Politics & Policy

Working-Class Wonk

From the April 16, 2012, issue of NR

Youngstown, Ohio — Mitt Romney has left the building and the town-hall meeting has ended, but Rob Portman, Ohio’s rail-thin freshman senator, paces across the factory floor to shake hands with the lingering crowd. He spends 20 minutes with the metalworkers, listening to their stories. He lightly grips his hands at his waist; his salt-and-pepper hair is slightly mussed. His responses are crisp, calm, and full of numbers. In that respect, he echoes Romney, the potential Republican presidential nominee.

But behind the mannerly persona, Portman, like Romney, is a shrewd operator. Unlike Romney, he is a seasoned Washington player — and an influential lawmaker who has worked for two presidents. The pair’s stylistic similarities, midwestern roots, and contrasting career paths have spurred Republican strategists to tout Portman as a leading vice-presidential contender. 

To GOP insiders, a Portman pick, should Romney win the nomination, would be akin to Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore. It would reinforce the nominee’s strengths — underscoring Romney’s competence, his economic focus, and his suburban appeal. Portman could also be helpful in wooing independent voters in the industrial Rust Belt, a region that Barack Obama painted blue in 2008 when he swept Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

Of course, Portman, who has campaigned prominently on Romney’s behalf, demurs when asked about the possibility. “It’s not going to happen,” he chuckles. But for now, he is one of a few people, along with Florida senator Marco Rubio and Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, whose names are on that invisible shortlist frequently mentioned on Capitol Hill, inside TV green rooms, and on conservative blogs.

Portman’s case was bolstered a day after his visit here, to Taylor-Winfield Technologies in northeast Ohio, when Romney won the Buckeye State’s primary — the crown jewel of the former Massachusetts governor’s six Super Tuesday victories. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, credits Portman for lifting Romney over Rick Santorum, Romney’s chief rival, who lost the state by 10,000 votes, or about one percentage point. Thanks to Portman’s statewide network and dogged stumping, he says, Romney “came in here a week before the election, down eleven points, and quickly caught up.”

A Politico analysis of the exit polls shows that a quarter of Ohio Republicans made their decision during the final days of the campaign, when Portman and Romney were travel companions. And in Cincinnati and its suburbs, an area Portman once represented in the House, Romney won by 6,000 votes — more than half of his total margin. Santorum won 69 of the state’s 88 counties, but Romney excelled in the more populous places where Obama triumphed in 2008 — Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, and Columbus. Winning those swing cities in November, Portman says, will be essential. 

Portman’s long history in southwestern Ohio, as much as his stints in the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, is seen as a positive by political professionals. Portman tells me that, as he reflects on his career, he finds that his family’s small-business background, more than anything, has shaped his principles, his moderate temperament, and his economic outlook.

Portman, a 56-year-old father of three, grew up in Cincinnati, the son of Bill and Joan Portman. Bill, a Cincinnati native, studied chemistry at Dartmouth and earned his degree in 1946 after serving in the Army infantry. A year later, still at Dartmouth, he took a master’s degree in business. Returning home, he went to work as a salesman but soon became restless.

Bill Portman “had a commission working for him, health care, a retirement plan,” and a growing family, his son recalls. “But he wanted to strike out and do his own thing. He is sort of the classic World War II veteran — optimistic about his future and his ability to create something from scratch. So he did it.” Bill Portman founded Portman Equipment Company, a forklift dealership, in 1960.

The business was not profitable during its early years. “My dad did everything he could,” Portman says. “It was a start-up and the banks didn’t want to lend him enough money, so he mortgaged our house.” Portman’s mother, the company’s bookkeeper, helped her husband secure a loan from her family, which owned and operated the Golden Lamb, Ohio’s oldest hotel.

Portman’s parents involved their three children in the family business. Portman’s father may have sent him to Cincinnati Country Day, an elite private school, but the candidate says that at night and on weekends, he and his siblings cleaned equipment and swept floors. By the mid-1970s, the business was thriving, having grown from five employees to over 100.

When Portman drove to Dartmouth in 1974, following in his father’s footsteps, he was interested in history and politics. During high school, when he wasn’t playing second base for Country Day’s baseball team, he had consumed political periodicals and newspapers and developed a deep interest in national affairs. “But I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican,” he says. “No one in my family had ever been in politics. My dad thought it was something that got in the way.”

Once he arrived in Hanover, N.H., Portman’s interests drifted beyond politics. He switched majors twice, eventually settling on anthropology. He was an able student, but most days he was on the water or on the ski slopes, not cooped up in the library. In 1977, he and three friends kayaked the entire length of the Rio Grande — 1,900 miles. It took him five years to graduate.

Portman remained close to his father, who put the Ivy League student on the shop floor, alongside the mechanics, during his summer breaks. But in the late spring of 1976, after his sophomore year, Portman began to volunteer for Representative Bill Gradison, the local congressman, a freshman Republican who was running for reelection. That campaign, Portman says, was his first real foray into politics. When he wasn’t on the clock, he’d put up signs and assist staffers.

