Chaplain controversy shifts spotlight to rising GOP star
Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker has been thrust into the spotlight by his controversial remarks about the search for a new House chaplain.
Walker, a North Carolina Republican and Southern Baptist preacher, is seen as a rising star and has made it known he’s interested in running for some kind of leadership post, perhaps chairman of the House Republican Conference.
His role atop the RSC, the largest bloc of voters in the House, could give him a strong base of support to launch a bid.
Centrist Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) in an interview described Walker as trustworthy, respectful and authentic, someone who has the potential to rise in the ranks of GOP leadership.
“I think he has strong relationships with his colleagues,” Hurd told The Hill. “Is Mark Walker a leader in our conference? Yes, he already is. And he is someone that is kind. He is someone that cares about other folks. And he’s smart.”
But while Walker enjoys strong support among many of his colleagues, some of them question whether Walker is the right fit for the No. 4 job, which helps run the GOP messaging shop.
Last fall, Walker stepped before the TV cameras and described female colleagues standing near him as “eye candy.” Over the weekend, Walker was forced to resign from a Speaker’s special search committee after telling reporters the next House chaplain should have a family, remarks that infuriated Catholic lawmakers in both parties.
And on Monday, Axios reported that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had dressed down Walker during a chance encounter on a Greensboro, N.C., tarmac. Chao told the RSC chairman that her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had personally read Walker’s press release attacking him over proposed spending rescissions. Walker shared that anecdote in a private meeting of House Republicans last week.
“He doesn’t have the messaging discipline to properly articulate critical issues without fumbling the message,” one GOP lawmaker who knows Walker told The Hill on Monday. “Any leadership post would need someone who has better judgment.”
Other GOP lawmakers shared similar concerns about Walker — specifically mentioning his “eye candy” remark for which he later apologized — but were not willing to be directly quoted.
Several RSC members came to Walker’s defense. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a Catholic who has prayed with Walker and plays on the Republican baseball team with him, called him a responsive leader and effective communicator.
“I think he does a nice job for us with the comments he puts out as chairman. He is usually responding to the comments he gets from his membership,” Wenstrup said in a phone interview.
“I think he has displayed good leadership as chairman of the Republican Study Committee.”
House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), who attends a weekly Bible study with Walker, praised the RSC chairman as “genuinely fair,” “dependable” and “level-headed. But Harper pointed out Walker is “not a professional politician,” having run and won his first race for public office in the 2014 cycle.
“Everybody has to learn that sometimes, we say something that doesn’t look great in print, and it’s maybe not what we meant. That is part of the growth process in Congress,” Harper told The Hill. “I find him very accessible and I find he communicates quite well in the settings I’ve seen him at.”
Walker spokesman Jack Minor pointed out that the conservative lawmaker had the distinction of being selected RSC chairman during his first term in Congress — a testament, he said, to his overwhelming popularity with other conservatives.
“His colleagues hold him in the highest regard. … Their words and the trust they have put in him carry more weight than anything Walker could say, and certainly more than the musings of someone hiding behind anonymity,” Minor said in an email.
Still, messaging stumbles — at least in part — cost Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) the Speakership when he ran for the gavel in 2015.
McCarthy, who was considered an early front-runner to succeed then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), made a major gaffe when he suggested on national television that the special House panel investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks Benghazi, Libya, was launched to help take down Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.
The comments were widely criticized by Democrats and some Republicans. Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) quickly pounced on the remarks — “I want a Speaker who speaks,” he said — and then challenged McCarthy for Speaker, arguing he was a far better communicator. Soon after, McCarthy dropped his bid after he failed to rally conservative support, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) became Speaker instead.
Walker, 48, whose term leading the 150-member RSC expires after this year, has also had his share of blunders, including one unforced error that touched on the sensitive subject of religion.
Ryan’s controversial decision to force out Chaplain Patrick Conroy ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill last week.
