Photo by Tom Bamberger The senator from Oklahoma is here to ask a favor. Tom Coburn is lightly tanned and elegant in a bullet-blue suit, his blow-dried hair swept back. A medical doctor and former con-gressman, he is now a freshman Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But on this cold November day, he is […]
Photo by Tom Bamberger
The senator from Oklahoma is here to ask a favor.
Tom Coburn is lightly tanned and elegant in a bullet-blue suit, his blow-dried hair swept back. A medical doctor and former con-gressman, he is now a freshman Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But on this cold November day, he is a highly over-qualified errand boy, dispatched by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, to the office of Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, a block from the U.S. Capitol.
The subject is asbestos. Once widely used as an insulating material, the fibrous mineral has caused lung disease and cancer in work-ers, who’ve sued for billions of dollars and driven companies into bankruptcy. A bill in Congress seeks to create a national solution – a $140 billion pot of money to compensate those deemed truly injured and bail out manufacturers by capping their exposure. The bill is stalled, which is why Coburn is here, to plead for action by the House Judiciary chairman.
Chairman Sensenbrenner is an imposing presence, with a fierce shock of white hair and a build like an aging linebacker. Coburn is courtly, with a southwestern drawl that is mellow as smooth bourbon, but he barely gets a sentence out before Sensenbrenner pounces. His flat Wisconsin accent slices through Coburn’s line of thought like a buzz saw. “I’m waiting to see what you folks do on asbestos,” Sensenbrenner challenges.
The 26-year Menomonee Falls congressman then launches into a history lesson on how former House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde in 1999 pushed an asbestos bill through the House, only to see it bogged down in Senate horse-trading. “When I became chair-man in 2001, I took the position, and continue to take the position, that we would do nothing on asbestos until the Senate passes a bill,” Sensenbrenner continues. “The reason I took that position is I feared if I did anything on the House side, it would be a waste of time. There are a lot of people over there [in the Senate] who seem to think they can get a better deal. I’m waiting for you and your colleagues to do something.”
Coburn is dumbstruck. He collects himself and plays the self-righteous card. “I’m looking out for people who are dying of asbestos disease” – and, he adds, hoping to prevent people without the disease from getting unjustly compensated by the shotgun approach of big lawsuits.
Sensenbrenner softens his tone slightly. “I agree. I will be the first to admit the present system is unfair. As soon as the Senate moves and gets something over, I will hotline it.”
“Okay,” Coburn musters, but Sensenbrenner keeps going.
“The pressure has got to be kept on the Senate to pass something,” he says. Then, almost like a parent complimenting an erratic child, Sensenbrenner softens again: “Let me say,” he tells Coburn, “that I think Sen. Specter has done more in three months than Sen. Hatch or Sen. Leahy did in six years.”
Coburn takes a few more stabs at his case, but Sensenbrenner is unmoved. Adding insult to injury, he cracks a favorite line: “We always think of the House as workhorses and the Senate as show horses.”
Coburn’s umbrage is impossible to hide, even under his impeccable manners. “Do you not think that the fact that we passed the Bankruptcy Bill, the fact that we passed the Class Action Lawsuit Bill demonstrates that we can pass bills?” he asks. On asbestos, he continues, “You’d get a lot more guys in the Senate to vote for the bill if they saw you had a bill.”
“Since when,” Sensenbrenner shoots back, “has House action prodded the Senate into doing anything?”
Coburn finally gives up. It’s clear he’s not going to change the congressman’s mind. He stiffly shakes Sensenbrenner’s hand, thanks him for his time and exits.
In just 10 minutes with a fellow Republican and former congressional colleague, F. James Sensenbrenner has managed to put on display why he’s loved, why he’s hated, why he’s feared and why he’s respected as one of the nation’s most powerful congressmen.
Sensenbrenner is both smart and shrewd. He’s an energetic, encyclopedic polymath who can talk law, science, geopolitics and more. “Ask him about something – agricultural subsidies to U.S./Soviet relations – and you not only get a current view but 100 years of history on it,” says Tim -Sheehy, a former aide. “He’s like Congressman Google. If you asked me who I’d want to be stuck someplace with for four hours, Jim would be at the top of the list.”
Sensenbrenner has no shortage of ego and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A back injury sustained in a two-story fall during a fire at his home two decades ago required a metal rod in his spine, but it also gave him a line he never tires of using: “I can honestly say I’m the only member of Congress with a steel backbone.”
He certainly stands up for conservative values: The American Conservative Union gave him a 92 percent rating, while the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave him 20 percent.
