Back in the Saddle

by Betsy Woodruff
Texas congressman Steve Stockman defends gun rights and rocks the boat with Ted Nugent.

We’ve just stepped onto the elevator in the basement of the Capitol Building. It’s a few minutes before the House is set to vote on the Violence against Women Act, and it’s jam-packed. I’m shadowing Representative Steve Stockman (R., Texas), and a man I don’t recognize asks if there’s room for a few more people. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) is sitting in her wheelchair in the corner of the elevator — she’s an Iraq vet and a double amputee — and jokes, “Someone can sit in my lap!”

Without missing a beat, Stockman says, “Well, okay!”

There’s a bit of snickering, and Duckworth says her lap isn’t very comfortable.

Stockman is a freshman member from Texas, but this isn’t his first rodeo. He won his first congressional election in 1994, won reelection in 1996 even though his district had been made more Democratic via redistricting, and then lost it again that same year when the Supreme Court invalidated the redistricting process and his district became even more Democratic. He basically just hung out for 16 years until redistricting created a new, redder-than-red district, on the eastern side of the Lone Star State, that he couldn’t not win if he made it through the primary and runoff elections. That he did, and now he’s in Congress making jokes about sitting on Tammy Duckworth’s lap. He’s also bucked leadership, threatened to impeach the president, and escorted Ted Nugent to the State of the Union. It’s been quite a start, and his pace shows no sign of letting up.

The anteroom to his office has rocking chairs with cowhide seats, a bust of Ronald Reagan, and, at least on the day I stopped by, a neat stack of unused Popeye’s napkins and trays on a bookshelf. A small table has a few piles of free literature for people waiting for appointments to peruse, including a pamphlet from Gun Owners of America (a gun-rights group lauded by Nugent that’s well to the right of the NRA) and a booklet titled “Mixing Church and State God’s Way.” His office gets World magazine and a newsletter called “The Gun Owners.” We originally planned to have a sit-down in his office, but lawmaking precluded that, so I follow him and his communications director, Donny Ferguson, over to the Capitol, and we find a space in the speaker’s offices near the House chamber to sit down between votes on the Violence against Women Act.

Stockman — and this probably won’t surprise you — is no fan of the legislation.

“This is a truly bad bill,” he says of the Senate version, which includes provisions regarding homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual victims of domestic violence. “This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it’s called a women’s act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?”

Stockman didn’t draw many headlines for his opposition to VAWA, but he’s no rookie at newsmaking. He beat Jack Brooks, a powerful Democrat, as part of the 1994 wave that gave Newt Gingrich the speaker’s gavel.

“It was cool, very cool,” he says. “First time the Republicans took over the House in 40 years, and everybody’s all excited. We were gonna change the world. Of course, the media went bonkers and tried to take us down. We pretty much fought back, but ultimately they raised our negatives.”

In his 16 years away from Congress, Stockman worked for a few different conservative groups, including the Leadership Institute, and ran unsuccessfully for the Texas Railroad Commission and Tom DeLay’s old seat. But most importantly, he cared for his father, who had Alzheimer’s. Stockman says that doing so kept him from entering any intense races — taking care of him was emotionally and financially draining, and he eventually filed for bankruptcy. When his father’s disease became too severe, he put him in a veterans’ home.

Stockman’s father fought in the European theater in World War II. Though the congressman is most noted for his unwavering commitment to the Second Amendment, the only gun in his childhood home was a German Luger that his father brought back from the war. “He had a lot of stuff,” Stockman says. “It was interesting.”

His father became a math and science teacher, and his mother taught English. “That’s probably why I can’t do English or math or science,” he jokes.

After his father died, Stockman started thinking seriously about running for office. The new shoo-in Republican district was tempting, but he didn’t want to run without the support of an old friend: Donny Ferguson, his current communications director. Ferguson is soft-spoken and reserved but “a brilliant strategist,” according to the congressman.

In the speaker’s rooms, Stockman reminisces about Ferguson’s decision to work with him on the race.

“He’s never gonna win!” Stockman remembers hearing. Then he addresses Ferguson. “But then you started doing the studying, and that’s when you got real excited. I’ll never forget, you were over in the corner there. You’re going, ‘Steve, this is a gimme! This is easy!’”

Ferguson grins.

They ran against eleven opponents in the primary, made it to the runoff, and won. That puzzled some insiders. One Texas Republican consultant says that Stockman is “sort of a mystery” and that his “master stroke” was betting that the primary was winnable.

The consultant says the campaign was thrifty, reusing some “Re-Elect Congressman Stockman” signs from the 1996 race. Ferguson says they ended up spending just $1.67 per vote.

 “I can’t imagine how someone would ever get to the right of [Stockman],” says David Guenthner of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Ferguson and Stockman weren’t on their own, though. Stockman won endorsements from Citizens United and Gun Owners of America in the primary. He’s also been closely allied with Evangelical leaders. Before entering the public sphere, he was arrested, and officers found cellophane-wrapped Valium in his underwear. He was also homeless for a bit, before converting to clean living and Christianity. So, in a way, he’s the archetypal Southern Baptist success story.

And since coming to Washington, he’s been a bit of a firebrand — that’s what you get labeled if you start making noise about impeachment before the president has even introduced new gun-control legislation.

“That’s one of the reasons why I liked him in the primary, why we supported him in all his races,” says David Bossie, president of Citizens United. “Because, you know, look, you need people to come up here and shake it up.”

And shake it up he has. “His disposition is to rock the boat whenever and wherever possible,” says Guenthner. On Stockman’s first day in office, he voted “present” instead of voting for John Boehner to be reelected speaker. Less than two weeks after being sworn into his second freshman term, he issued a statement threatening to file articles of impeachment if the president used executive orders to restrict gun rights. (He dialed that threat back a bit in another statement, which said that “impeachment is not something to be taken lightly. It is a grave and serious undertaking that should only be initiated in a sober and serious manner. It should be reserved only for most egregious of trespasses by the President.” But still.) And, of course, he invited Ted Nugent, who underwent a Secret Service investigation after making veiled threats toward the president, to the State of the Union; Stockman defended the invitation in part by calling Nugent “very articulate.”

Was Bossie expecting him to start off which such a veritable bang?

“Ah, no,” says Bossie. “However, I’m pleasantly surprised!”

Many of his constituents seem to feel the same way. Ben Stinsman, the political director for the Harris County Republican party, says the congressman has connected with the people he represents and has “vocalized what a lot of people sometimes were feeling.”

“When he speaks to them, it doesn’t sound like this fancy Washington talk,” Stinsman says. “It sounds like someone who is their neighbor here in southeast Texas.”

So aficionados of said fancy Washington talk might need to get used to the congressman whom Bossie says is “an easygoing Texan, until you cross Texans.” Thanks to some good redistricting karma, Steve Stockman might, finally, be here to stay.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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