Being obscure in Congress isn’t as easy as it used to be.
That was Roll Call’s determination in 1993 when we set out to find the 10 hardest-working, least-recognizable Members of Congress — an elite group we collectively dubbed the Obscure Caucus.
A decade later, the new camera-ready faces wandering the halls of the Capitol provide some cover for veteran spotlight shunners, but obscurity still proves at least as elusive today.
While the obscurity-shattering headlines of the House bank and post office scandals in the early 1990s are long gone, war in Iraq and post-Sept. 11, 2001, focus on homeland defense have helped to raise the profiles of otherwise would-be low-key backbenchers. The rise of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have also made it harder for Members who keep their noses down to resist the limelight.
Still, with a little research on LexisNexis, it didn’t take us too long to find a group we feel confident fits the bill for induction into Roll Call’s 2003 Obscure Caucus, revived after running from 1990 through 1994.
Membership Has Its Privileges
That definition opened the Obscure Caucus story we ran in September 1992, and it’s in that same spirit — and using our previously established and rigorous guidelines — that we determined the membership of this year’s caucus.
House Members must have served at least two full terms; retiring Members are not eligible. They must also possess other attributes of obscurity, including strict attention to the not-so-sexy, yet critical, parochial issues and, of course, a demonstrated avoidance of the media spotlight.
These Members are workhorses, not showhorses, who can be counted on to deliver pork projects, not pithy sound bites. Their aptitude for bringing home the bacon is amply rewarded every two years with healthy re-election margins. (The median 2002 re-election percentage for the Members named to the caucus this year was 70 percent.)
These are the Members whom C-SPAN producers can identify only with the help of a facebook. They rarely issue press releases, and their cellphone numbers aren’t in the Rolodexes of cable news show bookers. In short, the antithesis of Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
Obscure Caucus members typically serve on powerful committees, where they have established reputations as effective behind-the-scenes operators.
Senators, by their very nature and number, are not obscure, but we feel confident in awarding Obscure Caucus honorable mentions to two members of the world’s most exclusive club: Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
Band of Brothers
This year’s caucus includes three members of the Ways and Means Committee and two appropriators. The average age of caucus members is 59, slightly older than the average of 56 in 1994, the last time we published the list.
Two members — Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.) — share the same birthday (Sept. 16), and half of the caucus was born in September.
Reps. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), Ron Lewis
(R-Ky.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and John Olver (D-Mass.) came to Congress via special elections. The group includes three farmers/ranchers, two who studied to be Catholic priests (although Indiana Democratic Rep. Peter Visclosky never completed training) and one Baptist minister.
While Congress has become somewhat more diverse since we last published an Obscure Caucus, all 10 members of the caucus are white males. The only female to ever make the list was then-Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.) in 1993.
We felt it only appropriate to grant Visclosky and Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), the only two holdovers from our 1994 list, the first-ever lifetime Obscure Caucus achievement award. In our view, keeping obscurity intact for nine years is a feat that should be, at least quietly, rewarded.
As with all other Congressional caucuses, even the obscure must have a chairman. There was unanimous consensus that the Obscure Caucus gavel be given to McNulty, an eight-term lawmaker who most often appears on the floor to help dispense with some of the more mundane parts of House business.
To serve as vice chairman, we’ve tapped Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.), who during his first term in office told a newspaper columnist that he was simply too busy to return press calls.
An Obscure History
In the early days of the caucus — when Congressional approval ratings tanked in the aftermath of the bank and post office scandals — obscurity was a rare (if not sought-after) novelty.
Our lists produced story after local story for many of the members, some of whom just couldn’t resist the normally suppressed urge to capitalize on publicity.
In 1990, then-Rep. Bob Borski (D-Pa.) deftly used his appointment to the caucus in a campaign ad that cited Roll Call’s determination that he was one of the Members who concentrates on constituent service, attendance and the gritty work of governing.
Of course, calling attention to one’s obscurity is a cardinal sin, and Borski was unceremoniously dumped from the next year’s list.
