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John Boehner likes to insist he’s just a regular guy in a big job. The newly elected House majority leader — already a front-runner to become the next speaker of the House — certainly has the credentials. Boehner is one of 12 children (two of whom graduated from college); his father owned a tavern in a working-class neighborhood of Cincinnati where older German immigrants would show up in the evening with a bucket for their beer. Boehner worked his way through college cleaning buildings in the middle of the night. He met his wife early one morning while sweeping up around her desk. Even his tenure in the House, which began in 1991, after he spent six years in the Ohio Legislature, has a storybook quality. Toppled from his post as chairman of the Republican Conference in 1998 — the party’s fourth-highest slot — he opted to stay in Congress, bide his time, and improve the performance of his already substantial political action committee. Two years later, he assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, a previously backwater panel that he used to produce No Child Left Behind, a legislative centerpiece of this administration. Now, a little more than a month into his new job, Boehner is issuing constant statements on a host of policy matters, managing the House floor schedule, and holding forth in a weekly meeting with reporters that is more akin to an after-game rap session with a winning high school football coach than the staid policy discussions many pols prefer. “If this goes well, maybe we’ll do it again,” he said in his first words to the assembled press corps. “How’s that?” If Boehner is a regular guy, he’s an unusually wealthy one, a successful businessman who also has some very rich Washington friends. And while his ties to the D.C. lobbying community are not unusually wide, they are surprisingly deep. He rents his basement apartment — at market rates — from John Milne, the former 3M lobbyist who now has his own firm, Perennial Strategy Group. And he belongs to Bethesda’s Burning Tree golf club, an all-male redoubt heavy with lobbyist members. Democrats complain that Boehner’s close ties to the financial services industry — a legacy of his role shepherding landmark legislation through Congress that dismantled the Glass-Steagall Act — have turned his pension reform bill, now in conference, into a sop to Wall Street. But he has often picked his lobbyist friends more on the basis of their personality than their industry. Included among the two dozen or so other lobbyists Boehner is close to are Bruce Gates of Washington Council Ernst & Young; Tim McKone, who is AT&T‘s top D.C. lobbyist; Henry Gandy of the Duberstein Group; and Gary Andres of Dutko Worldwide. Former staffers Bob Schellhas of Citigroup and John Fish, who lobbies for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, also remain tight with their former boss. All have known Boehner since he came to Washington, in 1991. Others in Boehner’s inner circle include former White House Legislative Director Nic Calio, now a senior vice president at Citigroup; banking lobbyist Jimmy Boland and his brother, Michael, of Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland, Dover & Stewart; longtime GOP lobbyist Bill Hecht; Sam Baptista, the former Morgan Stanley lobbyist who recently started his own shop; Williams & Jensen lobbyist Becky Anderson; Bruce Thompson of Merrill Lynch; and VeriSign‘s Shane Tews. Boehner’s preferred pit stop is the Capitol Hill Club, the Republican stronghold on First and C streets Southeast, where members sometimes retire between votes and where Hecht and Milne, among others, are often found. “This is a group of people who have had a relationship with John Boehner before John Boehner became [Majority Leader] John Boehner,” says Bruce Gates, the former treasurer of Boehner’s leadership PAC, the Freedom Project. MAKING THE SALE Boehner, 56, made his money as a manufacturers rep for Nucite Sales Inc., selling injection-molded thermoform plastics and corrugated boxes. In the mid-1970s he bought a stake in the small company, when he was just 25 years old. Sixteen years later, Boehner arrived in Congress from his southwestern Ohio district, one of the “Gang of Seven,” a group of renegade freshmen in the class of 1990 who attacked the loose ethics that culminated in the House banking scandal. A prototypical fiscal conservative, Boehner is also a social conservative and devout Catholic, but the hot-button issues that motivate so many House members have never been part of his legislative agenda. “John’s never felt comfortable being out front on the floor doing one minutes or special orders on the sanctity of life,” notes a former GOP leadership aide. Adds a senior Democratic staffer who knows Boehner well: “John is a hard-nosed businessman’s conservative. He’s not here to kick open everybody’s bedroom door to make sure there’s a flag flying.” He is also a salesman by training, and it is the salesman’s persona that best seems to capture Boehner’s legislative style. “The key to Boehner: Everything is on a personal, one-to-one basis,” says Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), perhaps Boehner’s closest congressional friend and, like him, a former salesman from the Midwest. “He’s always chatting with [liberal New York Democratic Rep.] Charlie Rangel. People wouldn’t expect that,” adds Latham. Says Fish, the former aide turned lobbyist: “It was always funny to watch people lobby John. He would be very upfront with them — �yea’ or �nay.’ And if it was �yes,’ he’d say, �Stop talking, you got me.’ Once you make a sale, the first rule of business is stop talking, because you don’t want to blow the sale.” Like any good salesman, Boehner is a mixture of discipline and bonhomie. During interviews he says what he wants to say, then simply stops talking, waiting out the silence without being goaded into expanding his train of thought. Boehner also has a reputation as one of the Hill’s more serious partygoers. He is one of the few members who will openly smoke cigarettes — his voice has that deep velvet edge — or drink more than a glass or two of wine. His name has also become associated with the biggest shindig at the Republican National Convention, the so-called warehouse party put together by lobbyists Gates and Gandy, among others, and paid for by a bevy of corporate interests. Boehner has never been shy about taking advantage of the legal perks lobbyists provide. He is an avid golfer, playing more than 100 rounds a year (the October 2005 issue of Golf Digest rated Boehner the third-best duffer in the GOP caucus; his handicap is 5.6). Boehner is also a frequent and unapologetic user of corporate aircraft for trips outside his district. Yet, despite the golf junkets, the private jets, and the politician’s sheen, Boehner is more than a poster child for congressional excess. “One thing I’ll say about Boehner — and I won’t say that of every chairman or politician — he is a man of his word,” notes the senior Democratic aide. He is also a man who never met an earmark he liked. In fact, Boehner has been re-elected seven times without ever bringing home a single piece of pork, a fact that led the Hamilton (Ohio) Journal-News to bitterly complain this year that “Boehner won’t ask for or accept funding for his district.” A creature of habit and fastidious by nature, Boehner prefers to iron his own shirts (the cleaners screw them up, he says) and is a stickler for an early bedtime. He rises each morning before 5:30 and walks to the Starbucks on Third and Pennsylvania, where he reads a folder of clips. At a quarter to seven he heads to Pete’s Diner, across from the Library of Congress, trailed by at least one Capitol Hill police officer with an earpiece and a gun. DEFEAT AND RECOVERY In an interview in his relatively spartan majority leader’s office, Boehner picks his words carefully when discussing how his leadership style differs from that of his predecessor, the combative Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who stepped down last fall after being indicted on state campaign finance charges in Texas. “We all have different personalities and different styles,” he says. “Our voting records are not that much different. [But] I tend to look at myself as a team member.” But these days, Boehner’s Republican team is in a particularly fractious frame of mind. The Republican Study Group, 108 of the House GOP’s most fiscally conservative members (nearly half the caucus), is adamant about pushing for deep budget cuts, including slicing out a lot of pork that many moderate members rely upon to get re-elected in November. Boehner must somehow satisfy both sides. “It is an awkward time in the sense that we conservatives have great momentum, with the RSC budget and our calls for offsets — all that resonates with Joe America,” notes one senior GOP House aide familiar with the study group’s thinking. On the other hand, says the aide, in an election year in which control of Congress is up for grabs, the people you need to please aren’t loyal conservatives but moderate swing voters. “We understand [GOP moderate] Chris Shays [Conn.] needs to clean Long Island Sound,” the aide notes. “But if you could also schedule a [GOP conservative] Tom Feeney [Fla.] bill that strikes some program, that would make it much easier.” Boehner, he says, has impressed fiscal conservatives so far by simply listening, in contrast to DeLay’s regime, which many describe as far more “top down.” Minnesota Rep. Colin Peterson, a founder of the conservative Democratic Blue Dogs, says he’s talked with Boehner, as well. “We had a discussion, he and I, and I basically told him the well is pretty poisoned, that there’s not a lot of Democrats, even in the Blue Dogs, who are very much trusting of the Republicans. “But he said we might try to find some things that are less high profile and start working to bring some of the [Democratic] guys in early, and be part of the process and build some trust back,” Peterson continues. “But we didn’t talk anything specific.” In hindsight, Boehner’s upset victory over acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), on Feb. 2, now appears to have been almost inevitable. And Boehner had certainly made it clear after he was defeated for Republican Conference chair by then-Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) that he was not going away. The evening of his 1998 loss, recalls