Mr. Driehaus Comes Back From Washington

In which the former U.S. Congressman for the First District of Ohio recalls phone calls from Rahm, the M&Ms on Air Force One, and constituents screaming in his face at Elder football games.

Add a comment

Steve Driehaus looked different at Thanksgiving. A glass of wine in his hand and the beginnings of a beard shading his face, the lame-duck, one-term Congressman smiled readily and seemed relaxed. It was the first time I’d seen him unclenched since he began running for office in 2008. He strolled around the undercroft of St. William Church in West Price Hill amid 125 or so relatives at his family’s annual holiday dinner.
 
Among the 42 children produced by seven Driehaus siblings, Steve is No. 36. I’m No. 40. Having attended hundreds of family cookouts, picnics, Thanksgivings, Christmas Eves, weddings, and funerals together, it was quite a thing to watch one of the family step out of the crowd and into the nasty crucible of national politics to run against Steve Chabot, who had been entrenched in the First Congressional District seat for 14 years. As a former Cincinnati Post reporter now freelancing for The New York Times, I was barred from writing about my cousin despite the newspaper’s pronounced interest in his campaigns and issues that emerged while he was in office—the will-he or won’t-he suspense about his vote on the health care reform bill and the intense heat (and occasional threats) he received over his two-year term chief among them. As I told him repeatedly, his name cost me a lot of work.
 
Now it’s payback time. In two interviews recorded at his dining room table in January and February, the former congressman opened up—as much as a guy who is still mulling a future in politics feels comfortable doing—about the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of life in the United States Congress. Steve is 44 but he’s been involved in politics since he was a kid. A graduate of Elder High School with degrees from Miami and IU, he served four terms in the Ohio statehouse representing the west side and rose through the ranks to become minority whip before running for Congress. He seemed to have everything going for him—except, perhaps, timing.
 
Serving in politics has been considered a respectable, if not always honorable, pursuit since the American Revolution. Occasionally torrid, dependably shameless, always colorful, it is woven into the DNA of the republic. Recently, however, the political scene in this country has transformed into shrill bloodsport. Whether it has ever been an arena where ideas and ideals flourished is debatable, but certainly an aspirant throwing his or her hat in the ring these days knows that politicians have been demeaned and their role has been debased. The heat-seeking tendencies of the media, the bad behavior and boneheadedness of various participants, and the growing  anger (and manipulation) of the electorate have all contributed to this situation. Leaving one to wonder why anyone in their right mind would wade into the mess.
 
Clearly, it was difficult for me to approach this interview with an unbiased point of view. But what Steve experienced up on Capitol Hill, under the glare of the TV lights, and out on the stump has been shared to one degree or another by politicians in both parties. He was game to talk about it. So that’s where we started the conversation.

What motivated you to run for Congress in the first place?

(Laughing) Term-limits in the Ohio legislature. I’ve been interested in elected office since I was a child, when my dad [the late Don Driehaus, a longtime cochairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party] ran for Congress in 1968. I had worked on campaigns my entire life. I thought that we were doing some good things for the west side of Cincinnati and the state, but I was quickly coming up on my limit of eight years, and I had to make a decision to stay in public office or do something else. I was approached by [then-Illinois congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] Rahm Emanuel.

What was Rahm’s sales pitch?

In ’06, it was something to the effect of, Look, we’ve talked to people in Cincinnati, we think you’re the best person. I’m sure they said the same thing to [then-City Council member John] Cranley and others. I said I’d consider it. Rahm said, “Are you blowing smoke or are you really going to do it?” I said, “I’m blowing smoke.” [At that point] I was minority whip in the Ohio House, we had a great ticket—including Ted Strickland—and we felt we had a real opportunity to pick up seats, which we did. In ’08, it was a much simpler conversation. When they approached me the only question was, What are you able to do to help me out?

Rahm came out once or twice. I’m picturing him in front of a house with me in Price Hill, talking about foreclosures. I never had the relationship with Rahm that apparently others had, where he calls screaming because they’re not hitting their fund-raising targets or they did something he felt was inappropriate. It was nothing but cordial. Very frank, but cordial.