Around the same time, six Members were booted from the obscure list after their pictures appeared in Newsweek — for being named to the 1990 caucus.
Being pictured in a national magazine, for whatever reason, is means for near-automatic disqualification from the caucus. That standard kept Reps. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), three of the Members pictured in the now-infamous December 2001 Vanity Fair article on the Capitol Hill social scene, from being considered for this year’s list.
But while some Members sought to publicize their inclusion on the list, there were others who took issue with the caucus concept — no matter how much we sought to emphasize that to be labeled obscure is not to be mocked or criticized, but to be praised.
After the publication of our first list in 1990, then-Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to the editor taking us to task for including then-New York Reps. Ray McGrath (R) and Henry Nowak (D).
Specifically, Mrazek wrote that it was particularly hard for Roll Call to justify writing that McGrath “likes to party” when in fact he had “helped save the deductibility of state income taxes” during the fight over the 1986 tax reform bill. Shame on us.
Even as late as 1999, there was lingering evidence of the caucus’ influence when The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., reported that advisers told Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) that his low profile caused his near-defeat in 1998. He also told the paper that he was working hard to make sure he never again qualifies for the Obscure Caucus distinction.
Baker spent only one year in the caucus before being ousted under the previously established Borski precedent. He issued a statement in June 1992 claiming “Roll Call ... named Richard Baker one of the ‘Ten Most Effective Members of Congress’” — a slight distortion, in our view.
It is also important to note that Members named to the list are by no means bound to obscurity for the rest of their tenures in Congress.
Eight Members still serving in the House spent at least one year in the caucus and most have since risen to some visibility.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who is a contender for Appropriations chairman next Congress, was deemed obscure in 1992. Current ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) made the obscure cut in 1993.
The ranks of caucus alumni suffered greatly within the past year due to the retirement of five former obscure brethren.
Former Reps. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), Larry Combest (R-Texas), Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) and Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) once graced our caucus lists and eventually rose to plum assignments. As for former Rep. Bill Coyne, who made the list in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994, we can’t think of one good reason why the Pennsylvania Democrat wouldn’t have made the cut again had he not retired last year.
Close But No Cigar
Some, just barely, missed the cut.
Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) is an influential player behind the scenes on the Hill but is also a self-admitted spotlight avoider. According to the Almanac of American Politics, Hobson, who serves as Assistant Majority Whip, rarely seeks out the ever-present microphones and television cameras when leadership meetings break up.
“That isn’t my style,” Hobson has said, the Almanac notes. “I’m not doing this to build Dave Hobson into a national name.”
The floating of one’s name for higher office is also an automatic disqualifier for the caucus, a stipulation that kept several would-be obscure candidates off the 2003 list.
Perhaps the best example is Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), considered a top contender for membership in the caucus until he offered his name as a potential candidate in the California recall election last month. He also attracted some recent attention with his uphill battle to ban using bait to hunt bears on federal land.
West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan (D), a low-profile appropriator, would have made the list were it not for his position as ranking member of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, fittingly the most obscure panel in Congress.
Without any further adieu, we present the 2003 Obscure Caucus, in alphabetical order:
Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)
2002 re-election: 69 percent
Obscure fact: Represents Cairo (pronounced KAY-roh), Illinois, the unofficial capital of the downstate area known as Egypt, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet.
Costello is perhaps the best example of a caucus member who keeps a low profile in Washington but doesn’t miss an opportunity to let constituents know he’s getting the job done for them. Even the Almanac of American Politics notes that he “trumpets his accomplishments without subtlety” — back home, that is.
But, the local press he’s garnered hasn’t always been favorable. For a period in the mid-1990s, an ethical cloud hung over Costello. And in 1997 he was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a federal investigation of a longtime friend and business partner, although he denied he was a silent partner in two casino deals and all other wrongdoing in the matter.
More recently, Costello grabbed unwanted publicity last year when Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D) hired the lawmaker’s son for a $50,000-a-year job over more qualified candidates after his father called on his behalf.