Bill Hecht, “John came down to the club. He walks in and starts preparing that night to return to leadership.” Boehner’s then-chief of staff, Barry Jackson, drew up a 16-page strategic plan, which included, among others things, a vow to stay involved with members. “There are not a lot of examples of someone knocked out of power and coming back, particularly within caucus politics, Democrat or Republican,” says Jackson, the top deputy to White House senior adviser Karl Rove. Boehner’s Freedom Project PAC also played a critical role in his return to power, doling out millions over the years to GOP challengers and incumbents alike — almost all of it in checks for the maximum allowable amount of $5,000. Indeed, in the election cycle following his defeat as conference chair, Boehner’s PAC raised $1,080,941, nearly $50,000 more than it raised in the previous term while he was in leadership. But raising that money took a lot more hustle from Boehner’s spot on the back bench, says one former aide. “We used to raise $30,000 in one night; now we’re cobbling six times the effort for the same result. Even John wouldn’t have gone to a $1,500 dinner when he was conference chair.” Now, like it or not, he had no choice. And the one-time plastics salesman never let his mask slip. As soon as he got in front of these smaller donors, recalls the former aide, “you would have thought he was the happiest guy on the planet.” These days the Freedom Project PAC, which is still going strong, professes to be more interested in helping increase the Republican advantage in the House than in feathering the nest of incumbents. To a certain extent the numbers bear that out. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, data collected at the end of January for 2005 show that of the 20 Republican leadership PACs that reported giving more than $100,000 to federal candidates last year, the Freedom Project gave a higher percentage of its contributions to open seats and challengers (12.7 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively) than all but two other PACs. Boehner says he never took his loss of the conference chairmanship as a personal defeat, attributing it to general dissatisfaction with the party’s top House leadership. But he appears to have learned some lessons, nonetheless. Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), who at the time was a member of the House, recalls that after Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) retired, Chambliss had expected that he, not Iowa’s Jim Nussle, would be named committee chairman. “At the end of the day I felt like I got screwed by some of the leadership,” says Chambliss, another of Boehner’s close congressional colleagues. “And the first person to come see me was John Boehner. �You know what you have to learn in this business?’ he said. �Exactly what I learned in this business: that some people will look you in the eye and tell you they will vote for you, and go vote for your opponent.’ “�Something positive will come out of this,’ he also told me,” Chambliss continues. “Two years later, I was in the Senate. John said it was a step down.” K STREET BAND Boehner’s defeat and loss of staff, ironically, also helped strengthen his bond to K Street. “It was very helpful because everyone was forced to leave. People were scattered to the wind,” says the former Boehner aide. Marc Lampkin, the conference’s general counsel, found his way to Quinn Gillespie Associates via the Bush presidential campaign; Paula Nowakowski, the conference communications director who is now chief of staff in Boehner’s majority leader office, did a stint at the American Insurance Association. Boehner’s connections to the financial lobbying world were also strengthened in the mid-1990s, when the House leadership asked him to marshal what eventually became known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill, which dismantled the 66-year-old Glass-Steagall Act forbidding banks and brokerage houses from merging. “That was John’s first real legislative foray,” says lobbyist Bruce Gates. “And relationships were forged during that period that were later solidified.” Boehner credits Gramm-Leach-Bliley with giving him the legislative smarts to pull together No Child Left Behind, which required working with Democrats and unhappy Republicans, as well. “How do you legislate a bill that has dozens and dozens of moving parts and conflicting goals, three or four different regulatory agencies, different segments in financial services and different opinions within those segments, and 60 years of practices which had to be overcome?” says Boehner. “Had I not shepherded that, No Child Left Behind would have been far more difficult.” There were also those formative years in sales, which, more than anything else, may ultimately determine how skillfully Boehner steers the Republican agenda in the run-up to the fall elections and beyond. “Sales helped me develop a style of laying all my cards on the table, and the buyer would put all his cards on the table, and either you had a match and it was going to work,” says Boehner, “and if it wasn’t, why waste your time?”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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