The Hill, a daily newspaper that -covers Congress, says the Judiciary Committee under Sensenbrenner “may well be the worst” in Congress “when it comes to bipartisan comity.” Democrats on the committee have clashed repeatedly with the Republican chairman and his fellow GOP committee members and staff. Ever outspoken, Sensenbrenner made headlines in the Chicago Tribune last summer when he wrote a letter challenging an appeals court ruling on a criminal case.
Yet if some see him as a dastardly Mr. Hyde, in another light, Sensenbrenner may suggest the calmly virtuous Dr. Jekyll. Despite its ideological brawls, the Judiciary Committee has accomplished much under Sensenbrenner’s command, taking on some of the most contentious and high-profile issues in the country today: illegal immigration, the drug trade, terrorism. From the original Patriot Act to revisions in the bankruptcy code to limits on class action lawsuits, Sensenbrenner has successfully muscled through an ambitious agenda – “more legislation than any other committee chairman,” according to The Hill.
“Chairman Sensenbrenner is very respected by his colleagues,” says Caroline Fredrickson, lobbyist for the American Civil Liber-ties Union, an organization often at odds with him. “He is seen as somebody who comes to legislation thoughtfully, not because the White House has just called him.”
Jim Sensenbrenner was born into privilege and dresses like old money, which is to say, with casual unconcern. His favorite dark suits look off the rack, and at least one of his white shirts sports a collar short on starch, flipping up like an unruly cowlick. The 62-year-old congressman himself has no lack of starch: He stands well over 6 feet, and his burly body hasn’t gone south, thanks, perhaps, to his daily mile swim. His flushed face might suggest high blood pressure, but Sensenbrenner says his health his fine, except for his back.
Sensenbrenner is an heir to the Kimberly-Clark fortune. His great-grandfather was the second president of the paper giant, and his father was the executive in charge of K-C’s Illinois operations when Sensenbrenner was born in 1943 in Chicago. After the family returned to Wisconsin, Sensenbrenner grew up and attended Milwaukee Country Day School, the forerunner of University School.
Sensenbrenner immersed himself in politics as a teenager, forming a Young Republicans club and organizing support for the cam-paign that elected Jerris Leonard to the state Senate in 1960. He subsequently helped elect his math teacher to the post of Milwaukee county surveyor on a write-in vote, then prevailed upon Leonard to spearhead a state constitutional amendment eliminating the sur-veyor’s and county coroner’s job in counties of more than 500,000. The lesson hit home for Sensenbrenner: “Six high school kids were able to elect somebody and were able to put together a case to effectuate a change in local government. That convinced me the system worked.”
At Stanford University, Sensenbrenner majored in political science and delved into Russian history. He obtained a law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 1967, and while he practiced briefly, he never left politics. Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist recalls seeing Sensenbrenner “freshly minted from law school” at a Republican strategy session in Chicago in 1968. Nor-quist was a Democrat but tagged along with a friend to the meeting. Norquist remembers Sensenbrenner as a champion of conservatism who was palpably cynical about the moderate -Republicans.
Sensenbrenner’s conservatism was typical for somebody from the upper class of the time. Today, he has a net worth of more than $10.4 million, including houses in Alexandria, Virginia, and on Pine Lake in Chenequa. But his wealth may also have given him an independence from prevailing political fashions that helps explain his outspoken style.
Sensenbrenner won a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly, representing Shorewood, in 1969. After three terms, he moved up to the state Senate. In 1977, he married -Cheryl Warren, the daughter of Robert Warren, a federal judge and former GOP state senator and attorney general. The next year, Sensenbrenner ran for Congress in what was then the 9th District, covering portions of Sheboygan and Waukesha counties and most of Ozaukee, Washington, Dodge and Jefferson counties.
Tim Sheehy, now president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, went to work for Sensenbrenner in 1979 as a summer intern. “I drove him to all his in-district appearances – town hall meetings, parades,” Sheehy recalls. After Sheehy finished college, Sensenbrenner offered him a job in D.C.
“He’s always been extremely diligent about responding to constituent correspondence,” says Sheehy. When the office got its first computer, he was instructed to log the letters into a computer database and draft a response in seven days. Sensenbrenner “was a real taskmaster,” says Sheehy. “He’s brilliant, which made it extremely difficult. I’d be briefing him on something, and I’d hear things that I didn’t know.”
