“I thought I was going to die,” Adam Kinzinger told me, recalling an experience that neither he— nor anyone who had gone through anything like it—would ever forget.
It was a hot evening in August of ’06 when Kinzinger—Illinois State University graduate and U.S. Air Force pilot—was back from two weeks on duty at the Mexican border and visiting his then-girlfriend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Following dinner with another friend, the couple left the restaurant and headed for their car. Suddenly, a woman neither knew ran up to them screaming.
Kinzinger didn’t know what to think. In his words, “I thought someone was playing a trick on me or I had walked into a movie shooting.” He quickly realized this was no movie: the woman, Jerri Ann Lobermeier, was covered with blood following a knife attack from her boyfriend, who was chasing after her wielding the knife.
Air Force officer Kinzinger thought fast. He could run from the scene but, as he told me, “When you think someone could be killed and you did nothing about it, you realize your life is not the most important thing.” The 5-foot-nine-inch tall Kinzinger went into action, taking on the 6-foot-two-inch, heavier assailant named (appropriately) Ryan Thundercloud. Kinzinger got the knife from Thundercloud and subdued him. Later, the police were called in for an arrest; Thundercloud was convicted of attempted homicide.
“I guess you could say the fighting side of me won out,” said the young veteran from Illinois.
That was the most memorable event of Adam Kinzinger’s life. The second-most memorable event took place this year, as conservative Republican Kinzinger—who had served on the McLean County Board since he was a 20-year-old undergraduate—decided to run for Congress from Illinois’ 11th District.
Mobilizing platoons of young volunteers, he won the Republican primary with 62% of the vote over three opponents. In November, Kinzinger hit hard at Democratic Rep. Debbie Halvorson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 10%) for siding with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on just about every key vote—from cap and trade legislation to the stimulus spending.
“But it just wasn’t her voting record,” said the GOP challenger, “It was about accessibility. With all the furor over health care legislation, she held no town hall meetings—none. So we held thirteen of our own and made the point very clear that we were listening to voters.”
The voters in the 11th District agreed, and in a very big way. In one of the biggest margins for a challenger anywhere in the U.S. this year, Kinzinger defeated Halvorsen by a margin of 57% to 43%.
Like Nixon and Kennedy in ‘46
Like 33-year-old Richard Nixon and 29-year-old Jack Kennedy when they were elected to the House in 1946 soon after their discharge from the U.S. Navy, 32-year-old Air Force Capt. Kinzinger approaches the challenge he will face in Congress from his perspective as a veteran.
He mentioned to me his recent talks with several other Republican freshmen who had served in uniform, such as fellow Air Force veteran Bill Johnson of Ohio and Army Col. Allen West of Florida. All agreed, said Kinzinger, “that the ranks of veterans in Congress has been pretty thin in recent years and it was heartening that a number of us who have worn the uniform and been shot at were elected. Look, every new Member has valuable life experience, but there’s no experience like being in the position of defending the Constitution with your life.”
It is for that reason that Kinzinger is seeking assignment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (“not great for fund-raising but critical to guiding the U.S. in the world”) and is passionate about winning in Afghanistan.
“It’s going to be much more difficult than Iraq,” said the Illinois, who has been assigned to Iraq on three different occasions, “Afghanistan is far less urbanized and not as secular. We’ve got to secure the urban areas, secure the routes to Kabal, and build up the Afghan government. But we can’t lose—the ramifications are unthinkable.”
As so many a generation ago warned of a “domino theory” of defeat in Vietnam leading to other Southeast Asian countries falling to Communism (they did), Kinzinger speaks of U.S. failure in Afghanistan leading to “Al Qaeda tripling in members overnight, Pakistan falling to elements of the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and enhanced terrorist movements throughout the globe.”
Turning to the domestic front, Kinzinger concedes that any repeal of “Obamacare” passed by the House will either be stopped in the Senate or vetoed by the President. But, he insists, “We must pass repeal in the House to show we’re serious.”
“And we can never be discouraged about passing some of the other things we talked about in the campaign,” he added, citing cross-state competition among health providers and tort reform, “The internet age means that people understand the process in Congress as never before and these are causes they will follow closely. The health care issue won’t go away.”
Kinzinger feels the same way about cutting taxes, calling it “disheartening” that the tax cuts of for all income earners have not yet been made permanent. In all likelihood, he believes, “there will be a compromise that extends the lower taxes for the highest income earners for two years. But we have to keep battling to make them permanent, as well as reduce corporate and capital gains taxes. Reducing taxes go hand-in-hand with reducing the size of government.”
Whether the issue is cutting taxes or alternative measures on health care or winning in Afghanistan, Adam Kinzinger approaches the same with the same battling spirit he showed on the night that changed his life four years ago. It is that battling spirit that conservatives in Illinois’s 11th District and beyond are sure to be watching in the coming Congress.