Gizzi on Politics February 16, 2009

Putnam Says Goodbye  

When three-term Rep. Lloyd Bentsen (D.-Texas) announced his retirement from Congress in 1954 at the age of 33, it was major news. Bentsen flatly told reporters that he could not maintain two residences and support his young family on a congressman’s salary. So he left a secure House seat to run a holding company known as Lincoln Consolidated. By the time he re-entered politics in 1970 as a winning candidate for the Senate, Bentsen was a millionaire (and noticeably less conservative than in his House days, when he advocated dropping an atomic bomb on North Korea).  

These days, the path of the young Bentsen is commonly trod. Young House members regularly leave the House and take better-paying jobs — albeit many fewer in the business world than in lobbying their former colleagues. Others go home to pursue higher office.
The latest member to bail from the House is 34-year-old Republican Adam Putnam of Florida, who announced two weeks ago that he is leaving his 12th District seat (West Central Florida) to run for the open office of state commissioner of agriculture.  

A member of a prominent dairy family and former state legislator, Putnam was elected to Congress at the minimum constitutional age of 25. Although his youth led to quips that the Floridian would start a caucus of lawmakers who didn’t shave, Putnam (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) quickly impressed his elders and was elected conference chairman, the No. 3 post in the House GOP hierarchy. Earlier this year, Putnam quit that job and sent strong signals he would leave Congress as well.  

At first, there was talk that Putnam’s natural Republican successor was his predecessor. During his House service (1992-2000), Charles Canaday (lifetime American Conservative Union Rating: 87%) won high marks from conservatives as a leader on cultural issues and a Clinton impeachment manager in 1999. But Canaday, who was general counsel to former Republican Gov. (1998-2006) Jeb Bush, was recently named to the state supreme court by current GOP Gov. Charles Crist.  

The early favorite to succeed Putnam is former State Rep. Dennis Ross, also a strong conservative. Ross has made it clear he is running and is known for taking controversial stands. He broke with Crist, for example, over the governor’s proposed state takeover of natural disaster insurance.  Mac Stevenson. Ross’s chances got a big boost last week when State Rep. Seth McKeel, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced he wouldn’t be running for Congress.  

John McCain’s narrow win in the 12th District last year and Putnam’s lower-than-expected re-election showing (57.5%) have Democrats planning a strong bid for the now-open district. Among those mentioned for the race are 2008 nominee Doug Tudor, former State Sen. Rick Dantzler, the 1998 Democratic lieutenant governor nominee and former State Rep. Lori Edwards, now supervisor of elections in populous Polk County.  

New Faces and Old On Capitol Hill  

As the new Congress debated the $819 billion “stimulus” package, some new faces and others more familiar to seasoned Capitol Hill hands began to appear in a number of conservative offices.  

“Team Vought” has long received high marks from conservative lawmakers and their staffers. Russ Vought, who started with former Sen. (1984-2002) Phil Gramm (R.-Tex.) and went on to be director of the Republican Study Committee under Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a fellow Gramm protégé, has just started a new assignment. Wheaton College graduate Vought will be policy director of the House Republican Conference. Wife Mary Vought, easily one of the best-liked press secretaries in the House, had been the top spokeswoman for conservative Republican Representatives Scott Garrett (N.J.) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Now she is the press secretary for the entire House GOP Conference.  

Several well-known conservative Hill staffers have ended up in the top spots in the offices of conservative freshmen. Tonnie Wybensinger, formerly chief aide to Rep. (2002-08) Tom Feeney (R.-Fla.), is now chief of staff to Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R.-Mo.). Wybensinger was also on the staff of Rep. (1998-2004) Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.).  

At the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) has moved quickly to put his own stamp as chairman on the committee that, in ’06 and ’08, went through its two worst election cycles since the Great Depression. Longtime Sessions chief of staff Guy Harrison will be the operating head of the NRCC. Mike Bober, best-known as head of the House Conservative Campaign Fund in ’08 and well-connected among conservative activists nationwide, will head the coalitions program at the NRCC. Ken Spain, communications director under former NRCC head Tom Cole (Okla.), will stay on as top spokesman under Sessions.  

Death of a Man Who Made Things Happen

When Joe Rodgers died February 2 after a long bout with cancer, the Nashville business leader, diplomat, and a major financial backer of conservative causes and candidates was remembered warmly for different reasons. His fellow Tennesseans recall the construction tycoon as someone who put his money behind causes ranging from fighting to rid Nashville of pornography to trying to woo a professional football team to his hometown. The diplomatic corps remembered Rodgers, who served as ambassador to Paris from 1985-88, as a canny operative who maintained cordial relations between Ronald Reagan’s Administration and the government of Socialist French President Francois Mitterrand.  

But conservatives best remember Rodgers as one of the original backers of Reagan for President. The Tennessean was one of the key players in Reagan’s near-successful challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976. When the Reagan campaign “needed around $100,000 to get it off the ground, where it sat because of overdue bills,” longtime Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger wrote in his memoirs, “[Rodgers] raised the money overnight.  
“I don’t know to this day if Ronald Reagan realizes what he owes Joe Rodgers and [Texas banker] Jimmy Lyon and [California record promoter] Mike Curb,” Nofziger wrote in 1992. “Without those three, his 1976 campaign would have collapsed. He never would have had the opportunity to capture the hearts and souls of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party during the 1976 National Convention. And without their support then, there is little chance that he would have run for President in 1980. That contest in all likelihood would have been between Jimmy Carter and George Bush. The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.”

A graduate of the University of Alabama, the young Rodgers launched a general contracting business that took off when it began working with the hospital chain now known as HCA. Rodgers’ company built HCA’s first hospital in Erin, Tenn., and was soon doing business in 30 states, the Netherlands, Greece, and Saudi Arabia. He also helped build the Opryland theme park.  

In the 1960s and ’70s, Rodgers was one of the “go-to-guys” for the Tennessee Republican Party, then still meeting in the proverbial phone booth. Rodgers joined with a few other Nashvillians who signed a $25,000 note in 1974 to help the young Lamar Alexander make his first race for governor. Alexander lost that year, but came back in ’78 to win the governorship and is today is senior senator from the Volunteer State.  

Recalling his last visit with Rodgers shortly before his death, Sen. Alexander told the Tennessean: “Obviously, he was in some pain, but didn’t mention it. He was interested, opinionated and in as good a humor as anyone could be.” Alexander’s strongest recollection of his old friend was: “Joe was always doing something for somebody else.”