At town hall meetings back in the district, Sensenbrenner was great at handling the issues, Sheehy says, but hardly diplomatic. “He could come across as fairly abrupt and might be viewed by some people as arrogant. He wasn’t a good schmoozer.”
Nor was he all that cuddly in Congress. “He wasn’t buddy-buddy with his colleagues, but he was well respected in terms of his knowledge,” says Sheehy.
Democrats were in charge in Congress when Sensenbrenner arrived in 1979. Opposition members succeed by mastering the rules, says Mike Remington, a former staff member for Judiciary Democrats. “He was for years an objector – he would invoke the rules, raise points of order.”
Sheehy saw that from the inside. “He knew all the House rules on procedure and debate.” If Republicans wanted to tie up the other side on a technicality, “they looked to Jim.”
But woe to supplicants who didn’t do their homework. “He didn’t suffer an ill-prepared presentation well,” says Sheehy. “I followed a lot of those meetings with a broom, sweeping up in the wake of what somebody thought would be an easy, get-to-know-you meeting with a congressman.”
Yet if he lacked diplomacy – and still does – Sensenbrenner mastered campaigning early. Sheehy was in seventh grade when he first met his future boss, then still in the Wisconsin Legislature, who was going door to door. “He dropped off an article with a ‘con-gratulations’ on it. The article was a tiny blurb in the North Shore Herald that recognized me as a Punt, Pass and Kick winner.”
Later, when Sheehy worked for the congressman, “we went to every corn roast, every Fourth of July parade, every pancake breakfast. His schedule was relentless.” Those days typically started at 5 a.m. with a swim in bracingly cold Pine Lake outside Sensenbrenner’s country home. As the day progressed, they’d crisscross the district over back roads Sensenbrenner knew so well that he could give driver Sheehy directions while catnapping. At the community festivals where he would press the flesh, he’d tell Sheehy, “Your role is to get between me and the guys who’ve been drinking beer for three hours in case they decide to throw something at me.”
In Congress, Sensenbrenner sought and won a Judiciary Committee seat from the beginning. “You’re more able to set policy there than in any other committee, with the possible exception of Appropriations,” he says. “I came here to change things, and even in the minority, you get a chance to do that.”
In 1984, while Cheryl Sensenbrenner was back in Wisconsin with their two children, their suburban Virginia home caught fire while Sensenbrenner slept. The congressman jumped to safety from a second-floor window, fracturing a vertebra. They did not keep the home. “Too many bad memories,” says Sensenbrenner.
For a decade and a half, Sensenbrenner was in the unenviable position of often being a naysayer. Democrats had a seemingly endless lock on the reins of power in the House of Representatives.
When William Proxmire retired, Sensenbrenner considered a Senate run in 1988 but opted out. His two sons weren’t yet in grade school, and the race against Democratic favorite Herb Kohl would be “unbelievably expensive,” says Sensenbrenner. Moreover, he was unwilling to lose the seniority he’d gained in the House. Six years later, the gamble paid off: When the GOP took over both houses of Congress in 1994, the Republicans could control the agenda and the schedule.
Sensenbrenner was eager to become a real power. “When you’re in the majority,” he notes, “you get your phone calls returned.”
In the early years of Republican control, Sensenbrenner was still moving up. From 1997 to 2001, he chaired the House Science Com-mittee while advancing in Judiciary. When Congress impeached Bill Clinton in 1998, he was part of the judiciary team managing the trial before the Senate. He already had experience in this realm. In 1989, he was part of the prosecution teams in the impeachment and conviction of Judge Walter Nixon of Mississippi, after the judge was convicted on perjury charges, and of Judge Alcee Hastings of Florida, who had been acquitted of bribery. (Hastings now serves in Congress.)
In his years on the Science Committee, Sensenbrenner campaigned against earmarked science grants and in favor of peer review – and takes credit for thereby boosting research dollars to Wisconsin institutions, especially the University of Wisconsin. He talked tough to the Russians, pushing them to pay half of the costs of the International Space Station. “I wasn’t successful, but I made a lot of news,” he says with a shrug.
Sensenbrenner took over as -Judiciary chairman in 2001. He met with -ranking Democrat John Conyers of Detroit, and knowing there would be lightning-rod issues causing conflict, Sensenbrenner urged that they cooperate on issues where they could agree. “And where we do disagree, I said I wouldn’t surprise him and hoped he wouldn’t surprise me.” Sensenbrenner says he also gave Conyers more staff. When in the wake of the September 11 attacks the USA Patriot Act passed his committee without dissent – even from such latter-day critics of the act as Democrat Maxine Waters of California and Republican Bob Barr of Georgia – “it showed that the system I had put together worked.”
