When visitors stop by his study in the Cannon House Office Building, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) likes to show off a pair of framed photographs that hang one above the other to the right of his massive desk.
In the lower photo, Walberg stands on the Capitol's marble steps with a dozen fellow Republicans, all members of the GOP freshman class of 2006, framed (he points out) by a "gray, bleak sky." In the upper photo, Walberg stands smiling on those same steps, but this time the crowd of camera-ready Republican freshmen surrounding him is seven times larger, and the sky is a cloudless blue.
"I don't know whether that means anything or not," said a chuckling Walberg, who has the unusual distinction of being a second-time freshman. Walberg won his 7th district seat in Michigan's southern tier in 2006, only to lose it after just one term. He mounted a challenge to the man who had ousted him, Democrat Mark Schauer, and rode a wave of tea party anger back to Capitol Hill last year.
"I'm a redshirt freshman," Walberg, 60, quipped on a recent fall day punctuated by a hearing of the Education and Workforce subcommittee he chairs, meetings with farm and steel industry lobbyists and the usual round of media interviews and votes that are every lawmaker's daily bread.
A former pastor who served 16 years in the Michigan Legislature, Walberg has a lot in common with his 80-plus GOP freshman colleagues. The rock-solid social and fiscal conservative likes to say that he "was tea party before the tea party." He won office the first time around by successfully challenging a more moderate House Republican in the primary with the help of generous backing from the Club for Growth.
"He's willing to take on people even within his own party," said Andrew Roth, the Club for Growth's vice president of government affairs. Roth said Walberg's primary win "was a great demonstration of how conservatives can draw a clear line [defining] what it means to be a conservative, even within the Republican Party."
But here's how Walberg is different: Having lost his hard-earned seat after just one term, this freshman knows firsthand just how tenuous is his hold on his swing district. In his second freshman term, Walberg has earned a reputation as an exceptionally hard worker, meticulously devoted to constituent service and to making the most of his subcommittee chairmanship.
Following the speeches from elected officials, the crowd stands at long tables as they dig into BBQ, brunswick stew, cadillac rice at the Law Enforcement Cookout at Wayne Dasher's pond house in Glennville, Ga., on Thursday, April 17, 2014.