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Congressman Gosar Tests Tea Party Principles Against Local Needs

Tuesday, 22 Feb 2011 07:01 AM

 

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U.S. Representative Paul Gosar came to Washington promising to slash federal spending. It took less than a month for local officials in his Arizona district to learn that he was talking about them.

When Flagstaff city administrators came to his Washington office Jan. 20 seeking funding for a $65 million flood-control project, they left with the first-term Republican’s promise that he would send a letter of support, not the millions in funding delivered by his predecessors. There wasn’t much more he could do: Pressure from freshman lawmakers such as Gosar prompted House leaders to impose a one-year voluntary ban on members funding pet projects through earmarks.

“I’m not an earmark guy,” Gosar said. “The City Council is going to be frustrated; the county is going to be frustrated.”

Gosar, 52, is among 87 new Republicans swept into office in November’s election vowing to remake politics in Washington. Like dozens of his new colleagues who rode support from fiscally conservative Tea Party activists into power, he had never been elected to office. Once named Arizona’s dentist of the year, he sold his practice to pursue his political career.

The political success of Gosar and his Tea Party-backed colleagues will depend on whether they can master Washington practices enough to accomplish their goals, without losing the outsider credentials that got them elected.

Reality Clash

“Their challenge is not getting caught up with the culture of the Capitol, but remembering who brought them to the dance in the first place,” said Joe Gaylord, a strategist who served as executive director of the Republican congressional campaign committee in 1994, when the party gained a House majority. “The question is what happens when they clash with the reality of the House.”

Gosar ran for office promising to slash government spending and dismantle federal regulations including President Barack Obama’s health-care law. Those campaign promises quickly became a concrete concern for the Flagstaff local officials, who list the Rio de Flag flood-control project as a top priority. In the past, funding for the project had primarily come from earmarks submitted by Arizona lawmakers, including Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democratic incumbent Gosar defeated in November, and former Republican Representative Rick Renzi.

The Flagstaff city manager, Kevin Burke, said he wasn’t sure how it would be funded this year.

Living in His Office

Gosar said he is simply delivering on campaign promises, both in policy and his personal life. For the trim, tanned Arizonian, the U.S. Capitol isn’t just a place to work -- it’s his bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen.

“I’m a dentist, I’m not a rich guy,” he said. “I’ve got to be fiscally responsible and that’s the same thing I am asking for from our government.”

He sleeps on an inflatable mattress in his office, next to his desk. To start the day, he heads downstairs to shower at the congressional gym. When he has time, Gosar whips up a batch of buckwheat pancakes on a hotplate in set up in his dusty office storage unit.

He refused coverage under the health-care plan available to lawmakers, as he pledged to do if elected, and bought a private plan for himself, his wife and three college and high-school age children. On Jan. 19, he voted to repeal Obama’s health-care overhaul.

Debt-Ceiling Battle

Bigger congressional battles will soon test his commitment to Tea Party principles. The U.S. is expected to breach its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling as early as April 5. Both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Republican House Speaker John Boehner have said failure by Congress to raise the limit would have catastrophic consequences on jobs and the economy, perhaps even causing the U.S. to default on its obligations.

Gosar says he welcomes the debate over the debt ceiling, even at the risk of a government shutdown: “We’ve been told about the doom and gloom about not raising it, and I think there’s a lot of question as to that doom and gloom.”

He’s eager to begin scraping off the bureaucratic plaque he says he sees all around him. Gesturing to a flat-screen television across from his desk, Gosar said it took seven different crews of congressional employees to hang it.

“In the real world it’s one person, it’s usually the consumer; it’s me,” he said.

That eagerness to slash spending gained him endorsements from Tea Party groups and Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and that backing helped him win an eight- candidate Republican primary in August. Thomas Van Flein, a former Palin family lawyer, now works as his legislative director. His chief of staff is Rob Robinson, a retired dentist from Wasilla, Alaska, introduced Gosar to Palin.

Sprawling District

Gosar then defeated Democrat Kirkpatrick in November, 50 percent to 44 percent, in a district that covers much of eastern and northern Arizona -- including Flagstaff, Sedona and part of the Navajo reservation -- and is larger than Pennsylvania.

The district’s economy relies heavily on tourism. There are no public companies based in the area, according to Bloomberg data, though Newark, Delaware-based W. L. Gore & Associates Inc., the makers of Gore-Tex outdoor clothing, and St. Louis- based Nestle Purina PetCare Co. have manufacturing facilities near Flagstaff.

Kirkpatrick, 60, had won an open seat in 2008, a year that favored Democrats. In 2010, Gosar benefited from trends favoring his party.

Republican Sweep

“The only thing voters knew about him was he was a Republican,” said David Berman, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Phoenix. “He just benefited from a lot of things that were happening nationally.”

Gosar doesn’t see his lack of legislative experience as a liability, saying the decades he spent as a dentist managing patients, dental hygienists and an office staff prepared him well.

“You juggle all day long, and that’s exactly what we do here,” he said. “So I feel like, ‘Hey, this is my dental team.’”

That perspective stems from a political career built from a tight-knit network of dental lobbyists. Gosar first began working in politics as a member of the American Dental Association’s council on government affairs and announced his campaign for office at the lobbying group’s Washington Leadership Conference in May 2009. He was the top House recipient of campaign contributions from the industry, collecting almost $271,000 last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.

State of the Union

For all his wariness of Washington, Gosar says life as a congressman offers some unique perks. The day before Obama’s Jan. 25 State of the Union address, Gosar joked about finding a clean suit to wear.

“We dress a little differently in Arizona,” he said, gesturing to the brown cowboy boots he often wears in the halls of Congress.

The next evening, Gosar smiled excitedly as he talked to reporters in the hallway after the speech.

“You think, a year ago did you actually think you were going to be here?” he said.

More excitement was to come later that evening. With his wife, Maude, in town for the speech, Gosar was spending the night in a hotel.

“I don’t make her sleep in the office,” he said.


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