For the new guy, D.C. is a tough sell

Rep.-elect Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), in town with wife Vicki during House GOP freshman orientation, says "nobody" in Washington impresses him.
Rep.-elect Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), in town with wife Vicki during House GOP freshman orientation, says "nobody" in Washington impresses him. (Melina Mara)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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 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," 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 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, Pa.

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. 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 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.

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," 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, Kelly realized this might not be so easy. Kelly would be one of 435 members of the House, 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 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 antiabortion 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.

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