After the election, Gradison, who remains a close friend, invited Portman to spend the upcoming semester in Washington. Portman jumped at the opportunity. “It was huge,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t had that internship. I thought, this guy has the best job in the world. He looks at all of these issues in a thoughtful and fair-minded way, and makes a decision that affects people’s lives. It planted the seed. Sixteen years later, with his blessing, I succeeded him.”

By the time he graduated in 1979, Portman was hooked. “I had the bug,” he laughs. “Out of college, I had two job offers. One was to be a canoe instructor for Outward Bound. And frankly, that would have paid better than the job I took, working on a policy commission in Washington that focused on immigration policy and refugees. But that decision made all the difference.”

Working in the capital, Portman met Bryce Harlow, a legendary lobbyist and Nixon confidant, who took the ambitious Dartmouth grad to lunch at the Metropolitan Club. After sizing up the young man, Harlow advised Portman, who was looking to work in government, to attend law school. Portman was initially cool to the idea, but he trusted the veteran Washington politico. “I didn’t know if I wanted to practice, but I knew it’d be good to get the credibility,” he says.

After working part-time as a low-level staffer on the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign, Portman headed to the University of Michigan Law School in August 1981. Following graduation in 1984, he returned east to work for Patton Boggs, a prominent Beltway firm, where he focused on international trade. “That experience came in handy when [President George W. Bush] was looking for a trade representative 20 years later,” Portman says.

But in 1986, after marrying Jane Dudley, a Democrat and aide to then-congressman Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Portman decided to return to Cincinnati. He joined a local firm, and at first he attempted to practice trade law, but there was little money to be made on that front, at least in industry-heavy Ohio. “I had to retool and become a business lawyer,” he says. “I represented Portman Equipment, as you can imagine.”

Bush World soon called. Even in Cincinnati, Portman had tight relationships with many in the vice president’s circle, including billionaire Carl Lindner and Joe Hagin, an Ohio political operative who would later become President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff. In 1988, “I really plugged in to the Bush campaign,” he says. He ran the campaign in southwest Ohio and helped Bush carry the state.

On the trail, top Bush adviser Boyden Gray took note of Portman’s acumen, and when he began to assemble legal staff for the White House in early 1989, Gray hired Portman. “To this day, I’m convinced that Boyden only hired me because he had all of these bright Supreme Court clerks and he needed one person who cared about policy more than the law,” Portman says.

As an associate White House counsel, Portman worked with Gray on campaign finance and environmental policy. But it was politics that animated him, and when a spot opened on the White House legislative staff, Portman was tapped to be one of the president’s congressional liaisons. Portman relished the job, hustling between congressional offices and brokering deals.

After two years on Pennsylvania Avenue, Portman, to the surprise of his colleagues, decided to return home. “My mom was sick with cancer,” he explains. (She died in 1994.) “We wanted to raise our children in Cincinnati. You know, I thought I was done with politics.” Gradison announced in early 1992 that he would seek reelection; the Bush people were busy in Washington, preparing to battle Bill Clinton; and Portman was plunging back into his practice.

But in late 1992, as Gradison campaigned around the Cincinnati suburbs, Portman had a revealing conversation with Representative John Boehner, the current House speaker, who was then a young congressman from a neighboring district. Boehner had gotten to know the youthful attorney through Portman’s work in the Bush administration and wanted to give him a tip: He told Portman that he’d heard this would be Gradison’s last run, and that he might even resign within months.

“Boehner said, ‘You need to get ready,’” Portman says. “I really owe him. With my wife, I put together a notebook with a list of names,” so that in December 1992, when Gradison called Portman with the news that he’d be leaving the House to take a private-sector job, Portman could immediately start to raise money for a campaign. Portman may have had ties to the business community through his father’s company, but throughout the district, he was mostly unknown.

The March 1993 Republican primary for the special House election in Ohio’s 2nd congressional district was the toughest race of Portman’s career. He’d coast to reelection six times in the safe Republican seat, but winning that initial GOP nod against former congressman Bob McEwen and businessman Jay Buchert, and seven other conservative candidates, was a baptism by fire. “I had 6 percent name identification, and half of them thought I was Todd Portune, who had just run for city council,” Portman says. “I did not have a profile.”

But he did have White House experience, and he used it, along with Gradison’s support. Former first lady Barbara Bush, who had gotten to know Portman in Washington, cut an ad for him, and that, coupled with his savvy fundraising, elevated him above his better-known competitors. When he arrived in Washington, a year ahead of the Republican takeover of Congress, he did what he has done throughout his career — he became an intimate of the key players. It paid off. In early 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich put Portman on the Ways and Means Committee, a coveted slot.