Sensenbrenner has been a fierce defender of the Judiciary Committee’s turf in Congress, fighting to keep the Energy and Commerce committees from poaching on its territory. And he’s been an aggressive lawmaker. The big bills of the last year – reining in class action lawsuits, limiting bankruptcy protection for consumers, renewal of the Patriot Act – all came out of Judiciary. Sensenbrenner also worked with Democrats to pass reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, aimed at curbing domestic violence and sexual assault.
One Sensenbrenner priority might surprise some: He is an outspoken champion of renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which tore down barriers for black voters, especially in the old segregated South. Sensenbrenner’s stance is longstanding; in 1982, he joined a bipartisan effort to renew the act and, along with Sen. Robert Dole, was among the Republicans who persuaded the Reagan admini-stration not to weaken the law. And three years ago, Sensenbrenner pushed passage of the “No FEAR Act” to crack down on discrimi-nation in the federal government and shore up protection for whistleblowers.
“You will find people in this town who agree with me on practically nothing” except civil rights, says Sensenbrenner in his Wash-ington office, where a copy of the 1982 reauthorization bill bearing Ronald Reagan’s signature hangs on the wall near a copy of the first Patriot Act signed by George W. Bush. He traces his advocacy for civil rights back to his law school days in Madison, when he concluded that only by affording blacks full equality could the nation “reach its economic potential.”
When the NAACP held its annual convention in Milwaukee last summer, both Sen. Russ Feingold and Sensenbrenner addressed the group, but it was Sensenbrenner who received standing ovations when he vowed to see the renewal legislation passed without amendments to weaken it. Feingold “asked me how come I got two standing ovations and he got none,” the congressman says, grin-ning.
To bolster the case for renewing the voting rights law, Sensenbrenner is holding extensive hearings. This past fall alone, the ACLU’s Caroline Fredrickson notes, Sensenbrenner ran nine hearings “and -really worked with us to ensure they included a variety of advocates and -provided testimony that builds a record for -legislation.”
His other agenda item is likely to be more polarizing: a major immigration reform package. “Our borders are out of control, there’s no question about that,” Sensenbrenner tells a Rotary Club lunch audience in Menomonee Falls. Illegal entrants are up a half-million, he says, taking jobs, straining social services and threatening national security. “We also know one of the most vicious Latin Ameri-can gangs – M-13 – is training Middle Eastern terrorists to speak Mexican-accented Spanish.”
Sensenbrenner’s bill includes provisions to fence off portions of the U.S.-Mexican border and grant authority to border region local police to make arrests under federal immigration laws. But he is also seeking stiffer penalties for employers hiring illegal immigrants – $2,500 per illegal employee for the first offense, instead of the current $100. And he proposes a system for electronically verifying Social Security numbers when workers present them as identification – “to dry up the market for employing illegal aliens.”
If this bill becomes a protracted battle, Sensenbrenner will be used to it. He’s been through it before, most recently over the Patriot Act reauthorization. That bill was assembled painstakingly in November after a series of all-nighters by staff members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees in a conference committee, only to run aground when Feingold and a handful of libertarian Republi-can senators filibustered it in late December.
Sensenbrenner seemed to be avoiding the battle over the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program, which critics al-leged violated federal laws. Then, after holding back, Sensenbrenner sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that is thorough, asking 14 pages of questions about the program, but also deferential, asserting that the eavesdropping was undertaken “to protect Americans against a dangerous enemy intent upon using any means possible to destroy Americans.”
Feingold notes his disagreements with Sensenbrenner but offers friendly words: “I get a kick out of working with Jim Sensenbrenner. I like to make him laugh. He’s a tough negotiator, but we’ve worked it out many times.”
Mike Remington, a Washington lawyer and Wisconsin native who once worked for Democrat Robert Kastenmeier on Judiciary, offers this assessment: “Jim Sensenbrenner is definitely a national leader. He’s used his technical skills to promote good govern-ment.”
Admirers also speak of the close relationship between the congressman and his wife, Cheryl, who was injured in a car crash at 22 that left her with a lifelong disability requiring her to walk with a cane or sometimes use a wheelchair. Not all of those offering such praise are Republican.
Those who dislike Sensenbrenner, however, see a Hyde-like demon who abrasively wields power for extremist ends.
