Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and his son Robert may not belong to the same political party, but they do share many other things: a work environment, a taste for inexpensive Mexican food, a pooled tie collection and, perhaps most urgently, the need for a new job come 2011.
Rep. Inglis lost his primary election last month, but before that, Robert knew his job would expire at year’s end. Robert is a legislative assistant for Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring at the end of this Congress.
But in the meantime, they plan to enjoy their unique situation, sharing ties, eating meals together and continuing their ongoing debates on politics and policy.
“I own three ties myself,” says Robert, pointing out that the blue striped tie he’s wearing is his father’s. “The others I sort of borrow in a rotating fashion from Bob’s Rotating Tie Library.”
Robert is the oldest of Rep. Inglis’s five children. The two exchange dozens of e-mails each week, and at least once a week they catch up at Burrito Brothers or grab a meal together at a fundraiser. Robert regularly stops by his father’s office, which doubles as the lawmaker’s apartment, to pick up something his mom has sent back with his dad, such as his car insurance bill.
But their closeness doesn’t stop at practical matters. Robert was born when Rep. Inglis was 25 years old and, in many ways, the lawmaker says he grew up with his son.
“I embarrass him sometimes by saying that I want to grow up and be like my son,” Rep. Inglis says. “He’s good-looking, he’s smart, he’s fun, he’s funny — all of the things I’d like to be.”
As for Robert, his admiration for his father was perhaps never stronger than when, in the thick of the congressman’s reelection race, Robert would fill up his 1993 Honda every weekend with Democratic friends and drive nine hours to South Carolina to help his dad campaign.
“We were happy to have them,” Rep. Inglis says with a smile. “I think what they would say for justification is that it was the best they could see doing in the 4th district of South Carolina.”
But Robert doesn’t always agree with his father on matters of policy. They frequently have “spirited” debates over hefty matters like the State Children’s Health Insurance Program or the environmental policy known as cap-and-trade.
“Robert’s big on cap-and-trade and thinks it’s all right,” Rep. Inglis says. “I think cap-and-trade is a bad idea.”
Robert shoots back, “He’s going to come around.”
And from there, the conversation turns into a five-minute debate over revenue-neutral carbon taxes and other details on the issue.
Politics has always been a part of the Inglis family. As a child, Robert would read the books his father brought back from Republican colleagues.
“By the time I was 12 years old, I was well-versed in the mid-1990s conservatism,” Robert says. “There was a time when I was more conservative than my parents.”
Gradually, however, Robert’s political views became more liberal as he deepened his roots as an environmentalist and edged away from the mindset of “give-me-what’s-mine conservatism,” he says.
And though Robert’s policy solutions may differ from his father’s, they share the fundamental desire to help people, he says, and that allows them to talk about their disagreements.
“This isn’t just about two parties getting along — you know, a Republican dad and a Democrat son,” Robert says. “This is more about shared values. And most Republicans can’t agree with most Democrats with what the problems are. I feel like my dad can agree with what the problem is, even if we may not be able to always agree on what the solution is.”
Through this give-and-take, Robert and his father have gotten to know each other very well. According to Rep. Inglis, Robert is the only person who can write in his voice, as he did once during this past campaign when the lawmaker didn’t have time to write his own newsletter, something he usually does.
“It would have been incredible for me, because then he could sit back there and basically say, ‘This is what Dad thinks, this is how you should write it,’ ” Rep. Inglis says. “We would have things clicking around here.”
Instead, Robert met Baird last year when Baird’s and Inglis’s House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment was on a congressional delegation to Antarctica (Baird is the chairman, Inglis the ranking member). Robert was there, working in the McMurdo Station’s welding department, and remembers being impressed with Baird.
Baird thought highly of Robert as well, Rep. Inglis recalls. So he put in a good word for his son.
“I kind of nudged [Baird] and said, ‘He’s looking for a job, Brian, and his papa would be very happy if he were productively and gainfully employed,’ ” Rep. Inglis says.
Baird says the Inglises are a model for a good family.
“It’s a great relationship,” says Baird, who happens to be holding his young son, Walter, while in the House Speaker’s Lobby. “They like each other, and they respect each other’s differences. It’s how families should be.”
But in an ironic twist, Robert’s relationship with his dad may have cost Rep. Inglis his reelection. Robert told his father, “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you have got to clean up your act on the environment.” And Rep. Inglis, thinking “it was a fun thing to say,” started repeating that anecdote on the campaign trail.
“It got me in a lot of trouble,” Rep. Inglis says. “I had a lot of people say, ‘Your first mistake was listening to your kids. They should be listening to you.’ ”
But Rep. Inglis says his only regret is that his family has been exposed to politically motivated attacks.
“The one downside to this political endeavor, I think, is that our kids have seen the worst of faith, where faith gets corrupted by politics,” he says. “It can be real nasty, and that’s real disappointing. I think it’s been a crisis of faith for all five kids.“
But Robert, a relentless optimist, says he hasn’t lost faith that people want what’s right for the country. And while he’s not certain what will happen next year when Baird retires, he hasn’t ruled out a run for office in the future.
“I don’t know,” Robert says.
His father, who also says he’s unsure of what his post-Congress life will look like, laughs and says, “I’ll answer that. Yes.”
Robert smiles and revises his previous answer.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. There are things about it that are appealing and also things about it that are not so appealing,” he says, “and I think I’ve seen both of those sides.”
-- This story was updated at 10:10 p.m. on July 27.