Mr. Kelly goes to Washington
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WASHINGTON -- The onetime Notre Dame defensive tackle sat in an underground auditorium of the U.S. Capitol, discomfited. Mike Kelly had come to Congress to change the ways of Washington. But first, he had to be schooled in them.
The incoming Western Pennsylvania Republican representative submitted to lectures about the standards of official conduct. He was chauffeured around town with a police escort. He feasted on buffets of muffins and scones, fine meats and finer liquors. And everywhere, it seemed, were government employees -- holding the door for him, taking his coat, "Congressman" this and "Congressman" that.
"It was people stacked on top of people stacked on top of people," Mr. Kelly said. "I'm thinking, somebody has to pay all these folks to be here. ... And it's all paid by us. That's U.S. taxpayer dollars."
In this closely watched class of roughly 100 first-year lawmakers, there are stars. But Mr. Kelly is not one of them. At 62, he is the oldest GOP House freshman, an avuncular, white-haired Chevy dealer from the hardscrabble industrial town of Butler.
The unusual election of 2010 has ushered in an unusual crop of new legislators. Many were never groomed for higher office, or any political position at all.
Mr. Kelly had never considered a Washington life for himself until government reached directly into his livelihood. But now, he's here, trying to find his way, literally and politically.
For Republicans to keep their House majority, newcomers such as Mr. Kelly will have to succeed at governing, and the question before them is how to become savvy operators without sacrificing the outsider qualities that voters found so attractive.
Mr. Kelly ran for office to fix America's finances. He says he wants to run the government the way he runs his dealership: "Kill more than you eat -- and when you don't, eat less."
"I couldn't go out and borrow money, and I sure as heck couldn't print it," Mr. Kelly said. Balancing the budget, he added, is "simple math. ... What's it going to take to fix it? People who are there for one reason and one reason only, and that's to fix it."
Yet, as he has moseyed about Washington to prepare for his January swearing-in, Mr. Kelly realized that this might not be so easy. He would be one of 435 House members, and there was so much to do before he even got there. He had to hire a staff and find a place to live. And at every turn, the capital's entrenched interests were waiting to influence him.
As Mr. Kelly walked along Independence Avenue one night with his wife, Vicki, nobody recognized him. But when he stepped into the Capitol Hill Club, the den of Beltway Republicans, everybody knew his name.
At a reception there hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion lobby, bigger draws were all around. Speaker-designate John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, came and went. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., posed for pictures at the front door.
But the evening's special guests were the newcomers. "You're the cavalry that has come to town," gushed Marilyn Musgrave, director of the SBA List and a former member of Congress.
The Kellys laughed before turning for the bar in the corner. There, beneath an oil portrait of Nancy Reagan, they nursed a Coke (him) and a Tanqueray-and-tonic (her) and thought about how many turkeys they would roast on Thanksgiving.
Mike Kelly is a reluctant Washington insider. He's not looking to make a splash. He is more at home in Butler, at the breakfast diner next door to Kmart. One cold, misty morning, he bit into an English muffin and talked Butler High School football (the Golden Tornado) with his buddies.
"These guys get their hair cut for $5 or $6, not $60," Mr. Kelly said later. "Big Tom? He's on a fixed income. He just had a cup of coffee. You know why? It's the end of the month, and he budgets everything."
Mr. Kelly, of course, owns one of Butler's biggest businesses. He lives in a nice house and drives nice cars. Friends in dire straits ask him if they can borrow cash. During the campaign, Democrats dubbed him "Millionaire Mike Kelly."
Butler, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, is a pioneering town. The Bantam Jeep was invented there. But as Mr. Kelly drove around, it became clear that the 21st century may be leaving Butler behind.
Here is the AK Steel factory that at one time had 3,500 workers but now employs 1,300. There stood American Hardware, Castle Rubber and International Staple -- gone, gone and gone. The industrial site where Pullman built rail cars was demolished and paved over for a strip mall, now aging. Unemployment there is about 7 percent, but that doesn't count the folks who gave up on finding work even before the recession.