Still, Costello “rarely speaks on the floor,” according to CQ’s Politics in America 2004.
He works diligently on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he makes upgrading and replacing bridges a top priority for his Mississippi River district.
Costello follows in the obscure tradition of a fellow downstater, former Rep. Glenn Poshard (D-Ill.), a member of the caucus in 1993 and 1994 who was anything but obscure to his constituents and kept a 100 percent voting attendance record.
Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio)
2002 re-election: 67 percent
Obscure fact: First elected to the Ohio Senate at age 27.
Gillmor might be best known on the campus of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, where his wife, Karen Gillmor, a former Ohio state Senator, is on the board of trustees.
In May, the school named its new three-story science building after Gillmor, who helped steer $5 million in federal funds to the college.
Of course he wasn’t exactly helping college recruiting efforts when he recently told a local community group, “You don’t have to be smart to be in Congress.”
Gillmor’s caucus membership was almost threatened by the fact that he is chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment and hazardous materials. He pushed through a major brownfields revitalization bill during the previous Congress to help clean up contaminated industrial sites.
Among the richest members of Congress, with a fortune estimated to be worth $5.7 million (he’s No. 41 on Roll Call’s 50 Richest list; see page 38), Gillmor spent 22 years in the Ohio Senate before being elected in 1988 to the House seat he had been eyeing for years.
Gillmor was so intent on succeeding then-Rep. Delbert Latta (R) that he passed a state law blocking the GOP from designating Latta’s son as nominee if Latta resigned.
He eventually won the primary against the younger Latta by 27 votes.
Wally Herger (R-Calif.)
2002 re-election: 66 percent
Obscure fact: Sutter and Yuba counties, in Herger’s district, host the annual California Dried Plum Festival, where delicacies include prune pasta and prune milkshakes.
Herger is one of two returning members of the Obscure Caucus. Since the 1994 edition, he has accrued seniority and now wields the gavel on the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources.
He has taken the lead in working to prevent fraudulent Social Security and disability payments to prison inmates, and he will play a key role in drafting the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform bill.
Aside from his work on the tax-writing panel — where, according to the Almanac of American Politics, he “has served rather quietly” — Herger mostly focuses on natural resources and land-use issues. He has worked on flood-control matters and has fought to derail what he sees as the radical agendas of liberal environmental groups.
Herger’s profile in CQ’s Politics in America 2002 pegged his key hit in the 1997’s 36th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game as the lawmaker’s “personal best in Washington.” In the game two years later, Herger earned more dubious notoriety by falling on his face while running to first base.
Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.)
2002 re-election: unopposed
Obscure fact: The only Republican to have served as the Tennessee state House Speaker during the 20th century.
Midway through his first term, in 1998, the Knoxville News-Sentinel chided Jenkins for not returning reporters’ phone calls, and a columnist for the paper described him as “perhaps the least accessible Tennessee Member of Congress.”
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, former Rep. Jimmy Quillen (R-Tenn.), Jenkins has no press secretary in Washington and at the time he claimed to be too busy tending to his Congressional responsibilities to address the needs of the Fourth Estate.
“Promoting himself is not his foremost interest,” Jenkins’ Kingsport-based spokesman told the columnist at the time. “He’s trying to get established and settled into the job as a Congressman. The PR aspects of it are not that essential for him.”
Jenkins did attract some fleeting press coverage by offering his share of quips as a member of the Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings in 1998. He once suggested a panel witness was “asking us to believe ... we’ve got a guy down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who was smart enough to get himself elected president ... but not smart enough to know what the definition of sex is.” Still, the Almanac of American Politics notes that Jenkins “was perhaps the quietest member” of the panel.
When he is not avoiding the headlines, the chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on specialty crops and foreign agriculture programs focuses on local issues such as protecting his district’s tobacco farmers and fighting to restore the deductibility of state sales taxes (Tennessee has no state income tax).
