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Before They Were Famous: The New Congress Before They Were Famous: The New Congress

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Congress / 112th Congress

Before They Were Famous: The New Congress

National Journal and The Almanac of American Politics provide a sneak peek into the lives of Congress' newest members.

photo of Gregg Sangillo
November 4, 2010

The new freshman class includes people who have roped cattle and sold cars for a living. They’ve written books, farmed the land and fought in wars. Here is a look at the varied and interesting lives of the members of Congress soon to be making their way around Capitol Hill, based on interviews with The Almanac of American Politics.

Meet the Freshman Members




But Can He Round Up Votes?

Newly elected Republican Rick Crawford of Arkansas started out competing in rodeos while in college. He quit after suffering serious injuries and large medical bills. He later worked as a rodeo announcer, sometimes doing 100 events a year. The rodeo gigs helped him develop a niche as a broadcaster, and he later founded his own farm news broadcasting network. More from Crawford’s risk-embracing past: He was a bomb disposal technician for the U.S. Army, a line of work portrayed in the award-winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker


Are Politicians and Car Salesmen All That Different?

Both jobs require great salesmanship, whether you are selling yourself or a new minivan. Rep.-elect Mike Kelly (R) from Pennsylvania is one of several new members who made a living running automobile dealerships. He sees a link between politics and car sales. “You have common goals, and everybody has clearly defined roles, and everybody has to perform at a big level in order to have success,” he said. … Another new GOP House member, Scott Rigell, runs Freedom Automotive in the Virginia Beach area, where he made a valuable political contact one day when he met future Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, also a Republican, on his showroom floor.


Down But Never Out

Democrats looking for a comeback strategy for 2012 might consult Hansen Clark, the newly elected Democrat from Detroit. He grew up poor in the inner city, but got a scholarship to attend Cornell University. Then his mother died, his life spun out of control, and Clark lost his scholarship, returned to the old neighborhood, and survived on public aid. A family friend set him straight, and Hansen talked a Cornell dean into giving him a second chance. He finished his undergraduate studies there and went on to get a law degree from Georgetown. In college, he once tried to talk Cornell officials out of changing needs-based scholarships, arguing that they were “how guys like me got a chance.”


Did You Hear the One About…

Republican Billy Long runs his own auction company, conducting as many as 200 auctions a year. He’s also been a morning-drive radio talk show host in southwest Missouri, and has participated in local political campaigns since he was 9 years old. One of Long's favorite campaign anecdotes involved his dog, Little Bear, who he taught this trick: He would ask, “Little Bear, would you rather be a Democrat or a dead dog?” The family pet responded by flopping over and sticking his feet in the air.


Self-Made Ranchers … with Help from Uncle Sam

The new class includes several farmers and ranchers, some of whom faced questions during their campaigns about government subsidies they took, which can be awfully inconvenient if you are running on a platform advocating less government. Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman is a fourth-generation farmer who started raising his own livestock at age 14. He collected $100,000 from the federal government over the past several years, but now says he supports phasing out farm subsidies. Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican, received some $2.5 million in ag subsidies from 1995 to 2006, but still got the support of the local tea party in his campaign for the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. John Tanner. Fincher made it onto our colorful freshmen list for other reasons: He grew up in a town called Frog Jump, and is part of a gospel-singing group that includes his father, a cousin and an uncle.  


'Mama Grizzlies' on Election Night Rampage

Two of Tuesday’s biggest upsets were pulled off by women. Republican Renee Ellmers, a 40-year-old trauma care nurse who has never held elected office, leads seven-term Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge, 69, in a central North Carolina race that is likely headed for a recount. She started in politics the same way many tea party activists likely did. During news broadcasts about the new health care bill, she said, she would yell at her television. “So rather than sit at home yelling at the TV set, which I did, I decided I needed to get involved,” she told The Sanford Herald. … With the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Republican Vicky Hartzler toppled House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo, on Tuesday. Hartzler is a former high school home economics teacher who served three terms in the Missouri House. She runs a farm supply company with her husband, and in 2008, published a detailed politics guide for Christians called, “Running God’s Way: Step by Step to a Successful Political Campaign.”


