Washington Savvy and Midwest Common Sense

No sooner had nine-term Rep. Pete Hoekstra indicated in December of ’08 that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor of Michigan in 2010 than Human Events received a phone call regarding his possible successor in Congress.

Jim Backlin—West Point graduate, decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime Capitol Hill staffer—insisted that we look at his onetime intern at the conservative House Republican Study Committee, Michigan state Rep. Bill Huizenga (High-zinga).  It didn’t matter to conservative firebrand Backlin that at least three other conservative Republicans were poised to run for the open (and safely Republican) 2nd District.  His protégé Huizenga was, as Backlin put it, “the real deal and has Washington savvy mixed with Midwestern common sense.  He’ll do the conservative movement proud.”

“Jim said that about me?” said freshman Rep. Huizenga during a recent interview.  “I’m glad he felt that way about my internship with the study committee, which I took a semester off for from Calvin College back in 1991.  And my nickname for Jim was ‘Scorched Earth.’”

After finishing the much-sought internship and graduating from Calvin College, young Huizenga threw himself into his family’s real estate business.  He also did volunteer work in the campaigns of Hoekstra and state Sen. Bill VanRegenmorter, both strong conservatives and good friends of Huizenga’s family.

When Hoekstra asked Huizenga to be the top aide in his district office, the younger man hesitated.  His family was growing and his real estate business was beginning to thrive.

“But Pete was so adamant about my going to work for him that he took me to lunch twice—and you know how hard that is for Pete to do,” chuckled Huizenga, as we both recalled Hoekstra’s renowned reluctance for picking up a check.  So Huizenga took over the congressman’s district office and began dealing with constituent needs on a daily basis.

In ’02, Huizenga followed the trail blazed by his father (who had been mayor of Zeeland, Mich., and later a county commissioner) by winning a seat in the state house of representatives.  Soon he established himself as a leading foe of the big-spending agenda of the Water Wonderland’s liberal Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Hoekstra’s decision to leave his congressional seat for a bid for governor was made in December of ’08, just as Michigan’s three-terms-you’re-out term limitation for state representatives was kicking in on Huizenga.  So the legislator, in effect, began running a full 17 months before the May 2010 primary.

Five candidates were in the GOP contest, the “big three” being Huizenga, state Sen. Wayne Kuipers and businessman Jay Riemersma, a onetime University of Michigan football great who later played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Buffalo Bills.  All were considered strong conservatives, with “maybe little shades of gray on things separating us,” as Huizenga put it.

So how did the state legislator top a formidable field such as that?

“Oh, there could be any number of reasons,” he replied.  “Certainly the identification with Pete helped.  He never formally endorsed me, but Pete and [wife] Diane would always say they were voting for me when people asked.  And after working for him and dealing with people throughout the district, I could address local concerns.  And of course, people knew my father and the good reputation he had in office.”

But one of those “little shades of gray separating us” that Huizenga referred to in all likelihood worked to his advantage.  Although opponent Kuipers had compiled a conservative record in the senate, he nonetheless had voted for one of Gov. Granholm’s proposals to raise the state sales tax.  Huizenga, who had been in the front lines of the opposition to the entire Granholm agenda, hit this hard.

“Hey, when you win the way I did, it could be any one of several reasons,” insisted the 42-year-old Huizenga, who was finally declared the winner of the primary at 3:30 a.m.—by a margin of 664 votes.

‘It Looks Like We’re Trying to Boil a Frog Differently’

I spoke to Huizenga shortly after the House recessed earlier this month.  He had just completed a briefing for a trip overseas that “we’ll talk about when he gets back,” Press Secretary Lauren Phillips said.

The Michigan lawmaker’s discussion of what he is doing in the House was similar to that of many of the 86 other freshman Republican House members.  Sure, he has offered legislation that deals with parochial concerns: one, a measure to retain the designation as wilderness for the Sleeping Bear Dunes in his district and the other to stop the use of prison labor to compete against private industries.  Noting that one of the co-sponsors of the latter bill is Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.), Huizenga said:  “Ever think you’d see my name on the same legislation with Barney Frank?  But his district lost a glove factory because it could not compete with the prison that manufactures gloves and is federally subsidized.  This is unfair competition all right.”

But, as with just about all of his colleagues in the Republican “Class of 2010,” discussion with Huizenga turns rather quickly to spending and the deficit.

“That’s the biggest thing we’re dealing with now: out-of-control government spending and how we wrestle it to the ground,” he said.  “And if [House Republicans] just go along with a budget that cuts some non-defense discretionary spending, well, it looks like we’re trying to boil a frog differently.  They’ll see us as appeasers—and they’ll conclude we’re not serious.”

It was that conviction, after voting for the early Continuing Resolutions to keep the government running, that made Huizenga was one of the 58 House Republicans to oppose the last one.  He explained, “It seemed like more of the same, and we barely had time to read and digest what was in it.”

As to what comes next, Huizenga pointed out that he is one of the signers of the letter by the Republican Study Committee to Speaker John Boehner that calls for, among other things, a Balanced Budget Amendment and a cut of 18% in domestic spending in return for a vote to raise the debt ceiling.

As to whether he would oppose raising the debt ceiling when it is scheduled for a vote in mid-August, the lawmaker replied:  “I obviously don’t want the U.S. to default, but with the Full Faith and Credit Act and the moves the Treasury Department is now making, this will not happen immediately.  If the vote is against raising the debt ceiling, the effect will be different in two months from what it is in two weeks.

“I don’t have a price for my vote, but we need to look at everything in the budget and to do some prioritizing, finally.  That’s what I was primarily elected to do.”