Dale Kildee (D-Mich.)
2002 re-election: 92 percent
Obscure fact: Initially planned a career as a Roman Catholic priest and pursued graduate studies as a Rotary Fellow in Pakistan in the late 1950s.
While Kildee’s face is a rare presence on cable news channels, the veteran Wolverine State Representative is a constant presence where it matters: roll call. He boasted a perfect voting record in the 107th Congress and is on his way to a repeat performance in the 108th.
In fact, keeping his voting record intact was of utmost concern to Kildee when he was one of 14 Members who got stuck in a Cannon House Office Building elevator on their way to vote in June.
Beginning in 1985, Kildee launched a 13-year voting streak, which ended in 1998, according to Congressional Quarterly.
A reliable supporter of American Indian tribal concerns, Kildee founded the Native American Caucus — a move that prompted the Grand Traverse band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to momentarily pluck the low-key Member from obscurity in 1998 when they proclaimed April 15 “Dale Kildee Day.”
Ron Lewis (R-Ky.)
2002 re-election: 70 percent
Obscure fact: The first Republican to hold Kentucky’s 2nd district seat in 129 years.
Lewis may be one of the most obscure Members of Congress, but he also has one of the most colorful backgrounds.
The son of a tobacco farmer, Lewis was born in a log cabin and worked his way through college and graduate school. His résumé includes stints at a steel company, the highway department, a state hospital and as a heavy equipment sales representative. He also served in the Navy, but a kidney ailment derailed his plans to become an officer.
In 1980, he became an ordained Baptist minister and he later opened a Christian bookstore. In 1994, Lewis won a special election to replace the late Rep. William Natcher, who died in office after never missing a roll call vote during his 41 years in the House.
With seats on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, as well as Government Reform, the staunchly conservative Lewis focuses heavily on local issues, especially defending tobacco farmers and winning federal dollars for Fort Knox. Lewis even pushed for a tax break for local bourbon distilleries, despite the fact that he doesn’t drink.
Although Lewis broke a pledge to serve no more than four terms in the House, it has had little impact on his political career. His margin of victory in 2002 was his biggest ever.
Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)
2002 re-election: 76 percent
Obscure fact: District contains the third-largest Cherokee Indian population and the Oklahoma Frontier Pharmacy Museum.
Not to be confused with Rep. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.), this Sooner State lawmaker’s visibility has waned since his first full term in Congress, when he represented Oklahoma City at the time of the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing. Following the incident, Lucas introduced the resolution condemning it, the bill for relief spending and the bill to authorize the bombing monument and make it part of the national parks system.
Since then he has been a leader in the effort to rehabilitate the nation’s small watershed dams, which as the Almanac of American Politics 2004 notes is “not a hot news topic on Capitol Hill but important to the many Americans who depend on them.”
Lucas’ large re-election margins and relative obscurity were threatened during last cycle’s redistricting efforts, when the Democratic-
controlled state Legislature contemplated forcing Lucas into a primary with another incumbent.
That race never materialized, and his unfortunate run-ins with livestock continue to be what attracts the most media coverage.
In March, Lucas garnered mentions in The Washington Post and on CNN after butting heads with a 250-pound heifer on his ranch. Lucas, who was attempting to put an ID tag on the cow, lost a tooth and ended up undergoing emergency root canal surgery. Seven years ago, he suffered a broken nose when a cow slammed a gate on him.
Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.)
2002 re-election: 75 percent
Obscure fact: Introduced a state Assembly bill to make Uncle Sam the official state patriot because the icon is believed to have been modeled after Sam Wilson, a meatpacker from Troy, N.Y.
Obscure Caucus Chairman McNulty is perhaps the ultimate backbencher in the House and the undisputed poster child for obscurity in Congress.
After being hand-picked by the local Democratic machine to run for the seat in 1988, McNulty spent two terms in the Whip organization before being rewarded with a seat on the Ways and Means Committee.
