Education of a Republican
A royal blue Lincoln Continental swings into the Smart Papers parking lot in Hamilton, Ohio, on a warm, sticky September morning. The passenger door opens and John Boehner steps out. He’s all business—hair in place, crisp white shirt, sky-blue striped tie, gray designer slacks, black shoes. Very neat.
He leaves his jacket in the car, which is driven by Mick Krieger, chief of staff in the Hamilton office of Ohio’s 8th District congressman.
Upstairs in a wood-paneled board room of the turn-of-the-century factory, he shakes hands all around, talks about issues in the Capitol, sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup and, finally, takes a hurried tour of the sprawling plant. He’s got to be in Dayton in an hour.
But for a moment, as he exits into the sunny parking lot, he lets the other John Boehner out of the suit. Reaching into a shirt pocket for a Barclay cigarette, he and Krieger light up and smoke, while Boehner begins telling stories—stories about President Bush’s golf game, and about his boyhood start in business working at the family bar. The people standing around him feel special.
“I started working at Andy’s [Café] when I was 10 years old, Saturday mornings mopping floors. When I got a raise to $2 an hour, I thought I was rich.”
They all laugh.
This right here is the key to John Boehner, one of the most powerful legislators on Capitol Hill. This is how he survived the bloodletting in 1998 that came as a result of his close association with Newt Gingrich. This is how he made a political comeback in 2001, being named chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. And this is how he scored his greatest coup last January when he drew President Bush to a school just a few miles from where he’s now standing to sign the landmark federal education bill.
From regular guys in steel-toed shoes at a paper factory to well-heeled men in Armani suits on Capitol Hill, Boehner can carry a conversation with them all. He makes them feel comfortable, appreciated, important. It’s a trait that took him from head of his neighborhood association to Congress. And it’s a trait some say could take him to the top.
How Boehner got to such a lofty position is a study in persistence and contrasts, for this is the John Boehner who, if you look back far enough, is not quite a good ole’ boy, but is just this close. This is the man who cut his teeth on the barroom conversations between his dad and the patrons of Andy’s Café in a working-class suburb of Cincinnati. He learned how to get along in the world of men who work the night shift and show up at 6:00 a.m. for a beer, a blue-collar world of Catholic grade schools, large families and Friday night football. He knows how to spin yarns, crack jokes, share opinions, and he has the gumption to smoke in an era when smoking’s not cool.
Some call the 1977 business school graduate forthright, devoted, honest. Others say he’s brazen, unyielding, dogmatic. All, including himself, agree he’s “pretty darn conservative.” Fact is, no matter what he is or how he’s viewed, he’s pretty darn popular back home. Since 1990, he has been reelected to Congress every two years with an average 70 percent majority in all the counties he represents. This includes Butler, just north of Cincinnati, where he lives in an upscale golf-front suburb. His constituents, who are all mostly Republican like himself, love him.
“From here, he’s basically our hero politically and philosophically,” says Butler County Republican Party Chairman Joe W. Schwartz Sr. “He’s in tune with the people of the district. He’s frank, honest, refreshing. Quite frankly, I think John Boehner ought to be speaker of the House some day and, who knows, with his qualities, he could be president.”
Everyone in politics knows, though, that presidents come from the ranks of state governors and cabinet level administrators. Boehner says he wants to remain a congressman until his constituents vote in someone else. His not-so-secret goal is to be speaker, a position many in D.C. say is very possible.
And that’s the curious part, when you consider that Boehner’s rise to power on the wings of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was cut short in 1998 when the party lost five seats in the election. The Republican caucus held Gingrich and Boehner responsible. But because Gingrich, who had led the party to the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, had already quit, they only had Boehner to blame. The man they had rewarded with the chairmanship of the Republican Conference Committee was toppled from his post and replaced by J.C. Watts.
Many expected Boehner, who in the early 1990s founded the “Gang of Seven” that crusaded against corrupt House banking practices, to quietly fade away. They were wrong.
“I remember walking back from that caucus vote, and I said to my chief of staff, ‘This is a blessing in disguise,’ ” Boehner says. “All through my life things have turned out for the best. Did it bother me? Of course it bothered me. I’m human. But I would never let anyone see that it bothered me. I just went back to my committees and went to work.”
One might expect the two most influential men in Boehner’s life to be Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush. He calls them by their first names and can tell stories about their golf games.
But Boehner traces his influences back to his home and his days on the Moeller High School football team. Coach Gerry Faust and his father, Earl Boehner, are the men whose wisdom he admires. And when he lost his chairmanship, he recalled the lessons he’d learned at Andy’s Café and on the Moeller gridiron.
“I learned from Faust there’s nothing in this world you can’t succeed at if you’re willing to work hard enough and sacrifice,” he says. “I look over my life and that formula has worked. That was a very important part of who I am and what I am.”
Boehner, 52, grew up with 11 siblings in a two-bedroom Sears mail-order house in the Cincinnati suburb of Reading and is the only one to earn a college degree. As the second oldest, his leadership skills first surfaced in his teenage years when he took charge of some of the household chores that his parents were too busy to handle. He assigned jobs to his siblings while his father ran the bar, which grandfather, Andy, started and which put all the Boehner children through Catholic school.
