Once a child of the left, now resolute on the right

By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; A11

Paul Teller was reared by liberal Jewish parents on Long Island. He was educated by liberals. And when he grew up, he and his wife, Maxine, settled in the nation's capital, where 7 percent of registered voters are Republicans.

So how, then, did Teller wind up as one of the most influential conservative aides in Congress, revering Ronald Reagan, fighting Big Government and serving as an unofficial liaison to the Tea Party movement?

"I have no idea," Teller said. "The joke in my family is that I was accidentally dropped on my head as a child and the side effect was conservatism."

Teller, who says he's a conservative before he's a Republican, is the executive director of the House conservative caucus known as the Republican Study Committee (RSC). He's the bomb thrower in the shadows for more than 100 RSC members, whose purist conservative mission often poses a challenge for the more pragmatic House Republican leadership.

Where the party establishment treads lightly, Teller and Co. rush in. Take the Tea Party wave, for instance.

Whereas most Republicans have taken a cautious approach to their support for organizations such as Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Express, Teller describes the RSC as "very in line" with the tea partyers.

"We're all in the same battle here," he said.

"We're trying to reduce the size of government, trying to reduce spending, reduce taxes, restore what we think is constitutionally based liberty in America," Teller continued.

But when things get ugly and hate-filled at some tea party rallies, Teller said, "We don't work with those folks. . . . When you see an otherwise legitimate rally about spending, about liberty, role of government, and then you see one really bad Hitler-type sign, as the token Jew of the RSC staff, maybe that sign hits me harder."

His ebullient nature, impeccable manners and stealthy determination make him simultaneously lovable and annoying to his party's establishment. "Paul's a very quiet force on Capitol Hill for conservative values," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Teller's former boss who is now in the GOP leadership. "And he does it with a smile."

Teller is known as a Hill staff member who can influence the thinking of lawmakers and the outcome of legislation. That quiet power was demonstrated a few years ago when Teller, now 39, in a simply worded e-mail blast persuaded conservative House members to vote against their party's energy-tax proposal.

It was Aug. 4, 2007, the last day before Congress adjourned for the summer. The GOP leadership had just forced a vote on its substitute to the Democratic majority's energy-tax bill. Republicans voted "yes." Then they looked at their BlackBerries and saw the memo alert from Teller warning: "The substitute contains tax increases -- and other revenue increases."

One by one, in rapid succession, the GOP "yes" votes on the electronic voting board changed to "no." With Teller's intervention, conservatives had helped kill the Republican bill and embarrass their leadership.

GOP leaders and Republicans on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee were blindsided. "I wasn't real happy at the time," says Jon Traub, who was then the GOP tax counsel on Ways and Means and had written the substitute language.

"I understand the leadership has to serve the Republican conference as a whole," countered Teller. "We don't. Our guys believe we are serving the Constitution."

Teller has also earned the respect of K Street lobbyists and leading conservative thinkers. "People trust his judgment and want to know what he has to say," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an icon of the conservative movement.

Teller, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son with his wife, looks the part of a budding politician. He also sounds the part, even as he maintains he isn't interested.

"Um, no," he said. "I mean, I'd be lying if it hasn't crossed my mind. Everyone says it. Maybe it's the hair gel.

"But, honestly, I think the more I work in Congress, [I see the] tremendous strain on your time, your family, your health. . . . I don't know if I'd like to do that. I don't know if I have the stomach."

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