Races of the Week:Hostettler vs. Jennings

“Did you ever consider that of the 25 Republicans in the House who voted against the prescription drug bill [favored by the President],” observed Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.) not long after the House enacted the package by one vote, “only one did not come from a safe Republican district?”

He was referring to Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana’s 8th District. If any GOP House member deserves the characterization of political “Lone Ranger,” then put a mask on Hostettler and mount him on a white horse. He was one of 15 GOP House members to oppose a continuing resolution to keep the federal government open after it closed for a few days in 1995. He defied mayors in his own district in 1998 by opposing inclusion of the Ohio River in the American Heritage Rivers program, which he saw as an assault on property rights; he sponsored a string of amendments to stop the Clinton Administration’s agreement with Smith and Wesson regarding legal action over the gun safety issue (“It’s just like all those tobacco settlements–legislation through litigation!”); fought every kind of “hate crimes” measure (“What crime is motivated out of love?”); and opposes any term limits on elected officials, including the 22nd Amendment that puts a two-term ceiling on Presidents.

Of the Bush-backed prescription drug package, Hostettler (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%) says: “It was just camel’s nose under the tent. We were told it would cost $385 billion and then, after the vote, the Congressional Budget Office figures put it at $543 billion. And it’s bad for seniors–many of them already had prescription plans of their own in their retirement packages and they are all going to replaced by other plans in this new entitlement.” Breaking with the President of his own party is nothing new for the 43-year-old Hoosier. He voted against the administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program because, in his words, “It enhances the federal role in education and I still support abolishing the Department of Education to enhance local control.”

In short, John Hostettler has changed little since a decade ago, when, as an engineer with “zero” political involvement, he provided one of the true “Cinderella stories” of the year by first upsetting three more established figures to win the Republican primary and then defeating a 12-year Democratic incumbent. In four subsequent trips to the polls, the maverick congressman has never had an easy race or won by a big margin.

This year is no different, as he faces Democrat Jim Jennings, a former scout for the Boston Celtics, who served in the Clinton White House and Justice Department. The Democratic nominee maintains that he is pro-life and is a supporter of the 2nd Amendment–“although how could you be if you work for Reno and Clinton?” quipped Hostettler. The 41-year-old Jennings has told reporters he would not mind if old boss Clinton came into the Eighth to campaign for him.

Although Jennings is a native Hoosier who once worked for former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight while at IU, he became a resident of the Evansville-based 8th District only after leaving Washington in ’01. Thus, not surprisingly, the bulk of his campaign dollars are from out-of-state. Former Democratic National Chairman Steve Grossman held an event in Boston that raised more than $50,000 for the Indiana hopeful. Among donors to the Jennings effort are former Gov. Michael Dukakis, former Celtics great Bob Cousy, former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, actress Mary Steenburgen, and director William Friedkin. (Quite possibly, muses the Hostettler camp, Hollywood wants the GOP congressman out because of his amending a spending bill to bar any federal funds from going to enforce court orders against posting the Ten Commandments or saying the Pledge of Allegiance.)

John Hostettler (who does not accept money from political action committees) knows that his voting record assures him of a hard-fought and probably tight race this fall, just like his previous five trips to the polls. Perhaps if he trimmed his ideological sails a bit, the races wouldn’t be so close. But, as he puts it, “I am what I am and I rely on folks like myself for help and support. And I win.”