Did anything surprise you in terms of the vitriol or the difficulty of fund-raising? Was the reality different than what you expected?

In 2008, I was very much the underdog. There were very few people who expected us to win. So when I was out there raising money, I had to sell it. But running for Congress and serving in Congress, compared to the state legislature, [is] like going from Double-A baseball to the majors. You go from being a state representative, where not a lot of people pay attention to what you’re doing, to a race where CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and it seemed like every publication out there wanted to know what was going on. It’s a whole different level of campaigning.

You mentioned mainstream media. Did you have to pay attention to the real flame-throwers on the Internet, the blogs and others and respond to that, or do you just choose your battles?

You always choose your battles in politics. You can’t respond to everything, especially given the explosion of the Internet and the number of blogs out there. When I was first running, not many people knew much about me. The third-party attacks were somewhat limited. That changed in 2010. We did have a social media strategy; we did talk to various bloggers, especially in Cincinnati. Remember, as a candidate, your focus is always on the people who vote in the district. If you’re spending time responding to the Los Angeles Times, you’re wasting your time because there aren’t many voters [in] the First Congressional District of Ohio who are reading the Los Angeles Times.

From my vantage point, you were the most attacked person in Greater Cincinnati in 2009–2010. Maybe Mike Brown comes in second. What is it like to go from the relative obscurity of state rep to the fishbowl, where people are calling you a granny killer, an abortionist?

The toughest part is having people who I know question my integrity [or] suggest that I would somehow flip on my fundamental principles—such as being pro-life—because of some deal made in Washington. There’s something about people’s attitudes toward elected officials that allows them to treat them as something less than normal people.

Give me an example.

My cousin Patrick and I look a lot alike, and the other day he was at an event where he saw a long-time customer of his whose son I went to school with at Elder—so, not a stranger to the family. And Patrick taps him on the shoulder, and the guy looks at him and just turns away. The following day, [Pat] gets a phone call from the son who asks, “Hey, Pat, did you see my dad last night at this event? Well, he thought you were Steve Driehaus.” And we just laughed, because if you [act] that way to a politician, that’s perfectly acceptable; whereas if you [act] that way with anyone else, that’s unacceptable.

As a politician you take your shots. They just roll right off. But when people you know challenge your character…. You walk into a room and [they] look the other way. They used to like you; now they have real questions about you. Not because of what you did but because of what they think you did.

Have you ever had a face-to-face encounter with someone who says, “You bastard,” and comes at you with accusations?

Well, sure [exasperated laugh]. Just come to an Elder football game. People have no problem coming up to you and letting it all hang out.

On the flip side, in order to have a chance to win, you have to punch back. You have to sign off on some really nasty attack ads in the other direction. How do you reconcile doing that with trying to adhere to your own values?

I don’t think it’s appropriate to attack a person’s character. The ads that I would run against Mr. Chabot focused on constituent services, and policies that he supported versus those I supported. I never attacked him or others personally. I didn’t challenge his integrity or his decency. He’s a decent man, he’s trying to do the right thing. Our beliefs are different. I think [personal attacks] are inappropriate, and it’s the elected official’s job to stand up and say that.

It seemed like you avoided health care in the 2010 campaign.

I talked about health care on a regular basis.

Your TV commercials, though…

Well, you run ads based on what people are most interested in, and during the campaign cycle the No. 1 priority was talking about jobs. Chabot tried to say I was running away from health care, and I would debate him any time about it. I found that the Tea Party’s and Mr. Chabot’s understanding of what we actually did on the health care bill minuscule. Nor did they have any comprehension of the existing system and the very real failures of the existing system—like the fact that we spend 17 percent of our GDP on health care compared to Japan or China or Germany, which spend much less. I don’t expect everybody to have a detailed knowledge of the legislation that we passed, but if you’re going to get out there and criticize [it], then you should have at least a fundamental understanding of what the current system costs and what are driving those [costs], and also its failures. That is, leaving tens of millions of people uninsured versus what we did.

