Bidding for whip, Rep. Rogers says he is a 'voice for change'

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is no stranger to bucking the political establishment.

As a young FBI agent, he helped root out public corruption in suburban Chicago. In his first bid for the Michigan Senate, he challenged a sitting Republican before the incumbent bowed out. And now he is hoping to upset Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his bid to become the next House majority whip, despite Cantor’s claims of overwhelming support.

Rogers is offering himself as a “voice for change” in the same mold that Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) are challenging Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the race for majority leader. But Rogers must now balance his campaign as an outsider with his own close ties to the leadership and a reputation within the conference as one of its most ambitious members.

Rogers spent much of last week laying out his broad policy goals for the party in a series of public speeches in Washington and Michigan. In them, he highlighted his support for the intelligence community and reiterated his commitment to health savings accounts.

While Rogers believes the whip post means more than just moving tough legislation, he said he has a particular sensitivity for members taking those hard votes because he hails from a closely contested district — he was elected to the House in 2000 by a mere 111 votes over his Democratic opponent. As such, he would try to be more inclusive in that role.

“We don’t use our members well,” Rogers said.

A former majority floor leader in the Michigan Senate, Rogers said leadership should involve members earlier in the negotiation and debate leading up to a tough vote. That includes “telling the White House to come down and negotiate” the particulars of key legislation and giving members cover in anticipation of politically sensitive votes.

The former FBI agent is positioning himself as a new face in his bid for the whip job, but Rogers is already very much a political insider on Capitol Hill. He serves as the director of coalitions on Blunt’s current whip team, which means he helps organize outreach with lobbyists, and he has taken an active fundraising role at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

During the 2004 cycle, the first to prohibit “soft money” donations, Rogers served as the NRCC’s finance chairman and led their Battleground program, which raises money for GOP candidates in the tightest races. In that latter post, Rogers and his Republican colleagues raised $21 million last year, eclipsing their initial goal by $5 million.

Throughout his political career, Rogers has been forced to balance the needs of the party with his own ambitions.

“I’ve seen him put aside his own agenda to help the party,” said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who served with Rogers in the Michigan Senate for a term and supports his bid for whip.

“When you’re elected to House leadership, you are not a master; you’re a servant to that conference,” McCotter said. “I think Mike understands that.”

Rogers is supporting McCotter for policy chairman but has not publicly endorsed any candidate for majority leader.

The whip’s race is not the first time Rogers has run up against Cantor for a key leadership post; Blunt surprised many of his colleagues in 2002 when he passed over Rogers and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) to select Cantor as his chief deputy whip.

There has been minor speculation since the race began that Rogers cut a deal to become Cantor’s chief deputy whip if the Virginian defeats his three opponents Thursday, but Rogers denied that suggestion outright in a recent interview.

“We have had no discussions,” Rogers said.

Cantor was much quicker out of the starting blocks than Rogers, Tiahrt or Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.); days after the race for majority leader became official, Cantor announced he had secured commitments from 117 of his Republican colleagues, the minimum number of votes needed to succeed Blunt if the Missourian triumphs in his bid to become the next majority leader.

Because the whip’s job is not yet vacant, Cantor’s opponents continue to question those commitments and neither candidate has released a sufficient list of public supporters to indicate a clear front-runner. As evidence of that uncertain outcome, Cantor and his team continue making phone calls in anticipation of a vote Thursday, a source close to Cantor said. His team, though, is confident he still has overwhelming support from a majority of the conference.

Rogers fondly recalls his six years in the FBI, and his former colleagues are eager to heap praise on his abilities.

“We’re an organization with an extraordinary work force,” said Grant Ashley, the assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division who supervised Rogers during his early years in Chicago. “He was the cream of the cream.”

Ashley said Rogers distinguished himself from his peers because he possessed “seasoning beyond his years” and was “always in the middle of big events.”

Mike Taylor, who supervised an investigation Rogers helped initiate into organized crime in Cicero, Ill., said the Michigan native distinguished himself with a tenacious work effort and a persistence to wade through the Justice Department’s extensive bureaucracy to pursue wiretaps and infiltrate a mob organization that had co-opted City Hall and the police department. Eight years after it began, the probe produced criminal convictions of the mayor and chief of police in Cicero and a local mob boss.

Taylor said Rogers made many of the initial contacts that eventually led federal investigators to make those arrests.

As a testament to his role in that investigation, and his love of the work, Rogers’s colleagues sent him the handcuffs they used to arrest the mayor, and he has since framed them and hung the memento on his office wall.

“Mike could see things very well,” Taylor said. “It does not surprise me to see that he has prospered.”