ROCKWALL, Tex. – Ralph Hall is a storyteller. And as the oldest member of Congress, the 90-year-old representative from Texas has plenty of stories to tell.
He once kissed the hand of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. He flew Hellcat fighter aircraft during World War II. (More recently, he jumped out of a plane.) He recalls first meeting James Baker when the 83-year-old former secretary of state “was just a young boy.” And there was the time when, as a 12-year-old working at the local pharmacy, Hall sold cigarettes to the infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.
“They wanted a carton of Old Golds, two Coca-Colas and all the newspapers we had,” he recalls. “I went and got what they wanted, they gave me $3 and they said keep the change.”
Hall has been running for public office since 1949 and was elected to Congress in 1980. He says he wants two more years in the House to see the end of the Obama presidency and help elect a Republican to the White House. In a television ad, he points to wrinkles on his face and declares them scars from political battles, although aides acknowledge that Hall had cosmetic surgery in the fall because some of the wrinkles were affecting his eyesight.
But the 18-term congressman is confronting a new political reality that suggests that longevity may not play to his advantage. An ad paid for by a conservative super PAC raises concerns about his advanced age, saying that “after 33 years, let’s bring Ralph Hall home.” He faced five challengers in a primary this month and has been forced into a May runoff after winning just 45 percent of the vote.
Hall says he understands why voters have turned on Congress. “It’s what we haven’t done that people are sick of,” he says. “It’s kind of hard in politics to forget that you’re a Democrat or a Republican and remember that you’re a father and a grandfather . . . and that they’re entitled to more than they’re getting.”
The challenge facing Hall is not unlike what other House and Senate incumbents are confronting this year, but his long tenure and his particular political history make him an especially interesting figure in the current political era. Congressional approval sits somewhere in the low double digits and a recent Gallup survey found that 46 percent of voters want to kick out their representative — an all-time high.
Hall’s district is also a fresh battleground in the years-long GOP civil war. He is one of a handful of House Republicans facing tea party-backed primary opponents.
And he acknowledges that his age is now a factor he cannot ignore. He may be the dean of the Texas congressional delegation, but he was the last Lone Star State lawmaker to join Twitter.
“I wish I was 30 years old with this seniority. Or 40. Or 50. Or 60,” he says during a recent breakfast with supporters, quickly reminding a reporter that he remains sprightly for his age.
“I have always taken care of my body; I’m not a drinker, I’ve never smoked,” he says. “And I’ve always exercised. That’s all you have to do. I’ve not been a pound over 178 or a pound under in the last 35 years.”
Hall arrived in Washington in 1981 as a Democrat and one of many lawmakers who had been on the front lines. “I think maybe there were four or five who weren’t veterans,” he says. If he loses, there will be no World War II veterans serving in Congress next year. The only other remaining veteran of the war, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), is planning to retire.
In the beginning, he clashed often with then-Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., a Massachusetts Democrat. Years later, Hall voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, supported some of the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton and backed GOP-sponsored tax cut plans. He helped narrowly approve one of George W. Bush’s budgets. And that was all before he switched parties under pressure and became a Republican in 2004.
“It didn’t take any guts,” he says. “I figured there’s nobody who’s going to beat me or shoot me or crucify me. I can’t help if people don’t like me up there in Washington. I’ve got a district that I respect and I think it respects me.”
Constituents have rewarded Hall by plastering his name in several spots. There’s the Ralph M. Hall Municipal Airport. Soon there will be the man-made Lake Ralph Hall. Approaching his congressional district from Dallas, drivers are likely to cruise down Ralph Hall Parkway, which runs right through this bedroom community.
But just a few minutes south, near where the shopping plazas and schools look a little newer, John Ratcliffe, Hall’s primary challenger, is working the phones in a windowless office suite next door to a Farmers Insurance office.
Ratcliffe is 48 years old, with a chiseled face, a nice suit, a wife and two young daughters. He climbed the ranks of the Texas legal community to serve as Bush’s U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, giving him oversight of 43 counties and the latitude to prosecute or investigate immigration and terrorism cases. He served as mayor of the small town of Heath. And his work for corporate clients in a law firm run by former attorney general John D. Ashcroft has given him so much money that he’s spending about $500,000 of his fortune to unseat Hall. He has earned the support of two national conservative super PACs and internal polling suggests that Ratcliffe will prevail in May and cruise to victory in November.
“There’s a general discontent with incumbents and the status quo in Washington and no one’s immune from that this year,” Ratcliffe says in an interview. “I’m under no delusion that everyone that voted for me did so because they love John Ratcliffe. I know that a certain percentage of that support is just folks who see Washington as broken and want to affect real change — want someone other than Congressman Hall.”
Sure enough, disgust with Congress in this district runs rampant.
“I think 535 heads rolling down the stairs of the U.S. Capitol would be a good thing,” says Gray Groves, 76, a retired printer from nearby Quinlan. Hall, he says, “has got a good heart, but he’s still a Washington congressman.”
For Robert Massey, 57, Congress “has become a breeding ground for a particular personality type — the powerful and greedy.”
“I have positive proof that zombies exist,” he says. “They work in Congress.” Massey confesses to being a “Hallite” and voting for the congressman in the past. “But Ralph is run a little thin,” he adds. “We’re looking for some serious changes.”
Not so soon, as far as Ralph Hall is concerned. Despite the anger, Hall is clearly at ease back home among his neighbors. He moves quickly, swaps great lawyer jokes with friends and likes sharing meals with them at the Route 66 Diner in downtown Rockwall.
His eyes well up at the sight of young children. His voice breaks when he mentions his late wife, Mary Ellen. By the time he’s ready to leave the diner, Hall has hugged or shaken the hand of virtually everyone in the joint. Along the way he kisses a woman who’s a longtime supporter and adds, “This is why I run.”