Democracy Dies in Darkness

Morning Mix

How Rep. Billy Long’s auctioneering past made him the breakout star of the Twitter hearings

September 6, 2018 at 7:07 AM

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When a protester interrupted a Sept. 5 House hearing with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) used an auction chant as the protester was removed. (C-SPAN)

Bar stools. Cadillacs. Circular saws. Encyclopedias. Flatbed trucks. Grand pianos. John Deere tractors. Kewpie dolls. Lawn chairs. Log cabins. Miniature train cars. Oriental rugs. Panini presses. Revolvers. Water beds.

Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) sold all that and more during his three decades as an auctioneer.

But after being elected to Congress in 2010, the seven-time winner of “Ozarks Best Auctioneer” had to give up his auction business to comply with House ethics rules. Besides, he told the Springfield News-Leader in 2009, “you can’t run a business like an auction company while you’re in Washington.”

He may no longer be spending his weekend at estate sales, but Long can still speak in the twangy, rapid-fire style of a country auctioneer when the occasion arises. On Wednesday, that skill ended up making him the unexpected breakout star of a House hearing about political bias in social media.

About an hour into the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had just finished responding to a question from Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) about whether the platform discriminates against conservatives — a charge that Dorsey denied.

Then, far-right activist Laura Loomer, who had been sitting in the audience, got up and interrupted with an unsolicited speech of her own.

“Please help us, Mr. President, before it is too late,” she implored President Trump, who was not in the room. “Because Jack Dorsey is trying to influence the election, to sway the election to Democrats, to steal the election.”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the committee, repeatedly told her that she would be removed from the hearing if she did not sit down. Gavels were banged. Order was called.

Loomer kept going, holding up a selfie stick to film herself as she rambled on about “shadow-banning.”

“What?” Long can be heard asking. “What’s she saying? I can’t understand her.”

Then, he broke into an auctioneer’s rhythmic patter, drowning Loomer out as he recited a string of imaginary bids.

“Thirty dollars now, two and a half, seventy five, forty…”

He kept on going as security escorted Loomer from the room.

“We’re selling the cellphone there,” Long joked as she was hustled over the threshold. “Four and quarter, four and a half…”

By then, people seated in the audience had gone from baffled to outright amused, judging by their facial expressions. When Long finally stopped for a breath less than a minute later, joking that he was yielding back to the speaker, he received a loud round of applause.

For the rest of the day, and amid a period of intense national division, Long was revered on social media as a hero by users of varying political affiliations. Some commended his quick-thinking, no-nonsense approach to shutting down a noisy protester. Others simply appreciated the sheer weirdness of a congressional hearing turning into a cattle auction. Just about everyone except for Loomer — who posted numerous tweets claiming that she had been censored and the congressman’s behavior was sexist — was pleased.

Since Long isn’t exactly a household name in national politics, his not-so-secret past as an auctioneer took many by surprise.

But Long is the genuine article. Not only is he a certified auctioneer, he was inducted into the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame in 2016.

“My dad took me to my first auction at 2 years old, the Frisco dead freight auction,” Long recalled in his induction speech. “Any goods that would get damaged on the Frisco railway, they would ship them into Springfield, and that was my indoctrination into the auction business.”

Long’s fascination with auctioneers and their mannerisms — how they held their hats, how they carried their canes, how the chant worked — quickly turned into an obsession. In the summer, when other children were playing inside or swimming at the pool, Long rode his bike to the auctions. By 14, he was shadowing Willis Talbot, a local auctioneer who would become his mentor.

At first, Long enrolled at the University of Missouri with a plan to study business, he told the Springfield News-Leader. But he found college boring and dropped out after three semesters, and began a career in real estate instead. In 1979, he graduated from the Missouri Auction School in Kansas City.

In 1984, he started his own auction business. By 2010, Billy Long Auctions had become “one of the largest auction companies in the state,” conducting about 200 auctions a year and turning down 400 other requests, the News-Leader reported.

Politics, like auctions, had captured his attention at an early age. At 9, Long rode his bike around town handing out bumper stickers for a Republican candidate for sheriff, he told the News-Leader. By the time he was 12 or 13, he and his dog, Little Bear, had come up with a trick.

“He’d say ‘Little Bear, would you rather be a Democrat or a dead dog?’ ” the News-Leader wrote. “On cue, the poodle and terrier mix would roll over, feet in the air.”

While running his auction business, Long also hosted a local AM radio talk show, his official biography states. A couple of years after the show ended, he announced that he would run for Congress in 2010. Long proudly touted his lack of political experience, positioning himself an outsider candidate who would cut down on government spending, and telling reporters, “We need to return common people to D.C.”

Long is one of two auctioneers serving in Congress. The other is Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).

Wednesday was not the first time that Long showed off his auctioneering abilities in Congress. In April 2011, he “auctioned off” the national debt during a floor speech, calling out numbers up to 14 trillion to make a point about government spending.

Long, whose personal Twitter account is @auctnr1, is clearly proud of his background as an auctioneer and his unusual path to Congress.

“A lot of people say, ‘He doesn’t look the part, he’s a big auctioneer guy, heavyset,’ ” he told the News-Leader in 2010. “Well, I’d rather be a statesman and be a patriot than just look the part.”

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a reporter on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. She previously worked at the Phoenix New Times.

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