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What a difference four years has made.
In 2003, the last time Roll Call published the Obscure Caucus, Republicans controlled Congress, President Bush’s approval ratings were soaring, and multiple Congressional sex scandals seemed so 1980s.
Now, Democrats are in power on Capitol Hill, Bush and his unpopularity are more of a burden than a boon to the GOP, and, well, the scandals aren’t so obscure.
Also in that time span there has been some serious turnover in Roll Call’s Obscure Caucus — a yearly feature published from 1990 to 1994 and revived again in 2003.
Let us make clear that dubbing a Member obscure is by no means an occasion for mockery or criticism.
In general, Obscure Caucus members routinely are described as workhorses, not showhorses. They aren’t necessarily backbenchers, but more often members of A-list committees who choose to shun the spotlight despite the power they wield.
These Members pay strict attention to parochial issues and would much rather attend a hog-calling contest back home than appear on a cable news show. They deliver for their districts and shun any entreaties to become part of the Washington, D.C., culture.
Only three holdovers from our previous list made the cut this year. Two of them — Reps. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) — also are alumni of our 1994 list. In 2003, we awarded the pair the lifetime Obscure Caucus achievement award, but this go-round we thought it only proper to name them Obscure Caucus chairmen emeritus.
Keeping one’s obscurity intact for more than a dozen years is a noteworthy feat indeed.
In fact, Rep. Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.), who we named chairman of the Obscure Caucus in 2003, was surely destined for Obscure history. But that was before that now-infamous early morning gavel-dropping incident during an immigration vote in early August — replayed over and over and over again on C-SPAN and other news outlets — outed the 10-term New Yorker and prompted his immediate dismissal from the caucus.
We feel fairly certain McNulty would do anything to recoup that obscurity if he could, but the formation of a special panel to investigate the botched vote matter only ensures that his name will remain in headlines for the foreseeable future.
The caucus also lost its vice chairman from 2003 when Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.) retired at the end of the previous Congress. But to his credit, he saw his obscurity through to the end. In the 109th Congress he had just nine references in the Congressional Record, and news of his retirement drew a collective “who?” from many staffers and political strategists alike.
The Democratic takeover of Congress helped to knock some other caucus members from obscurity. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the No. 2 Democrat on the Education and Labor Committee, has claimed credit for being the first Member to propose renaming President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind legislation.
The Democratic wave that swept the country in the 2006 cycle also resulted in one casualty among the obscure ranks. Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.), a member of the 2003 caucus, was targeted for defeat by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the previous cycle. He won re-election with 55 percent of the vote — but it was the lowest total of his career.
Obscure Caucus members rarely, if ever, grab the attention of national political operatives. They bring home the bacon and, accordingly, are rewarded with large re-election margins every election year. Most sit in politically safe seats. The median 2006 re-election percentage for this year’s caucus is 68 percent.
Although determining the membership of the caucus is in many ways a subjective exercise, we do have some established criteria.
Members must have served at least two full terms, and retiring Members are not eligible. Only House Members make the cut because Senators by their very nature and number are not obscure.
We have selected Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) — not to be confused with South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D) — as the new chairman of the caucus. Johnson’s often-disheveled appearance is among his most recognizable traits, and at times it has caused many a staffer and reporter to wonder if he is in fact a Member. Obscure Caucus material indeed.
Without further ado, the 2007 Obscure Caucus (in alphabetical order):
Rep. Bud Cramer (D-Ala.)
2006 re-election: 98 percent
Obscure fact: Cramer’s district includes Muscle Shoals, home of the legendary “Muscle Shoals Sound” and two famous music studios with ties to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, among others.
A quick search of the Congressional Record for this Congress showed 15 items referencing Cramer. To put that in perspective, a search for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) turned up 359 references.
Obscure Caucus Chairman Johnson had just 14 references in the Congressional Record in the first eight months of this Congress. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) had just 10.
In June and July, Cramer made floor tributes to three constituents — recognizing two of them posthumously and congratulating Lary Burgett for receiving the 2006 Isaac M. Cline Award from the National Weather Service.
So far this Congress he has introduced one piece of legislation: a bill to establish the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area in Alabama.
Cramer did briefly make it into the news late last month when the military cargo plane he and other Members were traveling on while on a Congressional delegation to Iraq was fired upon as they were taking off from Baghdad. No one was injured.
Cramer is a prime example of how an Obscure Caucus member can deftly use seniority and stature to secure a politically vulnerable seat. Cramer represents a Republican seat in a Republican state (at least on the national level) and his voting record reflects it.
While most Obscure Caucus members are party loyalists, in 2006 Cramer supported President Bush 72 percent of the time, according to a CQ vote analysis.
Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.)
2006 re-election: 70 percent
Obscure fact: Everett’s district is home to the Hank Williams Sr. museum as well as The Boll Weevil Monument, which honors the insect, not the political term once used to describe conservative Southern Democrats.