At the first town hall meeting that we had on health care, the one that exploded in Mt. Auburn, I had a woman who had a Tea Party shirt on come up to me at the end and say, “I work for a small business, and we don’t get health insurance. Do you mean that under this system that I would be able to afford health insurance?” [He told her yes.] And she was like, Wow. I understand people’s concern about big government, [especially] when they hear over and over again that “Barack Obama is going to take away your freedoms.” But the reality is far different, and when you explain [that] to people, they think much differently about this system.

There was a call for protests in front of your house in the midst of the health care debate, and I understand it ended up being your Libertarian opponent and a couple of other people. I heard you ended up giving him a little civics lesson when his American flag touched the ground.

We were receiving a lot of very angry calls and letters and e-mails. Then Jim Schifrin, who writes [the snarky right-wing political e-newsletter] The Whistleblower, decided that it was OK to put my home address in his newsletter and encourage people to protest in front of my house. I had no idea what to expect. To their credit, local leaders of the Tea Party told people it was inappropriate and to back off. Turned out to be more media than protesters. I pretty much ignored them, except that Jim Berns, the Libertarian candidate [running for Congress], had a coffin draped in a flag that was on the ground. I told him, “If you’re going to protest in front of my house using the American flag, at least respect the flag.” After that he moved the coffin to the top of his van so that the flag wasn’t draped on the ground.

The concern I had wasn’t what it turned out to be but what it could have been. You can’t control that. The last time there were protesters in front of the house they were from Indiana—pro-life protesters protesting a pro-life Democrat.

Tell me about your exchange with John Boehner after he told National Review Online:  “He may be a dead man. He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati. The Catholics will run him out of town.” 

John and I aren’t  great friends, but we know each other. We’re cut from the same cloth, albeit different ends. We have no animosity toward each other. He was very much taken aback when I confronted him on it. I said, “Look, this is serious. The concern is for [my] family. There are some crazy people out there, and as leaders we have to recognize that.” I know it was not intended that way and I said that. I don’t know that Republicans who weren’t the subject of these threats really appreciated how much was going on.

Hundreds of calls?

Oh, it was thousands of calls on health care, though most were not threatening. The national effort was on those who were undecided, so [they came] from people all over the country.

In the midst of the health care debate you had conversations with Obama about where you stood. Did you get any pushback from the House leadership or the administration on the abortion issue?

The president said, “Tell me where you are.” And I said, “Look, Mr. President, I believe very much [in] delivering affordable health care to all Americans and to change the policies on preexisting conditions and recission. [But] unless there is clarification on the abortion issue and no wiggle room for funding, I can’t support it. I need certainty.” He said, “You’re right. You can’t vote for the bill given the position you’ve taken and I can’t persuade you.” And I think there was a realization for him that this was not something that we were going to bend on.

It was at that point in the reaction to the executive order [which banned federal funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger] that I understood how disingenuous the Right to Life movement is. They’re not about solutions. They’re about partisan politics. Rather than saying, “Wow, these pro-life Democrats stuck it out. They’re taking tremendous heat within their party over principles that they believe. They got a pro-choice president to sign an executive order…” the other side immediately said the [executive order] wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. What about the Emancipation Proclamation? The creation of the Peace Corps? George Bush’s order on stem cell research? Those were done by executive order.

There were people in our caucus who were furious with us. There are pro-choice members who are very strong in their beliefs. Were those members [challenging] me? Yes, but there was never any give. I don’t care what Right to Life says. They haven’t shown a single dime that has gone toward an abortion—and they can’t. They are showing themselves to be what they are: a wing of the Republican party.

What do you make of modern campaigning in general? Is there anything that we can do to fix it?

I think the average American would be shocked to know how much time members of Congress spend on the phone begging for money. We’re not talking about an occasional activity. We’re talking about an activity that consumes hours every day.

How many?

