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
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.
Frustrated with local governance, he ran for county judge-executive in 2010. He campaigned for both himself and for Paul, also running as the outsider in the Senate primary higher up on the ticket. Massie and Paul both were victorious, buoyed by an anti-establishment anger that swept the state and much of the country.
Taking the reins of the county in 2011, Massie scoured its bills and chipped away waste where he found it. He had electric company lineman take him to visit every electric meter on the taxpayer tab — and then Massie stopped paying the bills for the ones the county itself wasn’t using. He ceased paying rent to a railroad company for a drainage ditch the railroad didn’t own. The county had been unnecessarily cutting checks to the railroad company for 18 years.
Driving to local tea party events around the state, he told his story, connecting with the grass roots. When Davis announced his retirement from Congress, Massie was encouraged to run. His bid had the support of a strong network of tea party groups. The establishment split, backing two other candidates.
With the help of Paul and a super PAC, he won the seven-way primary with 45 percent of the vote and cruised to a general election victory.
The red hue of his district means Massie is safe from a Democratic challenger. And given his deep grass-roots support, Massie is likely to have significant leeway on how he votes without risking a primary challenge.
Effectively the first tea party member of the 113th Congress — and the only one with a vote on the fiscal cliff — Massie is uniquely positioned to help write the next chapter of the tea party’s role in Congress.
In a Washington, where political functionality has been taken apart and thrown asunder, those who have known Massie for years are curious to see what he can build with all the broken parts.