Rep. Thomas Massie participates in a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in November.
When Massie was little, he had a propensity to take appliances apart and keep all the pieces strewn about his room in stacks. Not surprisingly, his parents often pushed him to clean up the mess.
“I thought, ‘I’ll build a robot that can clean the room out of all of this junk,’” Massie said, chuckling. “It’s kind of recursive, if you think about it.”
Young Massie didn’t have the knowledge to build the brain or the body of a cleanup robot, but, looking at his own arm, he figured out how to build a mechanical version of the limb.
Permanently sidetracked from the cleanup robot project, he kept building robot arms in middle school and into high school. Successful science fair entries followed. Then MIT.
He married his high school sweetheart, Rhonda, an MIT student two years behind him.
While they were both there, they started their own company, SensAble Devices, which created products that allowed users — designers, engineers, whoever — to feel digital objects physically. A toy engineer could put his hands in the device and get the tactile sensation of an object that had been created only on the computer.
One of his MIT professors, Kenneth Salisbury, remembered the college-age Massie as immensely capable and full of energy and ideas.
Massie, who was studying for a degree in electrical engineering, took a mechanical engineering course that was infamous on campus and included a contest in which every student was given the same box of junk and a mandate to build.
“I won the contest. I beat 250 mechanical engineers,” Massie recalled, smiling.
The Massies’ company was successful, but after about a decade running it, Kentucky called. They sold SensAble, bought the 1,200-acre farm Rhonda grew up on and moved backed to the Bluegrass State. Massie spent his days raising his four children, working on the house, and tending to 50 head of cattle.
In person, Massie looks younger than his 41 years. He’s an unusual mix of earnestly wonkish scientist and charismatic schmoozer. He laughs easily and tells stories with verve, charm and a slight northern Kentucky twang.
Even discussing fiscal cliff policy, his voice stays even, although his passion about reducing the nation’s debt is clear. “I think the cuts need to happen,” he said, noting that he supports the GOP position to redistribute the cuts embedded in sequestration. “But if we can’t, they still need to happen.”
In college, where political interest often blossoms, Massie had little. But he did have political professors. Liberal Nobel laureate Paul Krugman was his first macroeconomics teacher.
“It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now, his version of it,” Massie said, laughing.
But Massie, now a pro-gun, anti-abortion rights, pro-small-government conservative congressman, got an A in the course.
Tea Party Roots
It was a matter of economics that brought Massie into the political sphere in the Bluegrass State. Lewis County proposed a new tax to fund a building to help attract the federal government to place an office locally. Massie thought the whole idea was absurd and wrote a letter to the editor saying as much.