WASHINGTON - In the nine weeks since Republican Rep. Tom Emmer was sworn in, he has attended an NAACP gathering in St. Cloud, the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Minneapolis and marched in the same Alabama civil rights parade as President Obama.
He has had one-on-one breakfasts and coffees with more than a dozen Democrats and Republicans on his subcommittees and on one recent Saturday around midnight, lambasted his party for holding up cash to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
In other words, Emmer, a one-time gubernatorial candidate who replaced Tea Party firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann, the man who for years made headlines for his conservative fire and edgy ideas, is calming down.
That doesn’t mean he’s less conservative. More than 97 percent of the votes he’s cast in the past two months are in line with GOP leadership. Emmer vociferously supported building the Keystone pipeline and recently touted the need for Israel to defend itself after hearing from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.S. Capitol — a speech so controversial among Democrats that a handful, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Betty McCollum among them, boycotted it.
Yet gone — or at least pushed beneath the surface — is the Emmer some Minnesotans may remember, a take-no-prisoners state lawmaker who called for chemically castrating sex offenders, halting funding of prenatal care for undocumented immigrants and letting pharmacists reject prescriptions on moral grounds.
In his first few months in Washington, Emmer has not yet authored any bills. He has spent substantial time reaching across the aisle to Democrats for breakfasts and coffees — an attempt at comity he says will aid him in the future.
He wants everyone to know that he still has the same beliefs as he did in the early days — he just has a different approach.
“Before, probably because of my training, being an advocate, before I had a different approach,” Emmer said. “In a legislative forum, this environment, it’s more about winning people over and not running them over. … I think I had to learn that.”
After Obama’s sixth State of the Union address in January, and Emmer’s first, the congressman e-mailed out a statement calling on Congress to work together with the president.
“It was an honor to hear from the president this evening,” Emmer said. “If he’s ready to get to work on the change that Americans demanded last November, Congress will be here waiting.”
Emmer’s diplomatic tone has taken both his allies and foes by surprise. After seeing Emmer at the recent Twin Cities MLK breakfast, one DFL operative privately murmured that the congressman “wasn’t making any mistakes.” A local Tea Party leader sharply rebuked Emmer in a blog post for his vote in support of funding the Department of Homeland Security.
“One of the things he emphasized leading up to being elected was that he didn’t want to necessarily be combative,” said Luke Yurczyk, GOP chair for the Sixth Congressional District. “I think the district wants a fighter, but I think they aren’t necessarily interested in political games. I think he understands that.”
Even though she hasn’t agreed with his votes, Jessica Andrist, a DFLer in his district, called Emmer’s approach a welcome departure from Bachmann’s constant limelight-seeking.
“He hopefully will listen to constituents,” she said. “Hopefully he’ll be less embarrassing than Michele Bachmann.”
Emmer is modest — even soft-spoken — when describing his job representing the roughly 760,000 souls in Minnesota’s Sixth District. When he walked into the NAACP meeting in St. Cloud and sat in the back, he says he told the crowd of about 25, “I’m from the customer service department from the U.S. Congress, and I work for you.”
Emmer acknowledges being chastened by his narrow gubernatorial loss in 2010 — Gov. Mark Dayton beat him by less than a percentage point — and by the steep learning curve and entrenched pecking order in Washington.
He has yet to find an apartment in Washington. Instead, he says, he has prioritized spending his three to four nights a week here attending events and trying to scratch out time for one-on-ones with Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittees.
When he wraps up business each day at 9 or 10 p.m., the 54-year-old married father of six pulls an air mattress out of a storage closet in the Cannon House Office Building, lugs it into his office and makes it up with sheets and blankets. Emmer wakes up every morning at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to hit the treadmill in the House gym and then shower.
“There is no breathing room,” he said. “None.”
Emmer notes his strategy is part freshman humility and part example-setting for what he hopes Republicans will embrace in the coming key political years, including the 2016 presidential race. He recently authored an op-ed in The Hill newspaper detailing his plans to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“Republicans in general, instead of constantly being in a spat with the president, they need to be leading for the American public to see,” Emmer said. “We may not get a president who will sign a Keystone bill or get rid of the FCC takeover of the Internet … but at least the American public will know what we stand for, who should be leading America.”
Jack Rogers, president of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance and a constituent of Emmer’s, recently spoke out against Emmer’s votes to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security and to support Rep. John Boehner as House speaker. Rogers acknowledged receiving a lengthy phone call from Emmer after expressing his concerns.
“Tom and I are friends, and it’s like having a brother or a best friend and all of a sudden they’re not thinking along the same paradigms as you are,” Rogers said. “It takes you off guard.”
Emmer has some ambitions for his party and potential problems they could tackle before the next election — including a tax code overhaul and a number of bills that would cut regulations.
But acknowledging where he is in Washington’s grand order, Emmer says it is most important that he keep his priorities local. He also laughed loudly when asked about higher ambitions — perhaps another run at governor.
“People who say they are one thing today and try to do something else tomorrow is exactly what’s wrong with the political process,” he said. “I have no desire today to do anything different than what I’m doing now.”
Allison Sherry • 1-202-383-6120