat he lost.

“It became very clear very early to me that the direction of the country that this administration and that this new Congress wanted to take the country is not the right direction,” said Chabot, who added that it was refreshing being out of office for a period of time and spending time with his wife and two children in Cincinnati. In addition to his campaign work and law practice, he teaches a political science class at the University of Cincinnati and volunteers as the chairman of the Boy Scouts’ William Henry Harrison District.

Many members have found new work. Former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) took a job with the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee for female anti-abortion-rights candidates, and joined Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Virginia Foxx (N.C.) for a tele-town hall over the summer to rail against the Democratic healthcare bill.

Former Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) went to work this past summer as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs for all manpower and personnel policy matters.

And former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) told McClatchy newspapers that she has kept busy working with her foundation and taking care of her husband, former presidential candidate and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

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Many former members, though, are still getting used to their new lives. Some of this past year’s changes were so unexpected that they had no way to prepare for them.

After spending years being driven to and from the Detroit airport while he pored over pieces of legislation or talked on the phone with staff and fellow legislators, Knollenberg finally had time this year to look out the car window to realize things had changed.

“Not having driven for 16 years in my own community, I was lost,” Knollenberg said about his troubles driving his Ford Focus around his hometown. “And that’s kind of scary when you don’t know how to get to Point B. But we’re back in the groove now. We’re not all the way there, but we’re getting better at it.”

Kris Kitto contributed to this article.