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Scientist, Farmer Brings Tea Party Sensibility to House

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Thomas Massie participates in a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in November.

It was wintertime in Kentucky when Thomas Massie got the call from the county jailer.

Early last year, the massive, old hot-water heater at the Lewis County jail had gone bad and couldn’t be repaired. There was no hot water for inmates to wash dishes or take showers. It would cost the small, cash-strapped county government a significant sum — about $12,000 — to purchase a new one and have it quickly installed.

But Massie, then the county’s judge-executive and now the Republican congressman from the Bluegrass State’s 4th District, was uneasy spending that much money. He began to think if there had to be a better way.

Massie’s done a lot of thinking over his life. He’s grown from an inquisitive boy in rural Kentucky to star student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a pioneer at the height of tech success with 24 technology-related patents. A banjo-playing cattle farmer who hewed his off-the-grid, solar-powered timber-frame home out of lumber he cut and milled himself, Massie came to politics almost accidentally, perturbed about a small local tax. He won an upset victory in a 2010 primary to be Lewis County judge-executive — in effect, the mayor of the county. And then, with the backing of tea party groups, he ran and won another upset victory in the primary for the safe Republican seat vacated by GOP Rep. Geoff Davis earlier this year.

“I think Thomas Massie will be one of the best folks we have up there,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who helped Massie, 41, during his bitterly fought primary.

Massie, sworn in on Nov. 13, will be at the front of the relatively small tea party faction in the incoming freshman class. During the lame duck, he plans to take a hard line on reducing spending during the fiscal cliff debate.

But his biography doesn’t fit neatly into any boxes.

Pondering the broken hot water heater early last year, Massie looked around the Internet and found a new one with a warranty on eBay for $5,500 — with free shipping. It would save the county a big chunk of money. There was only one problem: The county had no one to hook it up.

“When it showed up, everybody is looking at it like, ‘Who is going to install it?’ And I say, ‘Gimme three inmates, I’ll put it in,’” Massie recalled.

And then the judge-executive got to work.

Chris McCane, the jailer, watched with awe.

“A judge-executive crawling back in this old hot water heater — had crud on it from probably 30 years — and cutting these pipes and digging this thing out and computerizing it and hooking this thing back up so it works,” he said.

“I thought, ‘This is a different fella right here,’” McCane said.

MIT and a Startup

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