Congress

They left Congress. Where are they now?

Ex-members are ‘recovering,’ ‘diving back into reality-land’ after 115th Congress

(Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Ryan A. Costello, a 42-year-old Pennsylvania Republican who retired after the 115th Congress following a court-ordered redistricting that made reelection difficult, does “a lot of Legos” now with his two children, ages 2 and 5.

Luis V. Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat who stepped down after 13 terms, is learning to swim and play the guitar, and hopes to be able to perform a Beatles song by Christmas.

Minnesota Republican Erik Paulsen, who lost a bid for a sixth term last November, is using some of his newfound free time to guide visitors through the Boundary Waters wilderness area in the far northern reaches of his home state.

Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat, and John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat, are ex-congressmen running long-shot bids for the presidency. And Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican who retired after 14 years in the House, is making frequent trips to Central America, where he is using his skills as a former law enforcement officer to develop a DNA database that can help find missing people and identify the remains of recovered bodies.

The six are among 115 former representatives and senators newly adapting to life after Congress, and CQ Roll Call finds them in a wide variety of roles, ranging from the expected to the unusual.

Some have been elected or appointed to other offices; some have joined law firms or lobby shops; some have returned to their old jobs in the private sector or taken positions in academia; a few have signed on as media commentators; many are continuing to work on issues important to them while in Congress; and some are just plain enjoying private life and retirement. Three members of the 115th Congress died.

Almost all former members who were contacted in recent weeks expressed delight at having more time to spend with family and friends, but had mixed reactions to the question of whether they miss Capitol Hill.

“I was ready for the drama to be over,” said Frank A. LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who retired after 12 terms in the House. But he said it was difficult to let go after working hard on issues and developing expertise about them.

“It’s not like you ease out of it,” he said. “You flip a light switch. You’re a member of Congress one day and the next day it’s a whole different story.” LoBiondo has opened his own consulting firm, LoBo Strategies, focused on advising clients on lobbying.

“It’s been fantastic. I’m enjoying life as a recovering politician,” said Luther Strange, an Alabama Republican who spent 11 months in the Senate filling the seat of Jeff Sessions, who left to become attorney general, until a special election was held.

“It was really a pretty smooth transition,” said Strange, a lawyer who now splits his time between his Alabama law firm and a financial consulting firm in Washington. “Honestly, I miss the people in the Senate, all my colleagues I became close to, but I don’t miss, you know, the political atmosphere that we’re operating in today.”

Some really do miss the action on Capitol Hill and have remained in the capital to be close to it.

“There are some members of Congress who slam the door behind them when they leave,” said retired Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith. “I’m not one of those. I loved my job. There wasn’t any other job I would have rather had than being in Congress.” Smith has joined the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he consults on an array of business issues.

Joe Donnelly, a Democrat who spent six years in the House and six in the Senate before losing a reelection bid last year, has also joined Akin Gump and spends half his time in Washington and half back home in Indiana, where he teaches at Notre Dame and is a board member for two organizations, the Soufan Center focused on national security issues and the One Country Project helping Democrats reach rural voters. (He also broke his leg in February, requiring surgery that left him with a pin and eight screws in his fibula.)

While he keeps busy, Donnelly said he misses being in Congress. “One of the best parts of the Senate was the friendships, and the same in the House,” he said. “Some of my closest friends are the folks that I met in the Senate and in the House, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the chance to serve.”

After former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost his bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz last year, he set his sights on the presidency. Above, O’Rourke campaigns in Independence, Iowa, with his son Henry.(Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
After former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost his bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz last year, he set his sights on the presidency. Above, O’Rourke campaigns in Independence, Iowa, with his son Henry.(Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Family matters

“Life is good,” said former Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi who stepped down after five terms and is doing some consulting work while happily living just a half-mile from a year-old grandchild.

“I’m definitely spending less time in the Atlanta airport, which is a very good thing,” Harper said. “Last year on Delta I had 147 flights and 139 the year before that.” But the 63-year-old still gets back to Washington now and then to visit friends and keeps on top of what’s going on. “Yes, I left Congress, but I’m working just as hard — it’s just different. It’s a little more family-friendly.”

Oklahoma Republican Steve Russell, who spent 31 years in the Army and four years in the state Senate before his two terms in the House from 2015 to 2019, is “thoroughly enjoying” his new role as a pastor in a Baptist church in Oklahoma City.

“I have also found that the meanest people in any church are usually nicer than most people in politics,” he said in an email. “On a more personal level, I am finishing up my private pilot’s license, enjoying family and sleeping in my own bed. … It is nice to get my life back.”

Costello, now a consultant and managing director of Americans for Carbon Dividends, a business coalition that advocates market-based solutions to climate change, sees pluses and minuses being back in the private sector.

“I have my weekends back, which is a big thing for me. I don’t miss the fundraising. I do miss the camaraderie that I have with my colleagues. You do lose that,” he said.

“There are times when I see certain issues in the news or votes where I wish I would be able to have the imprimatur of the [member’s lapel] pin in order to have my voice heard. … So I miss some of the day-to-day stuff a little bit, but some of it, you’re kind of on the treadmill, right? Like, 15-minute meeting here, 15-minute meeting there,” Costello said. “I can also tell you that there are many of my colleagues who are still in the House who don’t find life in the minority all that satisfying.”

But Costello isn’t swearing off politics entirely. “Oh, yeah, I might get back in the arena,” he said. “I don’t know when, but there may be a time down the line.”

Reichert, 68, said he’s happy to have returned to his roots in law enforcement and the military, working on the DNA database project in Central America, which is funded by a State Department grant and overseen by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. In the project, Reichert said, “people are all working together for a common goal. I think that’s true in Congress, except that there are those that are there specifically because they enjoy the political theater.”