Move Over, Ron Paul

Justin Amash, the Republican newcomer from Michigan’s Grand Rapids-based 3rd District, was born in 1980, and may become the youngest new member of Congress once ballots are counted in every state. Amash, who already has two years in the state legislature under his belt, doesn’t think government has much of a role anywhere, and he was known locally for voting “no” on 59 bills in his first term, including legislation to toughen penalties for human trafficking and to allow soldiers to get out of their cell phone contracts when they are deployed overseas. Incidentally, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has a similar voting record and is known in the House as “Dr. No.” … Rep.-elect Jaime Herrera of Washington state, at 32 years old, will also be among the youngest members of Congress, and she has the added distinction of being a Latina Republican.


The Pay Is Not as Good, But You Get to Vote

Jon Runyan is the Republican who sacked freshman Democratic Rep. John Adler in New Jersey’s 3rd District. Runyan is better known as an offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, a job he gave up after being sidelined by a knee injury. He was one of the most highly compensated players of his time and got to play in two Super Bowls before retiring and going into politics.


He Won’t Be Getting Any Meetings Over at State

As a young lawyer, Robert Dold, a GOP freshman from suburban Chicago, was on the investigative team that looked into fundraising irregularities in President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. At the time, Dold was on staff of the House Oversight Government Reform Committee, which conducted the probe under then-Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind. Dold is now president of Rose Pest Solutions, which could put him on a leadership track. In 2003, House Republicans chose Tom DeLay of Texas, a former pest exterminator, as their majority leader.


He Has the Vision Thing

Mississippi Republican Alan Nunnelee, who laid to rest Democratic Rep. Travis Childers’s House career on Tuesday, runs a business that insures funeral homes. In college, Nunnelee lost his eyesight to a congenital disease. He finished school by buying his textbooks on tape. Later, he had cornea transplants on both eyes that restored his vision, a medical feat made possible by an organ donor. He says of the donor’s family, “I see today because of their generosity.”


A Dogfight in Minnesota-08

Chip Cravaack provided some of the best Election Night drama when he beat Democrat James Oberstar, a 36-year veteran who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Cravaack is a former Northwest Airlines pilot who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. The decorated former Navy pilot says he ran against Oberstar because he was upset about the Democrats’ health care law. He called up his friend, the mayor of Lindstrom, Minn., and said, “I want to run for Congress. What do I do?”


Join Up, See the World

Rep.-elect Adam Kinzinger of Illinois served in Iraq with the Air Force, returning from his last tour of duty just last year. On a mission near the Mexican border, Kinzinger chased down a man who had slashed a woman with a knife, pinning him down until police arrived. He was awarded the National Guard’s Valley Forge Cross for heroism. “During the whole thing, I thought I was going to die,” he said. … In his 16 years with the Air Force, California Republican Jeff Denham was sent to hot spots all over the world. He served in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War and took part in a peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1993. After the service, he started his own business, a container supply company called Denham Plastics. He will take the place of retiring GOP Rep. George Radanovich. In the primary, Denham defeated former Rep. Richard Pombo, a onetime committee chairman trying to make a comeback.


The Real World: Congress

After graduating from college, Wisconsin’s Sean Duffy tried out the then-new world of reality TV. Duffy, the GOP winner of retiring Democratic Rep. David Obey’s seat, joined the cast of MTV’s “The Real World: Boston,” where he served as the conservative foil to a liberal cast member. He also met his future wife, who had been cast on a similar show. The couple now has six children under the age of 10, and Rachel Campos-Duffy published a book last year titled, Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood.

Gregg Sangillo writes for The Almanac of American Politics, which contributed to this report. contributed to this article.

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