Campaign 2010

Jan 08, 2009

Austin American-Statesman - One man’s path to Washington

On the opening day of Congress, the elevator deposited me on the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building, where, as I expected, the parties celebrating the hard-fought November election victories had spilled out of the offices and filled the corridor with revelry worthy of New Year's Eve.

The fifth floor of Longworth is not where you find the spacious suites commandeered by committee chairmen and senior members. The offices here are small and cramped and are occupied by freshmen, who draw numbers in a lottery and try to snag quarters close to the elevators. But on opening day, friends and families who have arrived to launch the freshmen into their new careers self-consciously mix and mingle with folks from other states doing the same thing. It's a wonderful day, a reminder of all the hard work and sacrifice it takes to win a House seat when you're not an incumbent.

Every new member has his own story. Walt Minnick's is more unusual than most.

For one thing, he is only the second Democrat to hold his House seat in the last 42 years, and the first in 14 years to come to Washington from the famously Republican state of Idaho. For another, he is, at 66, much older than most of the other freshmen, but ran and finished the Boston Marathon last year. Finally, he is the only former Nixon White House staff member to win election to this Congress. He resigned in protest immediately after the "Saturday night massacre," when Richard Nixon fired his attorney general in order to remove Archibald Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor.

Minnick told me that he had just come out of the Army when a Harvard Law School classmate who was a White House fellow suggested he apply for a vacant job on Nixon's staff. Not yet 30, he was working anonymously on drug-control issues when Watergate broke. "I realized I was not comfortable serving that kind of president," he said, "so I became the second person on the staff to resign."

A native of eastern Washington and lover of the outdoors, he chose Boise as his home and joined a forest products company, eventually becoming its president. Later, he started a successful nursery business.

Then politics came along. In 1996, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, then head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited Minnick to run against Republican Sen. Larry Craig. "I was an independent, and I told him I wanted to run as an independent. He had no problem with that, but Cecil Andrus (the former Idaho governor and interior secretary) phoned me and said that if that was my plan, they'd run another Democrat against Craig and see that I finished third. So at that point I became a Democrat."

But Minnick still sees himself as someone who straddles party lines. Last fall, he found Idahoans "so fed up with the partisanship in Washington" that his message resonated. He had the advantage of being up against a highly partisan Republican, Rep. Bill Sali, who had feuded even with other Republicans and carved out one of the most conservative records in the House.

"My whole campaign was aimed at persuadable Republicans," Minnick said. Fueled by $900,000 of his personal funds ("twice what I planned to put in"), Minnick closed his campaign with a series of ads in which Idahoans said, "I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm voting for Walt Minnick." It worked but barely. Minnick won with less than 51 percent of the votes.

This means, of course, that he will be high on the Republican target list for 2010. "Chris Van Hollen (the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) told me that I sit in the 14th-most Republican district in the country, and the other 13 are all held by Republicans," Minnick said. "So he wants me home every weekend."

Minnick is following orders. He has taken a small apartment on Capitol Hill while his wife and children remain in Boise. He says he is ready to show his constituents a different style of representation one not marked by partisanship.

He has joined the Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats and, on opening day, co-sponsored with Rep. Mike Simpson, the Republican from the neighboring district, a bill to protect an Idaho wilderness area.

His is one story of many and that's what makes opening day on Longworth Five a good place to be.