By Blake Neff - 02/24/14 06:00 AM EST
Rep. Doug Collins’s (R-Ga.) career experience goes beyond the eclectic. When he left college he became a HAZMAT instructor, teaching fire departments how to dispose of dangerous materials. For many years, he helped his wife, Lisa, operate a scrapbooking store. Before coming to Congress he briefly ran his own law firm, Collins and Csider.
“It was a time in which I learned a lot. I learned a lot about people’s sufferings, I learned about their triumphs,” Collins told The Hill. He says his decade of service as a pastor has greatly influenced his politics, both in how he interacts with people and in how he conducts business in Congress.
“[I learned how] to have not only a very conservative mindset, but also to have conservatism that actually works.”
Collins said his father’s legacy helped inspire him to pursue the ministry.
“My father was a state trooper. I’ve always been drawn to service and helping people in a lot of different ways.”
Collins said that attraction to service led him to make another career change when he decided to attend law school at 38 years old.
A change in career was only the first of many shake-ups to Collins’ life in the next several years. Before he had even finished his degree at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Collins made his jump into politics. His entry was greatly eased by a lack of opposition, as both his Republican primary foe and Democratic opponent dropped out prior to Election Day, conceding him the office without a fight.
In Atlanta, Collins became the floor leader for Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who once represented the Ninth District himself and has been Collins’s friend since high school. While there, Collins helped lead the battle to balance the state’s budget as it was ravaged by the 2008 recession. A signature accomplishment was his reform of Georgia’s HOPE scholarships, which cut $300 million from the program but, according to Collins, helped save it from insolvency.
While still in state politics, and just three months after finishing his law degree, Collins was thrown back into the ministry when he served a five-month deployment to Iraq as a chaplain with the Air Force Reserve. He remains a chaplain with the Reserve to this day.
After completing his tour in Iraq, Collins finally opened his own law firm, but barely had time to begin before embarking on a campaign for higher office. Georgia gained a seat following the 2010 Census, and Tom Graves, who had represented the Ninth District, was relocated to the new 14th District, creating an opening for Collins.
With the Ninth District reliably Republican, the struggle came down entirely to a Republican primary that encapsulated the party’s internal battles. Collins was forced into a runoff after he defeated conservative radio host Martha Zoller by a razor-thin margin. Zoller pursued an insurgent, Tea Party angle to her campaign, winning endorsements from national figures such as Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as well as groups including the Tea Party Express and FreedomWatch.
Collins fought back with a stridently provincial campaign, running on the slogan “We are the Ninth” and making use of state-level supporters such as Deal and state majority leader David Ralston. Benefiting from higher local support and a larger war chest, Collins won the runoff by 10 percent, all but guaranteeing him a general election victory. He won over 76 percent of the votes cast in November.
Collins is not centrist and as his 2012 margin showed he has no need to be (though, like many Georgia Republicans, he was a Democrat early in life). His district of rural Georgia is rated by the Cook Partisan Voting Index as the most Republican in the Eastern Time Zone and the fourth-most Republican nationally. His website does not trumpet bipartisan accolades, but instead a National Journal ranking of him as Georgia’s most conservative representative and the 16th most conservative member in the nation.
Collins said while he is willing to find common ground with Democrats he does not expect either party to cede much ground to the other.
“I wouldn’t expect [Democrats] to abandon their principles and I don’t think they expect me to abandon mine,” Collins said. “Many of us are elected from very different districts…we have to be honest with the constituents we represent.”
Collins said his long-term goal is to see Congress rein in government by reclaiming what he views as its traditional Article One power of directly overseeing the making of regulations.
“You didn’t have to worry about reading the ObamaCare legislation when it was passed, because you wouldn’t have known what was in it anyway,” Collins said, referring to portions of the bill that delegated rulemaking to federal agencies. “That’s not a good way to determine the direction of our country.”
Collins also says his legislative priorities may clash with what the media define as important.
“Many times writers and reporters, all they want to focus on is ‘major legislation,’ and they’ll define major legislation as immigration or a budget bill,” Collins said. “Major legislation, to me, is something that affects the lives of people in the Ninth District in Georgia. Major legislation, to me, is something like the patent legislation, which doesn’t get talked about a great deal.
“The big things will take care of themselves. The budget folks, the appropriations, all the big issues that everybody wants to write about, they’ll get handled in some way.”
Collins is hesitant to reveal how long he hopes to stay in Congress or whether he would like to follow his forerunner Deal to the governor’s mansion.
“I view this as a two-year commitment from the people,” he said. “Right now we’re having a ball.”