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.
Walberg's 2008 loss in a costly and hard-fought contest with Schauer was "certainly a bitter defeat for him," said Rep. Candice Miller, a fellow Michigan Republican who's known Walberg since his days in the Legislature. "I think that he is all the more resolved now that he is returned to office. I think he recognizes, as most of us do, how precarious these seats can be."
Not that Walberg has moved a centimeter toward the middle. If anything, he now flaunts his conservatism a little more boldly.
"My decorating has changed a bit," he admitted, explaining that the "first principles" wall of his office reflects his view that the nation stands at a philosophical and political crossroads. There hang super-sized reproductions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. On another wall hangs a flag featuring a snake and the words "Don't Tread on Me," a symbol that has been appropriated by the tea party movement.
All of this has made Walberg a target for liberals, who assail his allegiance with the "birther" movement that has challenged President Barack Obama's citizenship. People for the American Way dubbed Walberg one of the "Ten Scariest Republicans Heading to Congress" after the 2010 elections, based on his opposition to gay rights, abortion and environmental regulations and his support for entitlement reform.
But Walberg's gracious and even grandfatherly charm belies his reputation as a hard-liner. Relaxing in his office on one of the leather chairs grouped around a coffee table plastered with snapshots of his grandchildren, Walberg stressed that his policy differences with House Democrats are never personal.
"We do have good friends on both sides of the aisle, and we do carry on in an amicable fashion, whether it be in the gym locker room in the morning or whether it be on the floor of the House," Walberg said, adding that he frequently sits down with longtime Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D).
At a recent subcommittee hearing, Walberg grilled a Labor Department official over stepped-up enforcement of fair-labor standards rules that he warned could "have a chilling effect on job creators." But before calling the hearing to order, Walberg turned with a smile to Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the panel's ranking member, who was celebrating a special day.
"Happy Birthday, and many more," Walberg told the California Democrat before turning back to pepper witnesses with questions about what he cast as over-aggressive workplace safety regulations.
Back in his economically hard-hit state, Walberg's focus is less ideological. He hosts job fairs and walks the streets to chat with constituents about unemployment and the economy. Walberg's legislative agenda includes support for numerous jobs-oriented bills, including those aimed at freeing up capital for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
"I've never seen Tim mad or expressing frustration with people," said Jim Barrett, the former president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "He's a great listener. And he just has a great way of asking questions, joking with people, being serious when it's appropriate, trying to be helpful."
Walberg has walked in his constituents' shoes. Born and educated in Chicago, Walberg worked as a farm and steel mill laborer before joining the U.S. Forest Service and later attending Bible college. When Michigan Farm Bureau official Ryan Findlay stopped by his office recently, Walberg traded shop talk with him about this year's crops and how they've fared amid weather extremes.
Steel Manufacturers Association President Thomas Danjczek, who visited with Walberg that same day, called the Congressman his favorite "hooker," the term for workers who operate a crane to hook containers of scrap steel to move them from the yard to the furnace platform. A framed local newspaper front page on his office wall shows Walberg in jeans and a leather jacket, riding on his Harley- Davidson with a constituent, a 96-year-old woman.
His reputation for frugality extends to occasionally sleeping in his office. Even his wife, Sue, who crops up frequently in Walberg's conversations, has been known to sleep there. Miller said that she tells Walberg his wife is a "saint."
Reflecting on life as a second-time freshman, Walberg returns more than once to his Christian faith. Being a minister is not so different from being a Member of Congress, he notes, with its emphasis on stewardship and public service. He said his journey back to the House after his 2008 loss involved considerable uncertainty and prayer. As he put it:
"Even as a Christian who has faith in God ... I have to admit that both my wife and I kind of looked up, as it were, and said: 'What was that all about? All that work to get here, and only one term and out?'" And he was by no means certain that he would run again.
"We looked for ways out of it at times," he said, laughing. "Because once you go through this, you realize it's not a cakewalk. Nothing's given. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of fundraising. It's a big battle. It takes your entire life. It makes decisions for you in many cases."
Still, Walberg said, Capitol Hill feels like exactly where he wants to be: "I've found my sweet spot here in public service." The real difference between the two GOP freshman class photos on his wall is not the color of the sky — it's the fact that in the more recent photo, Walberg is a member of the majority. He admitted with a grin: "It makes it much more pleasant."