“I’m happy to be away from the political theater,” he said. “It seems to me that sometimes politics takes precedence over trying to find a solution to a problem.”

 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Been there, done that

South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford is familiar with being a former congressman. In 2000, he chose not to seek reelection after three terms in the House. Then, after two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011 — a tenure marked by a very public extramarital affair and divorce — Sanford returned to Congress by winning a special election in 2013, only to lose a primary race last year to a state lawmaker endorsed by President Donald Trump. (Sanford had been an outspoken critic of Trump, particularly over his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his refusal to make public his tax returns.) The bitter primary resulted in a GOP loss of the district to Democrat Joe Cunningham.

“I’ve been spent rocket fuel before, and so that part is not new,” Sanford said. “Some people who used to call you a lot, all of a sudden don’t call you much. I get that. I’ve been through that before. I’ve been surprised, frankly, by the degree to which I’ve not missed it.” Other than teaching a series of seminars at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Sanford said he has purposely avoided making future plans for now. “I think that this self-imposed sabbatical was very important in terms of just stopping and breathing,” he said.

Does he have any second thoughts about taking on Trump? “I don’t in any way regret saying the things that indeed caused me to get into hot water with the president and many of his hardest supporters in South Carolina, because I believe what I believe,” he said.

Sanford is now contemplating a race against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020, he told CNN on July 16.

Many former members are sticking with issues they worked on in the 115th Congress.

“My whole life basically was and is still committed to synthesizing economics and ethics,” said Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican who lost in November and is now dean of the business school at Liberty University. “The time back with family is just awesome,” Brat said. “I’m diving back more into reality-land. Business, economics and education.”

Like her fellow Republican Lamar Smith, former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has joined Akin Gump, and also like Smith, is “loving every minute.”

“Instead of helping constituents,” she said, “we’re helping clients.” Mostly they are U.S. businesses seeking advice on operating in other countries, said Ros-Lehtinen, a former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The transition has not been difficult, because I’m working on so many of the same type of issues that I worked on before,” she said. “It’s just been a joy for me to find a firm with which we share the same ethics and principles. It’s been a seamless transition for me.”

Paulsen, a longtime advocate for free trade, is working with Pass USMCA, a business coalition pushing for ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Gutiérrez, who spent much of his political career promoting changes in immigration policy, is now a senior adviser to the National Partnership for New Americans, encouraging eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens. “Until we have comprehensive immigration reform and people no longer have to fear their families being destroyed, I’ll keep working,” Gutiérrez said.

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida has joined the advisory board of the Millennial Action Project. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida has joined the advisory board of the Millennial Action Project. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Road warriors

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who lost a reelection bid last fall, is working with Donnelly on the One Country Project, taught a seminar at Harvard University in the spring called “The Real State of the Union,” and is a regular contributor on cable news.

One Country is aimed at “raising and elevating rural issues” for the Democratic Party, she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of speaking and working on issues like carbon capture … and continue to do appearances on CNBC and ABC, so it’s been really busy. In fact, what’s interesting is that I’m traveling more now than I did when I was in the Senate.”

Former Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican defeated in November, has spent a lot of time this year on the air as a CNN commentator and in the air traveling to Australia, where she is a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney.

“In essence I am their window into U.S. politics and how that affects Sydney,” Love said. “They are watching our elections probably more closely than we’re watching everyone else’s.”

Love said she doesn’t miss being “stuck in the mud” in Congress, but seeing it from an international perspective is concerning. “Right now the U.S., that beacon, that light that shines so bright, is dimming with all of the infighting and the politics.”

Another Republican who lost in November, Carlos Curbelo of Florida, has joined the advisory board of the Millennial Action Project, which said its vision is “a political environment where bipartisan cooperation is restored as our nation’s governing paradigm.”

“My initial goals in January were to stay active and involved on the issues I’ve spent time working on in Congress,” Curbelo said. “So that’s clean energy, climate, space, immigration, gun reform and cannabis reform.”

Curbelo said supporters are pulling him in two directions: either seek reelection to Congress or run for mayor of Miami-Dade County. “I do want to make a decision by the end of the summer,” he said. “Certainly I have a passion and interest in public service. I’m going to think about it long and hard.”

Former Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who lost a bid for governor in November, is already back in politics as chairman of the state GOP. “The last election was tough for Republicans in New Mexico,” Pearce said. “I didn’t feel like that was the last word.” He hopes voters will see recent economic gains as a reason to return to the party.

“People are feeling that, so I think that New Mexico is definitely in play for President Trump in this coming election,” he said. “The party is working very closely with him to make that happen.”

Some other Republicans who left Congress aren’t so enamored of Trump. Tennessee’s Bob Corker, who retired after two terms in the Senate, criticized the president often during a speaking tour in the spring.

“Typically, to unite people you have to wish to do so, and I think currently the president has not found that,” he said at one conference in April.

“I also believe that elected officials are elected to solve problems, not to create them,” Corker said. “I think currently the administration on many of the hot-button issues that have an effect, especially on the base voters on both sides of the aisle, has chosen to pursue a course of action not to solve problems and in many cases to create them.”

Some no longer on Capitol Hill worry about the colleagues they left behind. “Based on my conversations with my friends in the Senate, it’s not a good place to be,” said Heitkamp. “You know, there isn’t a lot of work being done on issues that are important to this country. There’s not a lot of collaboration. The president has essentially taken over the Article 1 branch of government. If you’re trying to get things done in the era of Trump in the Senate, it’s just not happening.”

Paul V. Fontelo, Noella Kertes and Eleanor Van Buren contributed to this report.

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