From early on, Boehner often worked at the bar, now owned by his sister, Nancy Roell. It remains a popular lunchtime and after-hours hangout, just like when his grandfather ran it. They were all Democrats then. Boehner says he became a Republican when, after graduating from Xavier, he paid more in taxes than he earned in his first year working. “Along the way, we all became Republicans.”
Boehner was first a businessman who stumbled into politics. He and his wife, Debbie, had settled into the suburbs of Lakota Hills in the late 1970s before their two daughters were born. His business, Nucite Sales Inc., was a success. Neighbors invited him to join the neighborhood association, where his leadership skills emerged. Soon he was asked to run for Union Township trustee, which led to his election to the Ohio House. In 1989, he was asked to run for Congress to replace Donald E. “Buz” Lukens, forced from office by a sex scandal, and found himself running against former Rep. Thomas Kindness. The decision to run or not was difficult because he’d have to sell his business if he did. First he said no, then he said yes.
“It wasn’t easy when my name looks like Beener, Bonner or Boner, and his was Kindness,” he says. “But I just outworked him. I didn’t know I would win until election night.”
He’s won five times since then and was challenged in November by Democrat Jeff Hardenbrook, who raised less than $5,000 to Boehner’s nearly $800,000. He won again with 70 percent.
“I win because I’m very up front with people about what I’m going to do. All this goes back to my days in the bar with my dad. He’d treat everyone the same.”
Boehner learned that lesson well, says longtime friend Bob Janszen. “People like John. He listens and always has a good word. He goes across the whole country and people are drawn to him. It’s so simple, it’s disgusting.”
Boehner’s skills as a leader were evident early on in Washington, where he came in as a sort of maverick, caught the eye of Gingrich, led the Gang of Seven and helped build the Republican majority by 1994. The next year, he was named to the fourth leadership position as Republican Conference chair.
“John is viewed as a very resilient legislator,” says Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a 1970 grad and fellow Republican. “The view is he probably will make his way back into a leadership position. John has a tremendous work ethic and can get things done legislatively, and that is probably his hallmark.”
Those skills carried him through the down time after he was forced out of leadership in 1998. Instead of sulking, he went to work creating legislation on the less visible subcommittees he chaired. And he worked on the Freedom Project, his political action committee that raises millions for fellow Republicans.
After three years in the shadows, he emerged in January 2001 seeking the top post on one of the top committees. He sent his proposal to caucus members in aluminum lunch pails, underscoring his blue-collar work ethic. (“It got their attention,” he says.) He was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee at a crucial time for Republicans-Bush was president, and the Republicans controlled Congress.
“He ran one of the most productive subcommittees on Capitol Hill,” says Dave Schnittger, communications director for the education committee. “It was his work as (subcommittee) chair that helped make the case for the eventual chairmanship.”
His appointment over other congressmen in line before him was a sign he had regained the trust of his colleagues, says Cyndy Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “Obviously they felt strong enough of his leadership capabilities or they wouldn’t have given him his spot.”
The new chairman was charged with bringing the president’s promised education reform bill to reality-not an easy task considering he and fellow Republicans had, a few years before, advocated the elimination of the Department of Education. Now his job was to pass a bill that not only would increase federal spending on schools but also expand government’s role. Boehner spent most of 2001 putting the bill together and then garnering support for it. At first it appeared destined to fail.
“There was every obstacle in the world-a divided Congress and a president elected by a hair. I had to plot how to work my way through this legislative maze to deliver for the president. On his first full day in office, he says to me, ‘Hi, Boehner. You’ve got the football, just tell me what you want me to do.’ Whenever I needed him, I’d call and he’d show up. He was there in the end.”
And a plum ending it was, with the president showing up in Boehner’s district on Tuesday, Jan. 8, to sign the $26.5 billion education bill at a local school. Called The No Child Left Behind Act, the bill mandates annual testing, requires students of failing schools be allowed to transfer and gives money to schools that are determined to be failing.
Boehner’s politics, of course, don’t please everyone. Democrats say he’s too much in lockstep with his party and has done little to benefit his home base.
“He has not had a significant impact in this region outside his district,” says Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke. “But he clearly has developed a very loyal and strong following, and he has become very difficult to try to unseat.”
“John’s been in Washington quite a while and is very good at playing politics, but he’s not very good at paying attention to his constituency,” says Butler County Democractic Party Chairman Dan Gattermeyer. “He’s not interested in working people or working families.”
He infuriated black committee members last year when he put black higher education issues on a subcommittee with juvenile crime and child abuse. And the education bill has been a target of national teachers’ unions who object to the unfunded federal mandates. But Boehner is working to see the bill expanded over the next few years. He worked closely with Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to compromise on the education bill and will work with him again on reauthorizing the higher education act in 2004.
Boehner’s politics haven’t changed as much as his style. A friend of tobacco and business, a foe of abortion and gay adoptions, he says he’s a practical conservative mainstream Republican. “I’m not as strident as I was in the early years. I’ve learned there’s a way to say things that aren’t as inflammatory as I might have done.”
He plans to stay in Congress as long as the voters keep him there. He likes the work as much as the storytelling-and the chance to bring those stories back home to places like the Smart Papers parking lot. As Boehner prepares to meet other constituents, the conversation turns back to the one story everyone’s interested in: His golf game with President Bush. “I beat him soundly,” he says.
Oh, and by the way, he adds as he pulls away. Bush still owes him five bucks.
They all laugh.