Everett has made repeated attempts to shed his obscurity, but his party’s leadership hasn’t been very willing to assist in his endeavor. In recent years he has been passed over in attempts to become chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee as well as the Agriculture Committee.
Everett has never been one to raise large amounts of campaign cash, an issue that hindered his rise in Congressional leadership.
Still, Everett is a well-respected member of those committees as well as the Intelligence panel.
He still owns a farm in southeastern Alabama, and agriculture issues, especially peanuts, are of paramount importance to Everett. Of the three bills Everett has sponsored this Congress, two pertain to agriculture issues. The third asks the Interior secretary “to study the suitability and feasibility of establishing the Chattahoochee Trace National Heritage Corridor in Alabama and Georgia.”
He caught grief from some national news media outlets when, during the 2002 debate over rewriting the farm bill, he argued that farm subsidies were an essential element of national security.
Everett’s first job was as a sports reporter for the Dothan Eagle, his local newspaper. Eventually he went on to start his own newspaper and bought several small papers in the area.
Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.)
2006 re-election: 64 percent
Obscure fact: In Herger’s district, the Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River in Redding functions as an actual working sundial, but it gives the correct time just once a year — on the summer solstice.
An anonymous man from one of the few anonymous parts of California, Herger, for all his seniority, appears on the Obscure Caucus list for a third time. His 2nd district is the largest in the Golden State, but he may be the least-known person in the state’s 53-Member House delegation.
A former rancher and propane gas company owner from a district dominated by agriculture and the logging industry, Herger has tried to make life miserable for environmentalists by championing property owners’ rights, particularly on fights over water use.
He’s now the No. 2 Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, but it’s easy to be overshadowed there with so many combustible personalities in so many key positions.
Herger, a Mormon, has nine children (one deceased). This year, he cracked Roll Call’s list of the 50 richest Members of Congress. Whether that brings him any more notoriety is highly debatable.
On his campaign Web site, Herger offers what may be an explanation for his reticence on Capitol Hill: “The common sense thinking and traditional values we are known for in Northern California are too rare in Washington, D.C.”
Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.)
2006 re-election: 58 percent
Obscure fact: The last home of Abraham Lincoln’s father and stepmother, a log cabin, is located in Johnson’s district. The Congressman’s wiry physique has led to comparisons to Lincoln, though he looked more like Honest Abe before shaving his beard.
Johnson is single-handedly bringing a new meaning to constituent outreach. While other Members are dialing for dollars in their spare time, waiting for flights or votes, Johnson is quite literally calling voters.
Since being elected to the state Legislature three decades ago, Johnson has made daily personal calls to the residents of his district. At a rate of about 200 a day, he randomly reaches out to hear their concerns or just to chat.
Other Members have caught on and are trying to emulate Johnson, though they don’t seem to have the same disciplined stamina.
Perhaps he is best known among his colleagues for his personal exercise and eating habits, the latter of which he describes as “very, very eccentric,” according to CQ’s Politics in America. Johnson does not eat breakfast or lunch. He is a regular at the House gym, where he makes many of those constituent calls. His diet consists of fruit, rice cakes, granola, vitamin supplements, juice and farmer’s cheese. “I eat the same thing every single meal of my life,” he told Illinois Magazine, according to CQ.
It’s worth noting that Johnson, a consensus builder and founder of the Center Aisle Caucus, has gotten some higher than usual notice since the start of the 110th Congress. He has split with his party on at least two key votes on Iraq War policy. Johnson is viewed as a moderate and has bucked his party on notable votes in the past. Still, he doesn’t seem to revel in drawing attention to the contrast like many of his moderate brethren.
Johnson ranked 393 in the pre-season Congressional Power Rankings done by Congress.org, tied with Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.).
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.)
2006 re-election: 64 percent
Obscure fact: Larsen was public affairs director for the Washington State Dental Association for seven years.
During his first couple of terms, when he twice won his Puget Sound-area House seat with just 50 percent of the vote, Larsen wasn’t so obscure, and national Democratic leaders fretted about his political health. Now that he’s won his subsequent two races with 64 percent, he seems to have faded into the woodwork.
It’s not that some of the issues Larsen has worked in Congress have been snoozers. In 2005, he passed provisions providing protections for mail-order brides from overseas. He is co-chairman of the House Meth Caucus. He has been pressing the Bush administration to establish closer ties with China on a variety of fronts.
But there is something about Larsen’s demeanor that invites anonymity.
“I’m in no position to change the world,” he told The Seattle Times.
His professional background alone suggests a certain kind of obscurity. After graduate school, Larsen worked for a local port authority, helping businesses comply with clean water regulations. Then there was his tenure with the dental association (and you thought dentists were boring). And if you looked up the term “nice, dull guy” in the dictionary, you’d probably find Larsen’s picture next to it.
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)
2006 re-election: 68 percent
Obscure fact: Lucas, a member of the Financial Services Committee, is an avid coin collector and his favorite piece is a 1971 Eisenhower dollar.
