House GOP's fresh face: Fresh enough?
His colleagues hope John Boehner, new majority leader, will reinvigorate the party's vision.
WASHINGTON — For a glimpse at what drives the new House majority leader, start with his name. It's John Boehner, pronounced (BAY-ner).
It's easy to get it wrong. When he first campaigned for Ohio's Eighth Congressional District - against two better known GOP rivals - he ran ads in which people mispronounced his name, often hilariously.
"It hung a lantern on what appeared to be a liability - his name recognition," says former aide John Czwartacki. Voters apparently had a sense of humor: He won that 1990 Republican primary easily - and every reelection since.
It was signature Boehner: Keep it light, make it look easy, but get it done. Above all, meticulously prepare before going public.
The eight-term lawmaker won another come-from-behind victory last week, defeating Republican Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Shadegg of Arizona to become the new House majority leader. In that role, Boehner helps set the legislative agenda. He also becomes a key GOP spokesman, strategist, and fundraiser in the run-up to this fall's midterm elections.
For many in the GOP caucus, Boehner was a fresh face and a link to a purer past, when Republicans were the outsiders battling an entrenched Democratic majority. In 1990, as a member of the so-called Gang of Seven, Boehner and other insurgent freshmen railed against corruption, including the House banking scandal. He helped draft the House GOP's Contract With America. Elected in 1995 to be chairman of the Republican conference, a leadership committee, he was voted out after Republican losses in the 1998 midterm election.
Instead of appearing bitter - a hazard of losing leadership posts - Boehner plunged into committee work. In 2000, he rose to chair the House Education and the Workforce Committee, one of the most partisan in the House and seen as a backwater. Working with Democrats such as Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Boehner helped move President Bush's No Child Left Behind bill (NCLB) through Congress - winning the appreciation of the White House and many of his colleagues.
Highly goal-driven, Boehner and his staff live from one planning document to the next. Aides routinely map out legislative projects: Which Republicans and Democrats on the committee will care and why? Which outside groups will care - and will they be willing to say so publicly? Will the White House expend political capital on this project and why? And - most critically - how do we get 230 votes to pass a bill?
One of 12 children in a working-class family, he learned his negotiation skills at the kitchen table and mopping floors in the family bar from age 10.
At Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, he learned management from his football coach, local legend Gerry Faust, who left Moeller for Notre Dame with a 174-17-2 record. The only member of his family to attend college, Boehner worked his way though Xavier University as a night janitor. He met his wife, Debbie, cleaning her desk.
After graduation, he joined and later owned Nucite Sales, a small business in the packaging and plastics industry, got rich, and moved to an upscale suburb with a golf course. He says he went into politics because he was "bored to death." He got into local politics in 1982, then served in the Ohio state legislature from 1984 until 1990, when he ran for Congress.
That range of experience - from talking to working men just off the night shift in the family bar to teeing off in an upscale suburb - still marks his political style. A skilled fundraiser, he has strong ties to Washington lobbyists, but prefers life back in the district.
A longtime advocate of school choice, Boehner failed to win support for private school vouchers in the NCLB act but did for students in areas devastated by hurricane Katrina.
In his sales pitch to GOP colleagues, Boehner promised broad consultation on a new vision statement for House Republicans, which he expects to have ready by the first week of March.
"We have someone now who can reinvigorate our party back to the days when Republicans took over power," says Rep. David Hobson (R) of Ohio.
But Democrats and critics outside Congress say that Boehner is too close to lobbyists to offer a clean break with the past.
"The rejection of Representative Blunt shows that rank-and-file Republicans are aware the corruption scandal that has shaken Washington could put their majority status at risk," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, in a statement. But Representative Boehner's election is not a sign that business as usual will end, she adds.