Competitors for top Oversight spot seek to prove how un-Issa they are

Francis Riviera

The fierce campaign to become the next Darrell Issa has come down to this: Who can be the most unlike Darrell Issa.

Reps. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse panel tells fed agency to stop selling recalled cars Trump's big worry isn't rigged elections, it's GOP establishment State pushes back on GOP calls for 'quid pro quo' investigation MORE of Utah and Mike Turner of Ohio are locked in a high-stakes contest to succeed the controversial California Republican as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

But both men have been going out of their way to prove to fellow Republicans — and party leaders — how different they’ll be from Issa, who’s built a reputation as a media-hungry, partisan pitbull.  

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, thinks GOP leaders want to anoint a new chairman who can disagree without being “disagreeable.” And other observers say leadership is sending a clear signal to the candidates that they don’t want another troublemaker who fits the Issa mold.

“I can’t imagine this type of open campaign against a sitting chairman in the same conference is happening unless there is some cue from leadership,” said a GOP source familiar with the gavel race.

Since taking over as chairman in January 2011, Issa has been perhaps the biggest thorn in President Obama’s side, issuing more than 100 subpoenas during his tenure.

The GOP congressman’s relentless investigations into the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups claimed a handful of Obama administration scalps while also helping Republicans fire up their base.

But the term-limited chairman has also drawn criticism from fellow Republicans that his costly, months-long probes have turned into public spectacles that have yielded little political benefit for the GOP.

In their race to replace Issa, both Chaffetz and Turner have been trying to outdo each other in touting their bipartisan bona fides through their work with Democrats. Issa and Cummings, the panel’s ranking member, have clashed repeatedly over the years, but things got personal when Issa cut off Cummings’s microphone during an IRS hearing in the spring.

Chaffetz seized on the moment last June, accepting an invitation by Cummings to visit with students and seniors in the Democrat’s district in inner city Baltimore. Then Chaffetz returned the favor: Last month, he hosted Cummings in Moab, Utah, where the bipartisan duo toured the Colorado River and Red Rocks, and broke bread with local officials over barbecue, cheesy potatoes, pork and beans and apple cobbler.

Behind the scenes, Chaffetz has been meeting one-on-one with members of the House GOP’s Steering Committee, which will pick the next chairman and is comprised of Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE (Ohio), his top lieutenants, committee chairmen and other senior lawmakers. The Utah Republican’s pitch: He’s worked hard, produced results, stayed on message, and never made a major gaffe that’s made him the center of the story, aides said.

“I have the greatest respect and admiration for Congressman Issa, but I don’t intend to be Darrell Issa-like,” Chaffetz told The Hill in an interview. “I want to build upon the strengths that he had and add my own direction and management to that. …

“How you do things matters in this body, and how we do things would be a bit different.”

Turner declined to be interviewed for this story, but the former Dayton mayor has been talking up bipartisanship at every turn. He and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) are the co-chairmen of the Congressional Urban Caucus, where they’ve been touting their work on federal block grants for local communities. Last week, he teamed up with liberal Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownDem senator praises US steel after car crash Lobbying World Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs MORE (D-Ohio) for an event touting aerospace giant Airbus’s investments in the Buckeye State.

“I’m a guy who works across the aisle,” Turner told the Washington Post upon announcing his candidacy for chairman. “Even though it’s a committee that has a lot of contentiousness, I think there could be some additional work to bring people together.”

Turner and BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE represent neighboring Ohio districts, but Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker has not backed anyone in the contest for chairman.

“That will be a decision for the Steering Committee at the appropriate time,” Steel said, declining to comment on whether GOP leaders want the Oversight  panel to head in a different direction.

It’s not just a two man-race. Former Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, also from Ohio, has taken a quieter approach but said in an interview he’s “still looking at it.”

And Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), another long-shot candidate who has more seniority on the panel than any of the others, said he’s not running away from the Issa brand.

“I obviously will be the most aggressive, toughest and the most experienced because I’ve worked under every chairman for the last 20 years,” Mica, the former Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, said in an interview. “Nobody will match my record of accomplishments, neither in investigations or in legislation.

“If they are looking for a kumbaya candidate, I’m not the one,” he quipped.

In a brief interview, Issa acknowledged that Turner and Chaffetz were campaigning on how they would run the committee differently. But the chairman wouldn’t say how he felt about it, neither would he speak to their political motivations.

“I think Mr. Turner is running an anti-, ‘I will do it different’ campaign. Mr. Chaffetz is running an ‘I will do it different’ campaign. I think Mr. Jordan is running an ‘I like what we’ve been doing, I want to hold the president accountable campaign,’” Issa said. “So as an observer, I would say you did see different campaigns.”

The 2016 presidential election cycle and Obama’s final two years in office will be a target-rich environment for the next chairman of the House’s top investigative panel, Chaffetz said. But the former chief of staff to then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, (R) said he’d like to focus on the reform side of the committee if he’s handed the gavel.

“We know there are parts of government that don’t work and need fixing, and hopefully we can engage more on the reform portion of oversight,” he said.

Just don’t mistake him for a shrinking violet.

“I don’t lack for guts to take on tough issues,” said Chaffetz, a former kicker for the Brigham Young University football team. “My inner place kicker is not afraid to jump in the middle of a firestorm and make the difference.”

Cummings, who’s expected to remain the panel’s top Democrat next year, said he suspects GOP leaders want to see the Oversight panel work in a more bipartisan fashion to hold the government accountable.

“I think that our committee could have been a lot more productive, and I think that the Republican leadership is trying to figure out how to accomplish that and at the same time carry out whatever their agendas might be through Oversight,” Cummings said in an interview.

“They don’t mind disagreement,” the Democrat said. “They just don’t want folks to be disagreeable.”