In a typical week, including the weekends, 15 to 20 hours. When you have breaks, there are no vacations. Then you’re expected to spend 40 hours a week on the phone raising money. It never goes away. If you don’t raise the money, you don’t have the ability to run ads, send mail, and do the things that campaigns do. This past campaign I wonder if any of that money was well spent. Unfortunately, because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, we’ve taken a step in the wrong direction.

In what way?

We’ve blown a huge hole in the system that essentially says corporations have the same rights to free speech as individuals—and that money is speech. I just read an article about the Koch brothers, who are putting $88 million into the next election cycle. That money will be funneled through a variety of organizations—Moms for Apple Pie and We Love America.com, whatever—and there will be no way to track that money. They’ll turn around and run the most ridiculous ads against those they want to target.

If we believe as a people that you should be able to spend millions of dollars as an individual to defame an elected official and thereby influence an election, so be it. That’s what the Supreme Court has said. I strongly disagree with that. I think it changes the dynamics of elections and reduces the power of the electorate. Their decisions are influenced by media outlets and direct mail. That’s why you run 30-second ads. If you as a candidate can only purchase $500,000 of TV and an outside group is going to dump [in] $3 million, that’s kind of hard to beat.

So what does that mean for people who aren’t aligned with those corporate interests running for office?

It’s a tough road, and if you look at the hurdles here—having to raise the money, the abuse and criticism you’re likely to take, and the physical threats against elected officials around the country—you scratch your head and wonder why anyone would want this job. It’s not glamorous, the work is tough, and it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But everybody I knew in Congress did it because they loved it, because they believed in public service [and] that they can achieve positive change for their constituents, be they Republicans or Democrats.

Your assertion that everybody in Congress is there to do the right thing just doesn’t ring true to me. Do you think there are no people there who are only out for themselves?

I don’t know the motives of 535 people. Do I think there are people who are ambitious? Sure. Michelle Bachman might have a little more on her mind than just her constituents back in Minnesota. Yes, there are people whose actions are focused on a broader audience and [who are] more partisan because they’re trying to hit home with a certain audience. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in service and improving the lives of their constituents.

The general public sees very little of what a Congressperson actually does day to day. We see the big votes and campaign appearances, but what is a typical day like?

When you’re in Washington, it’s being double- and triple-booked all day long, with meetings and voting sessions. I did everything I could to meet with everyone who came from Cincinnati—a family visiting the capitol or the nurses’ association or doctors from UC or the CEO of GE Aircraft. You have different lobbyists who want to talk to you. You have your committee assignments—I was on financial services and oversight and government reform—and the subcommittees. And then you have voting sessions, caucus meetings, and fund-raising. That’s all-consuming. I think the average person believes that members of Congress are wined and dined every night and that it’s just a nonstop party. That may have been the way it was for old-timers, but I tell you what, the vast majority of freshmen worked until 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night, either slept in their office or walked to their very modest apartments, had macaroni and cheese or soup, got back up in the morning, and did it again.

So you’re talking 12-hour days typically?

Oh, no, longer than that. A 12-hour day was a break. Nobody’s complaining about it—it’s what you do. The challenge is if you are in Washington four or five days a week, you come back and your staff wants you out in the district. They want you doing a “Congress on your corner” on Saturday morning; [plus] you’ve been invited to a number of events over the three days you’ll be home. So how do you balance the time when you have three young kids, as I do, and they have soccer games, plays, piano recitals?

I think it was toughest on my 8-year-old son. They’re old enough to understand, but they miss your day-to-day presence. It’s tough when you come home and can’t be with them. The vast majority of times, I’d walk in the door, change my clothes, and leave. Especially during campaign times, it’s like two full-time jobs. But [then] a lot of parents do that.

There are so many downsides to running. What are the upsides?

We were dealing with some of the most important issues to face this country in decades: the recession, Wall Street reform, health care reform. Not many people get an opportunity to work on issues of that magnitude while at the same time working on issues that are near and dear to the people of Cincinnati. Being able to work with [Kentucky representative] Geoff Davis on the Brent Spence Bridge or with the folks out at GE on their F136 aircraft engine. Working with the Metropolitan Sewer District and coming up with a vision for what we should do for separating our combined sewers. For some people, that’s not exciting stuff. For me, that’s bread and butter.

