Rep. Brooks followed serendipity to the House of Representatives

Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) arrived in Congress the way she arrived at almost every previous job — without much planning beforehand.

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The Indiana lawyer was busy working as general counsel and senior vice president for Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, the state’s vocational college system, when, in the first half of 2011, she was approached by young Republican activists and urged to challenge sitting Republican congressman Dan Burton, a controversial figure who was increasingly unpopular within the state Republican party.

Brooks had never run for elected office but says she responded positively due, in part, to the enthusiastic reaction of her children and, in part, to the fierce debates over the national debt that were just then heating up in Congress. Those debates, she added, made her concerned that her generation was bequeathing a rotten legacy to the next one.

Brooks announced her candidacy in the summer of 2011. After Barton chose to retire, she won a narrow victory in a crowded primary field with just 30 percent of the vote.

During the primary campaign, she was helped significantly by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who campaigned on her behalf. The two had become close friends when both worked as U.S. attorneys under President George W. Bush.

Indiana’s 5th District leans red, so it was no surprise that Brooks coasted to an easy general election victory over Democratic state Rep. Scott Reske.

While Brooks is a neophyte in electoral politics, she arrived in Washington with a diverse battery of experiences with government issues from the local to federal level. From 1998-1999, she was a deputy mayor of Indianapolis, where she was focused on local violent crime and social welfare issues.

Following a short stint in private practice, Brooks was appointed U.S. attorney for Southern Indiana by President Bush in the fall of 2001. As one of the first U.S. attorneys appointed after 9/11, she was closely involved with the increased federal focus on national security issues.

Brooks is very proud of her tenure as a U.S. attorney and has remained friends with many of her colleagues, several of whom are in the House themselves. While she was uninvolved with a 2007 scandal involving alleged politically motivated firings of attorneys, she said she remains disappointed by how the affair cast a pall over the group’s many accomplishments.

U.S. attorneys are generally replaced en masse when the White House changes hands and, with George W. Bush growing very unpopular, Brooks knew she would likely be out of a job in 2009. She decided to stay ahead of the curve.

In 2007, she resigned to accept a job as general counsel at Ivy Tech. There, in addition to her legal duties, she focused on the long-term development of Indiana’s workforce.

Throughout her professional career, Brooks has balanced work with numerous side ventures. While deputy mayor of Indianapolis, she helped bring the World Police and Fire Games to Indianapolis. That experience led to her being tapped as co-chair of the host committee when Indianapolis landed the 2011 Women’s Final Four in NCAA basketball. She has also served on the boards of everything from The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to the Carmel (Ind.) Library Foundation.

While Brooks cited the breadth of her experiences as a major asset in her run for Congress, she says it doesn’t reflect any long-term plan on her part.

“I have never chosen my next job. I focus on what’s in front of me, and serendipity steps in,” she told The Hill.

Brooks employs a similar approach to politics, focusing on what is immediately before her and being careful about what she promises.

Even before her election, Brooks stood out as one of a small cohort of freshman Republicans who chose not to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a creation of influential conservative activist Grover Norquist. Signatories promise to oppose all tax increases.

Brooks denied any ideological bent to her decision.

“I’m pragmatic. I like efficiency,” she told The Hill. “I want to read what’s in front of me and not have my hands tied.” Brooks avoids pledges as a matter of principle, saying it is irresponsible to categorically exclude policy possibilities since one doesn’t know what the future holds.

Her decision reflected a mini-trend of 2012’s freshman Republicans, a dozen of whom refused to sign the pledge.

Brooks says the trend shows that 2012’s freshman class is different, having come to office riding a “wave of frustration and cynicism” regarding stagnation in the federal government that makes them less beholden to partisan dogmas.

Brooks, for her part, is a fervent advocate for Indiana as an example the federal government could and should imitate going forward.

Throughout her interview, Brooks heaped praised on former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) at every opportunity. She views him as a political idol for helping engineer a budget surplus in the state despite the effects of the worldwide recession.

She enjoys quoting his statement that “You never realize how much government you don’t miss” while expressing guarded enthusiasm for the recent sequester on spending.

Similarly, she said repeated battles over the debt ceiling, regardless of their ultimate outcome, have the positive effect of repeatedly forcing Congress to confront spending in a manner that encourages cuts.

Brooks says she has no plans to run for a higher office, such as senator or governor, but admits that with her ad hoc approach to her career path, such a statement means little. She did, however, say she has no desire for a lengthy career in Congress, both for lifestyle reasons and because she believes incorporating new blood is crucial in politics.

“I want to encourage a successor to take my place here,” she said. “I don’t want to grow old here.”