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Citizen Politicians Head To Washington

The new Congress convenes today, and 80 of the 533 lawmakers taking their seats are freshmen: new Senators and Congressmen serving their first term. Most of the freshmen closely resemble the veteran politicians they’ll be serving aside. They’re lawyers, consultants, and political staffers. Most have held elected office at the state or local level, and many have played significant roles in their state parties. In other words, there’s no fresh blood in these freshmen’s veins.

But a small group of Congressmen couldn’t be less like the status quo. These citizen legislators hail from small towns, frontier cities and farm country and are more Mr. Smith than Mr. Speaker. Most have military backgrounds. And all fit the model envisioned by the Founding Fathers and embodied by George Washington–who three times returned to his farm after his service to the nation was complete–far better than the regulars on the Sunday talk shows do.

The Large-Animal Veteranarian

Take Ted Yoho. The husband and father of three has maintained a practice as a large animal veteranarian for 28 years, working with farmers and ranchers in Florida’s rural eastern panhandle. Yoho had been involved with local Tea Parties prior to 2012, but had never before sought any sort of public office. But when a longtime Congressman who had broken his term-limits pledge decided to run in a district he had never lived in to extend his career, Yoho became fed up and threw his hat in the ring.

After months of engaging with citizens through a grassroots campaign, and several advertisements comparing his opponents to the hogs he worked with every day, Yoho shocked the Florida political establishment by upsetting the incumbent in the Republican primary. In November, he easily defeated his Democratic opponent, and today he moves into his new office, where the only manure he’ll encounter will be of the verbal variety.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Congress

Kerry Bentivolio, the new Congressman from Michigan’s suburban 11th district, won’t have to worry about being mistaken for one of his colleagues. A decorated Army veteran who served his country in Vietnam and both Gulf Wars, Bentivolio spent years as an engineer in the private sector before serving his community as a schoolteacher. In his spare time, he raises reindeer in a barn he built himself, and impersonates Santa Claus during the Christmas season.

Unique as Bentivolio’s background is, his path to Congress sets him apart. As an unheralded, cash-poor primary challenger to popular Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Bentivolio was largely ignored by the Michigan establishment and media. McCotter, meanwhile, appeared safely on his way to a fifth term after a brief flirtation with a Presidential bid.

And then chaos struck. McCotter’s campaign staff didn’t obtain the necessary signatures from citizens to qualify for the Republican primary ballot (normally an effortless task for incumbents), and attempted to cover up their failure by making photocopies of the signatures they had and submitting those. When this fraud was exposed, McCotter was thrown off the ballot, an ignominious end to a once promising career. And Bentivolio was suddenly the only Republican on the primary ballot.

After cruising to victory over a write-in candidate fueled by local power brokers in the primary, Bentivolio narrowly won election in November. We’re left to wonder if the reindeer pulled him to Washington.

Sooner Citizen Surprises

Two neighboring districts in eastern Oklahoma are now represented by first-time politicians. In the Tulsa-based 1st district, Jim Bridenstine ran a grassroots campaign to defeat a ten-year incumbent. And in the rural 2nd district, Markwayne Mullin outpaced a crowded field of local politicians to win an open seat.

Both men bring strong citizen backgrounds to Congress. Bridenstine is an aerospace engineer and Navy pilot who continues to serve in the reserves, and Mullin is a plumbing contractor who built a successful family-run small business from the ground up.

What’s Next?

Since the Founding generation, scores of citizen politicans have roamed the halls of Congress, pledging to remain faithful to the values of George Washington and not to lose touch with their constituents. Some have succeeded, term-limiting themsevles, remaining attuned to the needs of their district, and adhering to the Constitution. But many others have slowly been absorbed into the black hole that is the D.C. establishment, slowly losing their civilian appeal and morphing into their career-politician colleagues.

It’s up to Yoho, Bentivolio, Bridenstine, Mullin, and the other new Members of Congress to determine which path they will take. But more importantly, it’s up to the citizens in their districts to hold these Congressmen and Senators accountable, to stay informed on happenings in Washington, and to demand that these men and women act as representatives of the people, through social media, at town halls, and ultimately at the ballot box.

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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