You were on Air Force One twice, once on Labor Day going back to Washington, talking to the president about GE’s F136 engine. What was that like?

It’s compartmentalized. You have the pilots, then an area for the president, an area for his staff, a guest area with nice chairs and tables, then security, then the press. It was really cool. I called my mom and said, “Hey, mom, guess where I am?” I [grabbed some] napkins or M&Ms. I desperately try to impress my kids with that stuff but they don’t care. The president called me on Halloween just to check in and see how things were going, and I was trick-or-treating with my son and his buddy. I said, “Hey, that was the president.” And Jack turns to his friend and says, “My dad thinks he’s so cool when he talks to the president, it’s not that big a deal.”

Nearly every occasion I had to speak with the president I was usually talking about the competitive engine on the Joint Strike Fighter because that was an issue where he and I strongly disagreed. I felt it was my role to try to persuade him otherwise. He had made a veto threat on the defense authorization bill if there was funding for the F136 engine. I tried on multiple occasions to help him see the cost savings of a competitive engine. After the second time I flew on Air Force One, I got a call where they said something like, If you keep harassing the president about the engine, we’re not going to let you on the plane any more. And I’m like, You know, those are GE engines that fly that plane.

Was he engaged and listening?

Oh, yes. The first time he said, “I’m going to go tell the press that you make a very compelling argument on the competitive engine and that Cincinnati has a great advocate.” And I thought, Go do that, though that may be harmful to me. I think the president has a great sense of humor. I find him to be very down to earth. He’s a real pragmatist, too.

Just how bad is the partisan climate these days? Is it any worse than during the Clinton-Gingrich years, the LBJ years, the FDR years?

I wasn’t there and I don’t have a point of reference. I can tell you that it’s exaggerated in the media. The media look for and thrive on controversy. Democrats and Republicans working together in committee on amendments on Wall Street reform isn’t very exciting stuff. But if there should be one amendment that’s very contentious, that will be the one you see on the news. So the public is left with the impression that everything is partisan when the reality is there is tremendous bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Is it as cordial as one would like it to be? No, and this is in part due to the ethics laws. If you’re working 12- to 14-hour days, that doesn’t leave you much time to build relationships with folks across the aisle.

What’s changed with ethics rules? What could Tom Luken do with a Republican that you couldn’t do?

Go out to dinner and have someone else pay for it. It’s a rather expensive lifestyle if you’re going out to dinner all the time and you have to pay for everything. I chose not to, as did a lot of others, but that limits interactions among members. I’m not bemoaning the fact that lobbyists aren’t paying for dinners [but] I think the ethics laws have gone further than they needed to go.

The Republicans said over and over again that they were shut out of health care and that the Pelosi Congress was arrogant. Could the Democrats have done a better job of incorporating their ideas?

If you go back to health care, it’s chock-full of Republican ideas. It’s based on Romney’s plan up in Massachusetts. It’s a free-market plan. On Wall Street reform, time and time again there would be Republican amendments agreed to to improve the bill. A lot of what they did on the floor was posturing.

So the bipartisanship takes place in those committees out of the spotlight, and even if in the end Democrats vote together 90 or 95 percent of the time, and Republicans vote against those same bills 99 percent of the time, the Republicans still put their stamp on them in committee and vote against them anyway?

When I was in the minority for eight years in Ohio, I would do everything I could to improve the legislation that I was going to vote against, and they do the same thing. That’s routine. I voted against quite a few bills that we improved but at the end of the day I couldn’t support. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to make it better legislation.

What impact did the Tea Party have on your campaign, and are they having an effect on the Republican party?

I don’t think it had much effect on my campaign. There weren’t many people in the Tea Party who were inclined to vote Democratic in this election. They are having an impact when it comes to governance, and you’re seeing that in the Republican caucus. I think the Tea Party will have an effect on the 2012 presidential primary on the Republican side. I don’t think they’ll have as much effect on the general election. The Tea Party is a response to a very severe recession at a time when leaders in Washington felt it was necessary to increase government investments to stimulate the economy. When the recession is gone, it’s going to be hard for the Tea Party to maintain the anger. Anger is hard to maintain, especially in good times.