But after a decade on the powerful tax-writing panel, CQ’s Politics in America 2004 notes, McNulty has “cemented his standing as its lowest-profile Democrat.”
“He rarely speaks out, either from the committee dais or on the House floor, preferring to tend to business in the Capitol’s backrooms and to husband his career through attentive constituent service.”
When McNulty does appear on the House floor, it is often to help dispense with two of the more mundane orders of business and not to deliver one-minutes. A search of the Congressional Record for the 107th Congress reveals that McNulty’s most frequent speaking role is being called on to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and call for the vote on the previous day’s journal.
His Web site has three entries under the heading “In the Congressional Record” this year. Two are the extension of remarks, and the other is McNulty’s statement in support of the NanoTechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.
John Olver (D-Mass.)
2002 re-election: 68 percent
Obscure fact: Became a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts at age 25.
During the 1991 special election campaign that brought him to office, Olver billed himself as “a workhorse, not a showhorse,” and has done his best to avoid the spotlight in the ensuing decade.
The Almanac aptly notes of the Bay State lawmaker and avid rock climber: “In a delegation filled with publicity hounds, Olver is notably shy with the press.”
Despite his low profile, Olver’s zealousness for securing earmarks for his district — he is the sole Massachusetts Member on the House Appropriations Committee — hasn’t always played well with others in the delegation.
The late Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), who helped secure Olver’s seat on the panel, remarked to the Boston Herald in 1999: “Some people are born salesmen, others are born librarians. He means well. He’s a nice guy, bright enough, but he’s not collegial.”
Regardless of the internal spats, Olver, who has one of the most liberal voting records in the House, has continued to rake in funds for his constituents. Recent press releases on his Web site read like a laundry list of pork, including funds for bike and pedestrian trails and transportation projects throughout his sprawling western Massachusetts 1st district.
Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.)
2002 re-election: 67 percent
Obscure fact: Worked as an Appropriations Committee aide to the late Rep. Adam Benjamin (D-Ind.).
It’s been nine years since Roll Call last “outted” the Obscure Caucus, but Visclosky has not disappointed us in the interim.
Even as an Appropriations member for more than a decade, Visclosky hasn’t acquired a high profile outside of his northwestern Indiana 1st district, where the self-described “Slovak kid” introduced himself back in 1984 by hosting $2 “dog and bean” dinners, according to CQ’s Politics in America 2004. The name recognition he enjoyed courtesy of his father John’s brief tenure as mayor of Gary didn’t hurt either.
The attorney and seminary school dropout is often described as “low key” and known mainly for being a tireless advocate for the steel industry. The Congressional Steel Caucus vice chairman does an excellent job of steering federal dollars Indiana’s way with little flare and scant attention in Washington.
While endorsing Visclosky for Congress in 1990, a local paper, the Times of Northwest Indiana in Merrillville, lauded him for a job well done but advised him to work on his patience.
“If Visclosky has a fault it is that his impatience sometimes keeps him from accomplishing as much as he might if he worked better within the framework of the Congress,” the paper’s editors wrote back then. “We would encourage him to strive to improve in that area.”
A few years later he politely told a somewhat disgruntled crowd at a 1996 town hall meeting that he would appreciate a little
“But it’s cynicism I don’t like,” the Times of Northwest Indiana quoted him as saying. “I don’t like the idea that anyone in the public life is treated like they don’t have a brain in his or her head.”
A prickly personality is no way to stay in favor with the Obscure Caucus, so perhaps the Notre Dame graduate has mellowed as little has been said about his temper since.
Visclosky’s recent launch of a leadership PAC may be an indication that he is looking to raise his profile after 19 years in the House.
He opened Calumet PAC (named after the Little Calumet River) in April to accept funds from defense and homeland security contractors. So far it has taken in $47,000.
Profiles compiled by John Bresnahan, Nicole Duran, Bree Hocking, Ben Pershing, Lauren W. Whittington and Jennifer Yachnin.