Mr. Kelly was asked who in Washington impresses him. "Nobody," he said. "I hope I don't sound arrogant about this, but at 62 years old, I've pretty much seen what I need to see," he said from behind the messy desk in the dealership's back office, which he shares with his son.
"There've been times when I didn't even take a paycheck out of here for six months. There've been times I cashed in my pension to put money back in the shop. There've been times I mortgaged my home to keep this business alive. I've been to the edge of the abyss and looked in, and there's nobody there to help you -- nobody there."
Mr. Kelly first got the itch to run for Congress in 2009, after the federal government took over General Motors. Kelly Motors has been in his family since his father started the business in 1953. In spring 2009, Mr. Kelly said, GM managers reviewed his Chevrolet-and-Cadillac dealership and concluded that it was "perfect."
"Then they went to Washington, and they got fired," Mr. Kelly said.
Under the government restructuring, he could sell Chevrolets but not Cadillacs. "Wait, wait, wait!" Mr. Kelly said he told a GM representative. "This is America. You can't come in and take my business away from me. ... Every penny we have is wrapped up in here. I've got 110 people that rely on me every two weeks to be paid. ... And you call me up and, in five minutes, try to wipe out 56 years of a business?"
" 'This is a new General Motors,' " Mr. Kelly recalled the man telling him. " 'That's just the way it is.' "
Mr. Kelly went to arbitration and eventually won. And despite a light political resume -- four years as a part-time City Council member -- he also decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper. He ran on a platform of cutting spending and stopping government intrusion in small business. He raised $1.3 million, including about $400,000 of his own money, to survive a six-person GOP primary.
Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional District is closely divided; in 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama there by just 17 votes. But Mr. Kelly trounced Ms. Dahlkemper, 56 percent to 44 percent.
"There's a lot we don't know about this guy," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The voters don't have a clear sense about who he is. It was more of a reaction about her."
To win re-election, Mr. Madonna said, Mr. Kelly will have to appeal not just to the Erie-based district's tea party base but also to its Reagan Democrats.
"This seat has historically been held by a moderate Republican," said Allegheny College political scientist Daniel Shea in Meadville, Pa., who moderated a debate between Mr. Kelly and Dahlkemper. "And what was interesting about Mike Kelly's race is I could not detect a moderate bone in his body."
Mr. Kelly said he wants to differentiate himself from his party's leadership. But when asked, he could not specify an issue on which he would diverge. Democrats are eager to make this a negative. Bill Cole, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, described Mr. Kelly as an empty suit who will "regurgitate and rubber-stamp" the Republican agenda.
Mr. Kelly does not yet seem worried about re-election; he just got elected. He likes using football analogies to describe his life in politics. He was a star football recruit at Notre Dame in the mid-1960s until his career was cut short by a knee injury.
"What would happen to me?" Mr. Kelly said of the possibility that he could be a one-termer. "I've been cut from better teams. You're only as good as your last play, and you're always one play away from never being in there again."
He is eager to learn to play. He does not use a computer at his dealership but is getting used to relying on his new government-issued BlackBerry. (His wife slips sometimes and calls it a "blueberry.")
Mr. Kelly hired as his chief of staff Karen Czarnecki, who worked in George W. Bush's administration, because he knew he needed an experienced Washington hand to teach him the legislative game.
But Mr. Kelly said he is wary of "going Washington." He wants his 4-year-old grandson, who lives in Georgetown, to come to his office at lunchtime for bologna sandwiches.
Asked who in the freshman class he's closest to, Mr. Kelly said nobody yet. "There are a lot of nice guys and girls," he said.
"Mike!" Vicki Kelly interrupted. "You can't have a best friend that's a girl."
"Because I'm your best friend that's a girl. Boy, things are changing in D.C. fast."
First Published January 2, 2011 12:12 am