They point to a bill pushed by him that makes it harder for consumers with high debts to start clean through bankruptcy court. The bill was favored by Republicans, while Judiciary’s Democratic staff called it a giveaway to the credit card industry that was rammed through without hearings or amendments allowed.
Sensenbrenner also sponsored legislation that brought Congress back into a mid-recess emergency session over the condition of Terry Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband had won a state court order to remove her feeding tube. Michael Schiavo’s wishes, -however, were opposed by his wife’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Sensenbrenner says a lawyer for the Schin-dlers asked the Judiciary Committee to investigate. The result was a Sensenbrenner resolution moving the case to federal court, passed swiftly and signed by the president. The move was hailed by allies of the Schindlers, including religious conservatives, a critical part of the Republican base. In the end, federal courts rejected the parents’ motions to reinsert the feeding tube and Schiavo died – and polls showed most Americans believed that the Republicans were far too intrusive.
Critics say Sensenbrenner’s advocacy can be too nasty. In May, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler lashed out when a Sensenbrenner staffer, in a committee report, disparaged several unsuccessful amendments Democrats had offered to an abortion bill. The Child Interstate Abortion -Notification Act made it illegal to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion in order to evade parental notification laws. Democratic amendments would have exempted cab and bus drivers, as well as grandparents or adult siblings of the minor. But the report by Sensenbrenner aide Paul Taylor declared that both provisions “would have exempted sexual predators from prosecution.”
Nadler called the changes “slanderous,” and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, called them “disgusting misrepresentations.” Although Sensenbrenner defended the descriptions on the House floor, he subsequently, without comment, filed new reports with more neutral language.
But perhaps the most headline-grabbing incident by Sensenbrenner came last June. At a hearing sponsored by Democrats on re-newing the Patriot Act, testimony broadened to address reports of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons. At that point, Sensenbrenner abruptly adjourned the meeting after two hours and turned off the mikes, walking out of the room. Liberal political blogs erupted with gleeful fury and passed around a C-SPAN clip of the incident. Democrats, charging “abuse of power,” brought a resolution to the House floor condemning Sensenbrenner. It was defeated on a party line vote.
Asked about these dust-ups now, Sensenbrenner brushes them off. “I was not trying to pick a fight,” Sensenbrenner says of the amendment descriptions. And he only cut off the hearing, he adds, after Democrats ignored his admonition to keep the testimony “relevant to the Patriot Act” and only after every committee member had had an opportunity to speak for his or her allotted five min-utes. “I was very liberal in enforcing the relevancy rule,” he says.
Surprisingly, given that Sensenbrenner is a multi-millionaire, he can sometimes look greedy about money. He is famous for winning a $250,000 lottery ticket purchased in D.C. some eight years ago and pocketing the money rather than giving it away. He routinely takes travel junkets, some paid for by taxpayers, others by private groups. The nonpartisan Political MoneyLine calculated that since 2000, private organizations have funded a total of nearly $180,000 worth of travel expenses around the world for Sensenbrenner, while taxpayers have funded another $139,000 worth of travel for him since 1994.
After the Recording Industry Association of America paid $11,685 for Sensenbrenner to travel to Taiwan and Thailand in 2003 to speak on copyright law, two RIAA rivals launched a so-far-fruitless campaign to have ethics charges lodged against Sensenbrenner on the grounds that his committee helps regulate copyright law in the recording industry.
Sensenbrenner’s outspoken style got him in trouble with the American Judicature Society, a nonpartisan group of judges and law-yers, which complained in a 2004 editorial of his “inflammatory rhetoric.” The editorial criticized Sensenbrenner for -implicit support of efforts by House Republicans to subpoena a federal judge’s sentencing records after the Minnesota judge, James Rosenbaum, testi-fied before Congress against a bill to reinstate tougher -sentences in drug cases. It also assailed Sensenbrenner for a speech to state judges that it described as “self-serving, confrontational and, in some particulars, uninformed.”
Sensenbrenner has used his committee to oversee the courts aggressively. He’s suggested that Congress create an “inspector general” to monitor the courts, affronting some students of the legal system. He also took the highly unusual step of trying to badger a court into changing its sentencing. The case involved a drug courier in Chicago sentenced to 97 months in prison instead of the mandatory minimum of 120 months. The judge cited a precedent that where drug amounts were small, a shorter sentence might be appropriate. Prosecutors endorsed the sentence, and it was later upheld by the appeals court.