Over the next seven years, as Clinton wrestled with Gingrich, Portman developed a reputation as a pragmatic workhorse, laboring on all the major initiatives of the Gingrich speakership. He also stayed in touch with the Bush family, including George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, who called him in 1999, asking for assistance with his presidential run. Portman readily agreed and became a senior — and discreet — outside adviser.

When Dick Cheney needed someone to play Joe Lieberman in debate prep, he called Portman; when Bush needed to practice for his debates with Al Gore, he called Portman. And when Bush became president, he relied on Portman, who declined to serve in the administration, to be his point man in the House. But he wasn’t merely Bush’s man on the Hill. In early 2001, Speaker Dennis Hastert asked Portman to serve as his liaison to the White House and created a position for him — “leadership chairman.”

Portman was suddenly one of the most powerful men in Washington. He was chummy with the president and vice president, in constant contact with senior Bush aides such as Karl Rove and Joe Hagin, and a valued member of Hastert’s team. Throughout the early 2000s, he served as the number-two Republican on the budget committee, but it was Portman’s coalition-building, his work with Democrats, and his ability to communicate Bush’s message that drew notice.

A committed Presbyterian until his late twenties, when he converted to Methodism, his wife’s faith, Portman is a pro-life Republican. In our conversation, he doesn’t shy away from discussing social issues. Yet it’s clear that economics and commerce are his bailiwick, and his House record reflects that. His proudest legislative achievements include his work on pension reform with Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, which expanded the annual IRA-contribution limit to $5,000, and his work with Michigan Democrat Sandy Levin on combating substance abuse.

President Bush asked Portman in early 2005 to leave the House to join his administration as the United States trade representative. Portman turned down the position initially, citing family concerns. But when he told his wife that he’d declined, she urged him to accept. “She said, ‘Are you kidding? The president asked you to serve, and you should do it.’”

“I’m glad I did it,” Portman says, “but at the time, I wasn’t looking for it.” Portman enjoyed the post, negotiating trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. The Central American Free Trade Agreement was approved during his tenure. A year into the job, Portman was asked to join the cabinet as budget director. He became spokesman for the administration’s fiscal policy, promoting deficit reduction. But Bush-approved spending increases, ballooning entitlements, and a slipping economy complicated his job. The deficit, to his chagrin, increased during his tenure as budget chief — a factor that has left various conservatives less than enthused about his veep prospects.

Portman shares their frustration with Washington’s never-ending budget wars. After he worked with Bush to propose a balanced budget in 2007, a few months after the Democrats reclaimed both chambers of Congress, he began to tire of the partisan bickering. “To be honest, we weren’t making a lot of progress,” he says. Bush and congressional Democrats were arguing over appropriations, Bush began to issue vetoes, and Democrats began to send the president “continuing resolutions” to keep the government funded. “That’s not, frankly, as much fun or as important” as crafting budgets with a GOP majority. 

So Portman left the administration, returning to Cincinnati with his family. From 2007 to late 2009, he practiced law, taught government at Ohio State, and, for the first time in years, coached his daughter’s soccer team. He was also able to rededicate himself to the outdoors, a lifestyle he continues today. “I’m a road biker and a mountain biker,” he says. “If I don’t get out a few times a week, I go crazy.”

“I considered running for governor,” Portman says. “But it didn’t seem like the right fit for me, and John Kasich was interested.” Then, in January 2009, Ohio Republican senator George Voinovich decided not to seek reelection, and Portman was pulled back into electoral politics. This time he coasted through the GOP primary, and he soundly won the general election against Democrat Lee Fisher, carrying 57 percent of the vote. In a swing state with rising unemployment, economic growth was his central theme, and he emphasized it to great effect.

In his first meeting with the caucus, Republican leader Mitch McConnell asked Portman to share a few stories from his campaign. “I shamelessly took out my jobs plan,” he says, and passed it out to the senators on 8.5″-by-3.5″ cards. “We need one of these,” he told them. McConnell agreed and encouraged Portman to devise a “jobs agenda” for Senate Republicans, with a focus on tax reform, regulatory reform, health care, and energy. “It took about six months to get all 47 Republicans on board” as he worked with them to iron out differences. 

“It’s something we can talk about,” Portman says. “We have a megaphone problem, in the sense that the president has the big megaphone. Now we can talk about not just what’s wrong with the Obama economy, but how we can make it better. That’s critical. We need to offer an alternative, to give people a sense of hope. That’s what this campaign is going to be about. If we’re only emphasizing the negative, you get your base fired up, but you don’t reach independent voters.”

As a vice-presidential candidate, Portman would not be an attack dog. He avoids rhetorical red meat in his wonky speeches. But as he softly converses with the steelworkers here, his populist touch is evident. In Washington, he is the onetime whiz kid, the Bush acolyte with the golden résumé. Back in Ohio, he is still Bill Portman’s son — the quiet Ivy Leaguer with surprising finesse among grizzled union members. Romney, you can be sure, took notice of the raucous cheer for Portman during his visit.

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. This article appears in the April 16, 2012, issue of National Review.


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