Walden Finds His Niche as GOP ‘Utility Player’

It’s not clear exactly when Rep. Greg Walden became an indispensable part of Minority Leader John Boehner’s leadership team, but a few days before Republicans won control of the House, the presumptive Speaker called the Oregonian to ask a favor.

Walden was wrapping up a final multi-state campaign swing with National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) in the waning days of the midterm elections when Boehner phoned, asking him to lead the transition team for the new House majority.

Walden, the chairman of GOP leadership, said he hesitated, explaining he had originally planned to spend election night in Oregon with his supporters and had no idea what the job would entail.

“He said ... ‘I need you here Wednesday morning,’” Walden recalled. He scrapped his election night plans and returned to D.C.

His first task: emcee the NRCC’s election night gathering at the Hyatt.

“I don’t mind being the utility player; I enjoy trying to solve problems,” Walden said, a trait he says he learned during his days as the owner of a small business. “You tackle whatever needs to be tackled and you try to figure out how to solve the problems and keep moving forward.”

The GOP’s jack-of-all-trades, Walden has had a fast and unusual ascent through House Republican ranks, which began in part because of his close ties to Sessions, a longtime friend outside of the Capitol.

When Sessions became NRCC chairman in 2009, Walden was a deputy chairman. As the Texan’s right-hand man with an expanding portfolio, Walden was brought to the table once a week to discuss strategy at the campaign committee.

In January, he was invited to a leadership-only retreat in Annapolis.

Walden impressed leadership at the gathering with his knowledge of campaigns and his political savvy. But it was his willingness to sacrifice for the Conference that ultimately won him a permanent seat in leadership in the 111th Congress.

Following the announcement by Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) that he would switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party, leaders were looking for someone to relinquish their seat on the exclusive Energy and Commerce Committee to make room for the newly minted GOPer.

“No one else would leave the committee,” one Republican operative said in March. “So they asked Walden and he, very wisely, said yes.”

Walden said Friday he hopes to return to the committee in the 112th Congress, where he could find himself in line for a subcommittee chairmanship.

Prior to stepping off the committee, he served as the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“I don’t want to get out ahead of myself, but I definitely want to go back to energy and commerce in an active way there,” he said.

At the same time, Walden said he likes the active role he has played in leadership and hopes Boehner decides to keep him around.

“I’m not running for any office,” he said. “But I think I’ve proven some value in my work.”

Boehner has indicated that no leadership positions will be eliminated in the 112th Congress.

As the chairman of GOP leadership — a post that had been dormant since 2005, when former Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio) stepped down to become U.S. trade representative — Walden split his time between politics and policy.

At the NRCC, Walden was tasked with communicating the GOP message through an initiative called “sell the fight.”

According to one aide, Walden exceeded leadership’s expectations.

One former GOP leadership aide said Walden’s likability among different factions of the Conference made him a natural, noncontroversial choice to head the transition team.

“Boehner’s always liked Walden,” the aide said. “He’s a guy you can count on, who just wants to do his job and be rewarded for being good at it.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who will likely serve as the Majority Whip in the 112th Congress, said until recently Walden never had a platform to showcase his abilities.

“People rise to the occasion and I think he really did,” the California Republican said. 

“Look at his background — he’s great on policy, he used to be a business owner, he was in the radio business, too, he knows how to explain something how people can understand it.”

He added, “When he was given the opportunity not only did he fill it, he exceeded it.”

Walden said he never pursued leadership positions early in his career because he simply didn’t have time for it. When Walden was first elected to the House, his son was in school and he was operating several radio stations in Oregon.

“I know the kind of time commitment it would take to do these jobs and I just wasn’t willing to do that,” he said.

His son has since gone off to college and the radio business was sold, giving him more time to focus on his Congressional duties.

“I personally, in my personal life, have more flexibility to do this,” he said. “I actually thrive on trying to solve problems and make things work.”

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