Sensenbrenner responded with a five-page letter to Joel Flaum, chief judge of the 7th Circuit Appeals Court. Insisting the shorter sentence was “illegal” and the appeals court should have ordered a change, Sensenbrenner demanded to know how Flaum would “rectify the panel’s actions.” Flaum wrote Sensenbrenner that it would be inappropriate for him to comment. When the Chicago Tribune broke the story in July, legal scholars told the newspaper the congressman’s letter was “inappropriate” at best and potentially a case of “trying to intimidate the judiciary.”
An unmoved Sensenbrenner dismisses such complaints as “primarily political in nature” and asserts that he remained within his Congressional oversight duties. A liberal group complained to the House Ethics Committee, and a complaint was filed with the Wis-consin Office of Lawyer Regulation. The office doesn’t comment on complaints unless it issues formal reprimands, but Sensenbrenner says he was exonerated. “The people who complained about my action,” he charges, “don’t think there should be any oversight of the federal judiciary.”
It’s one thing to see Sensenbrenner do battle with the courts or political rivals, but there’s hardly any setting in which he refrains from speaking bluntly. Before a friendly Rotary Club lunch crowd in Menomonee Falls this winter, he dismissed a question about a bill banning animal fighting that has been bottled up in Congress. “This is not a huge national issue,” he lectured. “That’s a state legislative issue. I don’t think that the American public would like to see the FBI’s and federal prosecutors’ time taken up prosecuting animal trafficking. I think they’d rather see them focus on things like drug trafficking.”
Only then does he offer up the information that his committee had -reported the bill out last year. The average politician would have simply said as much and diplomatically moved on to the next issue. Sensenbrenner couldn’t resist lecturing the questioner and then go-ing on to criticize Judiciary colleagues who ridiculed the animal trafficking legislation, complaining that they needlessly prolonged the committee debate and put him in a thankless position.
“The last thing I want to see is a national story saying Congressman Sensenbrenner spent a day and a half in Congress trying to put an end to cockfighting.”
Will Sensenbrenner’s abrasive style come back to haunt him? One person who hopes so is Bryan Kennedy, who ran against Sensen-brenner two years ago. “Jim Sensenbrenner has a long track record of being arrogant and nasty to people in his district,” says Ken-nedy.
Kennedy, however, lost by more than 2-to-1 and ran slightly behind John Kerry (who also lost) in the conservative 5th District. But that hasn’t discouraged the UWM professor of Portuguese, who is running again.
Kennedy once worked for Jack Kemp but later migrated to the Democrats because Republicans “moved so far to the right that they’ve left people like me behind.” A Mormon, he’s trying to carve out a centrist profile that could attract swing voters and moderate Republicans.
“Sensenbrenner has written some of the most intrusive legislation we have seen since the McCarthy era,” says Kennedy. And he hopes to undercut Republican claims of fiscal conservatism by pointing out the mounting deficits on the backs of tax cuts in the last six years. “I am a balanced-budget fiscal conservative. He picks and chooses when he wants to be a fiscal conservative.”
Kennedy offers a scenario by which he can win, but the strategy depends on getting a stronger turnout of his supporters than Sensenbrenner’s. More than a few Democratic veterans in the state expect Sensenbrenner’s victory. Kennedy exudes confidence and is arming himself with anecdotes, such as Sensenbrenner’s vote last fall against federal disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the congressman’s refusal to waive tough new bankruptcy rules for Katrina victims.
Sensenbrenner shows no sign of worry and offers no apologies for his blunt approach. Voters “want to know where you stand and why,” he says, and he quotes an old political mentor: “You’ll never be the most liked person in your district. You want to be the most respected person.”
After the Katrina vote in early September, he notes, he returned to the district for a weekend of community festivals and parades and some constituent meetings. “Wherever I was, people came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for looking out for us.’”
There are reports of Sensenbrenner shouting down naysayers at some of his Town Hall constituent meetings, but on a winter evening at the New Berlin City Hall, he stays firmly in control. Midway through the hour-long session, a regular critic of the congressman stands up and reads a series of tendentious questions about the Iraq war, torture of prisoners and the federal deficit. As Sensenbrenner interrupts to move on to other questioners, the man snarls, “You always cut me off! You never let me finish. The reason you’re here is to listen to me.”
Unfazed, Sensenbrenner puts it to a vote. “All in favor here of letting Mr. Barker keep speaking, raise your hands.” The room is motionless. “All opposed?” Virtually every hand in the room goes up.
With that, his interrogator leaves the room and Sensenbrenner moves briskly on, calling for the next question.
Erik Gunn is a regular Milwaukee Magazine contributor.