Lucas is a champion of rural issues, paying close attention to the needs of his agriculturally diverse constituency that spans from the panhandle to the suburbs of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Lucas and his wife still operate a beef and grain farm that has been in his family since the turn of the 20th century.
In fact, aside from Lucas’ burst of attention following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (which was in his district at the time), the Congressman has garnered more than one headline from run-ins with his livestock.
In 2003, he butted heads with a heifer while trying to put an ID tag on the cow. In the 1990s, he suffered a broken nose in another cow-related incident.
Most recently, however, Lucas was in the news for suggesting former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) as a replacement for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.)
2006 re-election: 78 percent
Obscure fact: Lynch has been a vocal advocate of liver research. About five years ago he donated 60 percent of his liver to his brother-in-law, who had liver cancer.
Lynch won two special elections to get to where he is today, a 1996 state Senate special election and a 2001 special election to succeed the late Rep. Joe Moakley (D).
Although the venerable Moakley had a legendary perch atop the House Rules Committee, Lynch has said that he most wants to emulate Moakley as someone who never forgot where he came from despite how much power he had.
Lynch is most easily recognizable wielding the gavel while presiding over the House floor. Still, Lynch is not one to otherwise seek out the spotlight.
He was an ironworker for 18 years, becoming president of one local union at age 30, and therefore labor issues remain important to him. He follows his party on most issues, except social issues, where he is much more conservative than traditional Democrats. He was one of 47 Democrats to side with conservative Republicans on Congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)
2006 re-election: 69 percent
Obscure fact: Miller represents the most Republican district in Florida — at least from a presidential percentage standpoint. President Bush received 72 percent of the vote there in 2004, his highest total in any of the state’s Congressional districts, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received just 28 percent.
Miller generally keeps a low profile, rarely issuing press releases or pontificating on the House floor and featuring one of the more boring Wikipedia pages of any Member of Congress. Quite a contrast from his predecessor, former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R), who went on to a lucrative career as a cable TV host.
His Congressional interests are narrowly focused on military and veterans issues, reflecting the high concentration of defense industries in his panhandle district.
Miller has gotten a modicum of attention for two bills sure to earn plaudits from vets back home and hunters (including fellow Members) on Capitol Hill. One bill that would prohibit the collection of co-payments for all hospice care furnished by the Department of Veterans Affairs passed the House. A second Miller bill, which would allow Washington, D.C., residents the ability to hunt in Maryland or Virginia and pay in-state hunting fees, has 35 co-sponsors.
Miller, one of several Members who can regularly be spotted wearing cowboy boots with his suit, has an interesting résumé. He has worked in real estate, is a former deputy county sheriff and held part-time jobs as a stock-car driver and auctioneer. In high school, he was a disc jockey for a local radio station.
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio)
2006 re-election: 59 percent
Obscure fact: Turner has a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do.
A former two-term Dayton mayor who was defeated for re-election in 2001, Turner has sought to become a leader on urban issues since coming to Congress in 2003.
But he has kept a low profile in doing so and does much of his work behind the scenes. He has sponsored just two bills so far this year and lists just 14 press releases for this Congress on his Web site.
Among the features on the front of his Web site recently under the heading “What’s New” was this notice: “Cost Guard Seal Now Occupies Prominent Place in Rep. Turner D.C. Office.” The item featured his quote: “After visiting my office in Washington D.C. a constituent from the 3rd district brought to my attention that although we had seals from the other branches of the military on display, we did not have the Coast Guard’s seal on display.”
The new seal is now up, and his Web site features a high-resolution picture if you’re interested.
Turner generally is viewed as a party loyalist, although he has very blue-collar roots and is also a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. He is also co-chairman of the Former Mayors Caucus in the House
Turner hasn’t had a tough re-election yet, but his 2006 race did garner some attention — it just wasn’t focused on him. The Democratic nominee was forced out of the race after her involvement in a domestic violence case came to light.
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.)
2006 re-election: 70 percent
Obscure fact: His father, John Visclosky, served as comptroller and then briefly as mayor of Gary, Ind.
Visclosky is without doubt the most powerful Member on this year’s Obscure Caucus. He is now an Appropriations cardinal, wielding the gavel of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies.
But, true to his Obscure Caucus roots, he hasn’t let the Democratic takeover of Congress make him any less camera-shy.
“His floor speeches are as rare as mentions of his name in national newspapers, and he acknowledges an aversion to publicity,” according to CQ’s Politics in America 2008.
“I try to avoid that like the plague,” he has said.
But when it comes to bringing home the bacon, Visclosky delivers.
Of the $148 million the Indiana delegation put into the House version of the fiscal 2008 spending bills, Visclosky’s requests accounted for $89.5 million — that’s 60 percent of the delegation’s individual requests.
Visclosky dropped out of Catholic seminary at age 15 and is now chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus.
Profiles compiled by Steven T. Dennis, Josh Kurtz and Lauren W. Whittington.