I’m happy the Republicans took back the house in this respect: Those of us that were working very hard to try to get the Democratic leadership to understand fiscal moderation, who were repeatedly voting against appropriations bills, they wouldn’t listen to us. Now I believe that the deficit is being taken seriously, and if it took the Republicans taking back the house, fine. However, I would remind my Republican colleagues that it is a two-sided equation. You can’t just look at spending. You have to look at revenue. And they are going at it with blinders.

What do you make of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords? Are we tying this too much to the hyper-partisan climate, or is this one nut job who was going to do this regardless?

Clearly, this individual [shooting rampage suspect Jared Loughner] is unstable. Who knows what influenced him over the years. [But] I think there are reasonable questions to be asked about gun control. This is another one of those things that if [I] even say that, the NRA will jump down my throat. Not because I don’t support the Second Amendment—I do. But really, do you need an extended clip for your handgun? What purpose does that serve? Should there be a reasonable expectation that if you apply to get a handgun that you’re not mentally imbalanced? Is there any way to reasonably test that? These aren’t ridiculous questions to ask, and you shouldn’t be attacked for just asking the question and seeking moderate regulation. What’s so harmful about the rhetoric and hyperbole isn’t so much the very rare act of violence but that you’re simply unable to have adult conversations in a public forum on very important issues.

If you’re sitting across from a demon after he’s been demonized, you’re not going to be able to negotiate with him, nor would your supporters want you to, right?

Right. When you’re constantly being yelled at and people are screaming and they think their point is won because they’re louder, it just doesn’t move us forward.

Special interests who support you—unions, trial lawyers, advocates for the poor—how did you respond to their pressure when they wanted to sway your opinion?

I never felt pressure. I mean, I listened to people. [But] I never felt as if a union was going to come in and say, “Look, Steve, if you don’t do the right thing we’re not going to support you in the next election.” One of the many misconceptions of Congress is that leadership puts pressure on you to vote a certain way on legislation.

Really?

Never. I was never asked to do something by my leadership or the president that would be contrary to the interest of the people I served on the west side of Cincinnati. These people are professionals. They understand politics. The right did a very effective job at mischaracterizing these things. There were so many concessions that the moderates achieved in the health care, Wall Street, and cap-and-trade legislation. All of those were dramatically modified to accommodate the concerns of moderates. The right did a tremendous job of not allowing us to explain that but to characterize things in such a way that they seemed very left-wing.

I was taught to challenge things, to check different sources. We have become a society where we can now very selectively choose our inputs when it comes to information. And [we] get a very slanted view of the world. I can just go to blogs that reflect my ideological opinion, get e-mails from friends [who share] my beliefs—Facebook friends, cable and radio stations that are a mirror image of what I believe. In doing so, I will never hear the other side. Far too many people now receive information that way, and it’s a problem for us as an electorate because there’s less and less critical thinking going on.

Did you accomplish what you set out to do in the two years you served in Congress?

We accomplished a great deal in the 111th Congress. We passed the most important medical bill since Medicare. We, I believe, prevented a depression. We saved or created millions of jobs through very aggressive intervention, through stimulus. I think the Wall Street reform bill was incredibly significant in that it created sensible regulation when it comes to financial instruments, especially those dealing with mortgages. The food safety bill, which was a very necessary update, was passed. The Lily Ledbetter bill, which finally recognized women as having equal status as men in the workplace; the expansion of SCHIP, the health insurance for children of lower income; the student loan reform bill. Any one of them by themselves would have been heralded as a premier piece of legislation in a given Congress. They were all achieved under this Congress and under this president.

In a nutshell, why did you win in ’08 and lose in ’10?