But it was Walker, a pastor for nearly two decades, who fanned the flames, suggesting to reporters that the House’s next spiritual leader should be someone with a spouse and “adult children.” That way, Walker said, the chaplain can better relate to and counsel lawmakers who spend weeks away from their families each year.
That message was met by a fierce backlash. Like most Catholic priests, Conroy, a Jesuit, has taken an oath of celibacy. And many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, interpreted Walker’s comments as anti-Catholic.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Methodist pastor who was tapped to serve with Walker on the search panel, slammed Walker’s remarks as “bigotry.” And at a closed-door GOP conference meeting Friday, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a devout Catholic, stood up and took Walker to task.
Walker quickly sought to do damage control, telling reporters outside the meeting that while the quote reported in The Hill was accurate, he could have made his point more artfully. What Walker meant, he said, was that the next chaplain should have “pastoral, familial experience.”
“Someone who has had the opportunity to deal with families, to deal with adult children, to deal with parents who are passing away. That can be a bishop, priest. It can be male or female,” said Walker, who is co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. “To me, that’s kind of the criteria … so I should have went on a little further yesterday as far as clarifying my comments that it didn’t have to be one particular brand of denomination — that’s not even a factor in any of this.”
Walker also went around the Capitol that day and apologized to a handful of Catholic lawmakers, one House Democrat said.
But his efforts to clean up the quote did not appear to fully quell the uproar. Over the weekend, USA Today reported that Walker had stepped down from the search committee tasked with finding Conroy’s replacement.
Walker spokesman Minor told the newspaper Ryan did not push out Walker after his controversial remarks. “Walker has chosen to remove himself from the process,” Minor said.
AshLee Strong, a Ryan spokeswoman, confirmed that Walker would not serve in any formal capacity on the committee, which hasn’t been officially formed yet. But Strong added that they would still welcome Walker’s input.
Ryan has asked House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Doug Collins (R-Ga.), an Air Force Reserve chaplain himself, to lead the search, Collins said.
“We have not yet announced the bipartisan screening panel as we are awaiting Leader Pelosi’s selections,” Strong said in a statement. “That said, Mr. Walker will not serve in a formal capacity but we will welcome his contribution as a former pastor.”
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a Catholic, called Walker a “fine fellow” but said that many members in both parties were offended by his comments.
Jones, however, thought Walker could patch things up with his colleagues by signing on to a bipartisan letter demanding more information from Ryan about why Conroy was forced out.
“That would show good faith,” Jones told The Hill.
Some lawmakers worry that the chaplain controversy — and Walker’s comments — will cast a dark cloud over the selection process going forward. But it’s unclear whether the flap will have any lasting impact on Walker’s leadership ambitions.
Walker and other GOP lawmakers have been jockeying for position ever since Ryan announced he was retiring from Congress several weeks ago.
“I don’t know that it made a ton of people feel differently than they already did, but [the comments] were shocking,” said one RSC lawmaker of Walker.
“We’ll see,” the lawmaker added. “I think we’re a long way out” from the leadership races.
Walker also raised some eyebrows after Axios reported that Chao had confronted him for a press release slamming her husband, McConnell. Walker issued the statement after McConnell poured cold water on an effort to claw back some of the spending hikes that were adopted in the recently passed omnibus spending bill.
“Do you know who I am married to?” Chao asked Walker, according to Axios.
After Walker responded yes, Chao shot back: “He wanted you to know that he reads everything you put out.”
The anecdote, shared with members of the RSC, could win Walker some points with conservative House members, who balked over the price tag of the $1.3 trillion omnibus and have been pressing Ryan to play hardball with McConnell when it comes to House GOP priorities.
But some members questioned whether attacking the Senate’s top Republican was the best strategy for someone vying for a seat at the leadership table.
Clawing back spending through rescissions is “certainly an issue for a lot of the conservatives,” a GOP lawmaker said. “But I’m not sure you ingratiate yourself with conservatives by trashing McConnell.”
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