McConnell's 'Men of the Wheel'

Want to know the secret to success in Washington? Get a job chauffeuring Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) around.

Want to know the secret to success in Washington? Get a job chauffeuring Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) around.

Former McConnell drivers have an uncanny record of going on to bigger things here or in Kentucky politics. McConnell’s chief of staff and the chiefs of staff of Kentucky Republican Reps. Anne Northup and Hal Rogers spent time behind the wheel for the senator earlier in their careers. In fact, at one time, former drivers held every chief-of-staff job in the Kentucky Republican delegation.

“It must be something about osmosis working there,” said Jon Deuser, who split his time for McConnell as driver and legislative correspondent on agriculture before serving as Sen. Jim Bunning’s chief of staff for 10 years. He left earlier this year to become vice president at the Smith-Free Group.

“I was supposed to be an intern for six months, [but] you just get down into it,” he said. “You wanted to come to work every day.”

Deuser said the drivers alumni have developed a fraternity: “The Men of the Wheel.” 

“It’s a club you want to get in,” said Terry Carmack, Northup’s chief of staff, who drove for McConnell during his first Senate campaign in 1984.

“I had a huge advantage in the days before cell phones,” he said. “If you’re driving between Pikesville and Peducah, you can learn a lot from Senator McConnell.”

Will Smith, Rogers’s chief of staff, who drove for McConnell in ’94 and ’95, said that, as his first job out of college, “it opened a lot of doors for me, and I learned a lot.”

Billy Piper, McConnell’s chief of staff, said he’s been in the office since 1991, when he “happened to walk thought the door on a day when they promoted the guy who was the driver. I graduated on a Saturday and started on a Monday.”

Among other Men of the Wheel:  Mark Reineke, who served as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development; Hunter Bates, who ran McConnell’s campaign in 2002; and Scott Douglas, former executive director of the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Unfortunately for McConnell’s minions these days, his majority leader post comes with a security detail, which handles the driving. So we can expect the officer who drives him to be chief of police before too long.


Corrupt LBJ aide was a page with Rep. Dingell

When Dick Ryan, the senior Washington correspondent for The Detroit News, spoke at a Flagler College forum on government and public policy in St. Augustine, Fla., on Nov. 10, a man introduced himself afterward, saying they had a mutual friend in Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), whom Ryan has covered for many years.

“He said he and Dingell graduated together from the congressional page school,” Ryan recalled. When Ryan asked him his name, the man said, “Bobby Baker.”

“There’s somebody by the name of Bobby Baker who’s pretty well-known in Washington,” Ryan said, to which the man replied, “I’m that Bobby Baker. ”

That’s how Ryan met the Pickens, S.C., native who was at the center of an influence-peddling scandal in Washington that even the Jack Abramoff imbroglio would find hard to match.

Baker, now 76 and living in Florida, was secretary to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) in the early 1960s and a top aide in the Johnson White House after President Kennedy’s assassination. A consummate wheeler and dealer, Baker collected large sums of “campaign donations” intended to buy influence with various senators and enriched himself with kickbacks on federal contracts he helped arrange.

He was convicted in 1967 of seven counts of theft, fraud and income tax evasion and sentenced to three years in prison. He served only 16 months.

“I must say, he looked in great shape,” said the 68-year-old Ryan, who wasn’t even born when Baker began his rise to power as a 14-year-old page shortly after Dingell’s father, John Dingell Sr., was elected to Congress in 1932 and had his son appointed a page.


An ‘Apprentice’ candidate for GOP in Pa.-13

It was only a matter of time before reality TV spawned political candidacies. And we may have one in Pennsylvania’s 13th District next year.

Raj Bhakta, the dandy-dressing contestant from the second season of “The Apprentice,” is considering a bid for the seat, now held by freshman Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D).

Bhakta has formed an exploratory committee and has met with local and national Republican leaders. His assistant, Maria Boren, appeared on “The Apprentice” with Bhakta, according to the Allentown Morning Call.

“Skeptics may think: What does this guy know about the grave issues that face this country?” the bow-tie-sporting, secretary-flirting Bhakta told the paper. “My challenge is to talk about those and tell them why I am well-positioned to discuss those issues.”

Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that, based on his meeting with committee members earlier this fall, “he’s a serious candidate. If he can raise the money and put together a strong enough team, he can win that seat.”

Bhakta is a real-estate developer in Fort Washington, Pa. His dismissal by Donald Trump — “You’re fired!” —  was ironic, in that it came after contestants were tasked with renovating a home.


‘Mean’ Jean Schmidt acknowledges faux pas

Watchers of the House floor can consider Rep. Jean Schmidt’s (R-Ohio) now-infamous, star-studded red outfit retired.

In speaking to The Washington Post last week about her controversial comments about Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Schmidt notably said she wouldn’t have used Murtha’s name if she could do it over again.

But when Cincinnati radio station WLW asked her a similar question last week, her response skewed toward sartorial matters. Here’s the exchange:

Host Bill Cunningham: “Have you learned anything [since the incident]?”

Schmidt: “I’ve learned a lot.”

Cunningham: “What have you learned?”

Schmidt: “A lot.”

Cunningham: “Give me one or two.”

Schmidt: “Um … I’ve learned a lot.”

Cunningham: “Give me something you’ve learned.”

Schmidt: “Alright. [Pause]  There’s so many things. Um …”

Cunningham: “Pick out one or two.”

Schmidt: “[Long pause] Not to wear the red dress.”

Cunningham: “It’s a bad red dress.”

Surprising that she took that long to come up with the answer, given the lampooning she got for it on “Saturday Night Live” the previous weekend.

“John Murtha was a decorated, 37-year veteran,” said SNL’s Tina Fey. “Jean Schmidt, I’m guessing — judging from her outfit — was a 1970s gymnast.”

It’s not the first time Schmidt has mulled such matters. On her first day in Washington during the August break, Capitol News Connection’s Chad Pergram trailed her. In a report filed by Pergram for Cincinnati’s WVXU, she wondered, “Can women wear a short-sleeved suit, or does it have to be a long-sleeved suit? Can women wear sandals? Can women wear pantsuits?”



Matheson donates pay raise again

In what’s fast becoming a yearly tradition, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) is set to give away his annual congressional pay raise to charity today.

Matheson will appear at the Canyon Creek Women’s Crisis Center in his southern Utah district this morning to cut them a check out of his $3,100 pay increase, passed as part of the transportation-treasury-HUD appropriations bill.

He will then make similar stops at other district charities, said his spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend.

This year’s pay hike brings House salaries to $165,200, up roughly $24,000 since Matheson took office in early 2001. But he’s donated every yearly increase.

Matheson has been one of the Democrats most vocal about eliminating or trimming the annual cost-of-living adjustment for members.

The Senate this fall voted 96-2 to eliminate the pay raise, but House negotiators reinserted it in conference.

“If there was ever a time for shared sacrifice, this is it,” said Matheson in a statement. “I know eliminating the pay raise doesn’t mean much in terms of dollars, but it is the right thing to do.”