It’s basic math. The formula for any political campaign is you have to galvanize your base, appeal to the swing, and hope that the opposition is limited. That was the scenario in ’08. In 2010, the reverse was true. This is the challenge for Democrats in off-year elections. Traditionally, Democrats do much better in presidential elections simply because you have a better turnout. I received almost twice as many votes in 2008 than I did in 2010 [in 2008, Driehaus got 155,455 votes to Chabot’s 140,683; Chabot took back the seat in 2010 with 103,770 votes to Driehaus’s 92,672 ]. That’s not a bunch of people switching, that’s a bunch of people not showing up. Despite that, we still ran a very competitive, close race. I ran against a household political name in Cincinnati and lost by five points [in 2010]. It was a very respectable showing given the tide that was against us.

You rode one wave into office and you got swept out by another one.

[Laughs] Those darn waves.

Do you think we’re adequately informed about whom we’re voting for and against?

There’s as much information as there’s ever been for voters. There’s also as much misinformation as there’s ever been about individuals and policies. One of the most surprising things during this [past] electoral cycle was how many people approached me absolutely convinced of facts—not opinions—that simply were not true. Yet they were certain as certain that they were correct because they had seen it in an e-mail or on the Internet or on TV. Seniors in Colerain Township thought that members of Congress took pay raises. The exact opposite was true. I laid it out for them. I told them [how I] voted twice to not increase the salaries of members of Congress and that I didn’t receive a pay raise. And they said, “Oh yes you have.” [I was] just kind of dumbfounded.

I have a friend who works at an insurance company, a conservative place. [He told me], “Everybody I work with doesn’t understand what you’re doing,” and he invited me to lunch [with] about eight middle-aged white guys from the west side. So we went through all the issues, and this one guy who was very strongly against the president says, “Look, you’re just stripping away all of my freedoms, and that’s why I can’t stand what you’re doing. I’ve lost so many freedoms.” I said, “The only thing I did to you personally was reduce your taxes.” He said, “Oh no you didn’t.” I said, “Sure we did. In the stimulus bill, we reduced your taxes. Help me better understand what the government has done to you that has restricted your freedoms.” I asked him for one example. And he said, “Well, I don’t have an example.” And I said, “Of course you don’t, because it’s not true.”

The right wing does a great job of stoking fear. That can be frustrating.

Knowing everything you went through and how you didn’t get reelected, was it worth it? Would you have done it again?

Absolutely. Would I have voted for health care? Yes. Would I have supported climate change reform again? Yes. Would I have supported Wall Street reform? Yes. Would I have voted for the stimulus? Yes. Would I have held out my health care vote until I was absolutely convinced that there was no funding for abortion? Yes. I did what I said I was going to do. I still believe the votes that I cast were very much in the interest of the people of the First Congressional District. There are an awful lot of people who will benefit because of the things that were passed in the 111th Congress. I ran on that record, and I don’t have regrets.

What’s your next step? Do you see yourself running for office again?

I have no idea. I’ve had the honor to serve for 10 years as a public official. I think Rahm said that only 11,000 people have ever served in the Congress. That’s great. Will I do it again? Maybe. Will I do it in 2012? I don’t know. Don’t ask Lucienne. She has an answer to that. [Calling to his wife, who is working in the kitchen] Honey, am I running again?

Lucienne: No.


Our second interview finished, we joined my dad for lunch at the new Champions Grille & Bar. The owner stopped at our table and gave Steve an earful about the endless inspections that held up opening the new location. He listened politely and offered sympathy. We talked family and the Reds and laughed about Steve’s late father’s infamous frugality (when Don loaned money to his brother Leo, he charged interest). Afterwards, we piled back into my car, Steve sitting in back in deference to his uncle, who stuck by his nephew in the last election despite some big disagreements on policy issues. While we drove through Green Township, Steve mentioned that he didn’t get many votes there. “Well, this is a working neighborhood,” my dad said. “You lost because the working people voted for Chabot. The freeloaders voted for you.” I shook my head, a little embarrassed. Steve, who’d heard a lot worse, just smiled and said, “Well, then the working people were misinformed.”

Illustration by Pablo
Originally published in the April 2011 issue.

Related Content