National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Freshmen bring county credentials to Congress

By Charles Taylor


From Lewis County, Ky. to Honolulu, they’re coming to Washington — one by way of American Samoa. They are the freshmen members of Congress who were former county-elected or appointed officials.

Twenty-eight recent or former county officials ran for the House of Representatives; a dozen of them won: four Republicans and eight Democrats. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a former Dane County supervisor, moved up from the House to the Senate.

They bring to Capitol Hill a range of experiences — from entrepreneur and physician to business executive and military veteran. 

County News caught up with three new members, either before they left home, or while in Washington for orientation, and asked how their county service would translate to Washington.

Photo by Jim Philipps
Rep.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), a former Bernalillo County commissioner, speaks with NACo staff (pictured: Ed Rosado, legislative director) during a visit to NACo offices Nov. 12. She was in town for freshman orientation, preparing to take her seat in Congress in January.

A few candidates for unexpired terms have already taken office in the 112th Congress. Thomas Massie (R), former judge executive of Lewis County, Ky., is one of them, as is Donald Payne Jr., a former Essex County, N.J. freeholder. They were on the ballot twice — running for both unexpired and full two-year terms.

“I would like to see fewer strings attached when the federal government interacts with local governments,” said Massie, 41, an engineer and businessman with two degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I call my two years of service in local government my associate’s degree in local government. I really do think it’s going to help me to be a better congressman having served in local government.” He spent nearly two years as county judge executive.

Before running for that office, he said, “I was the guy that showed up and complained at the local meetings. I tell people I was the dog chasing the bus; I never intended to get on the bus.”

As chief elected official of Lewis County, population 13,269, Massie said he reviewed every phone bill, utility bill and contract to root out savings. He expects to bring that same focus to Congress. “What I discovered is that there’s waste everywhere, and if you’re not finding it, you’re not looking. I believe the same thing is occurring in our federal government,” he said. 

He attributes his ability to crunch numbers to his electrical and mechanical engineering background. “I can focus for long periods of time at what other people would think are very boring things.”

Massie wasn’t the GOP establishment’s choice for northern Kentucky’s 4th District seat; he won with strong tea party backing and endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). However, The Cincinnati Enquirer, in its endorsement of Massie, wrote, “Although linked to the tea party, Massie is likely to be an independent thinker in Washington

Unlike Massie and Payne, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) must wait until January to take her seat in the 113th Congress. Until earlier this year, she was a Bernalillo County, N.M. commissioner for two years. Lujan Grisham, 53, also brings state government experience with her. She served as New Mexico’s secretary of health, and director of the state’s Agency on Aging. 

“She knows local and state government, and I think she’ll be a good advocate for local government, for counties in particular,” said Paul Gutierrez, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Counties.

During a visit to NACo Nov. 12, Lujan Grisham said: “My experience as an elected county official in Bernalillo County gave me a unique opportunity to understand that the priorities of local government are really the priorities of my constituents at large. 

“And today, while we recognize we’ve got to put people back to work, we’ve got to invest in the economy; that means infrastructure investments,” she added. “Where that’s happening all across the United States … local government is making that happen, but they’ve lost their federal partner.”

Lujan Grisham is an attorney and has run a small health and long-term care consulting business. A member of a political family, she is the niece of Manuel Lujan, who served as secretary of the interior for President George H.W. Bush, and her grandfather was New Mexico’s first Hispanic Supreme Court chief justice. Bernalillo County is the state’s most populous with a 2011 estimated population of 671,000; Albuquerque, the state’s biggest city is the county seat.

Asked about committee assignments of interest, she said Armed Services was first. The county is home to Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories, which she called “lifelines” of her district’s economy. She’d also be interested in budget and tax reform issues. And — no surprise — she has a “passion for health care reform,” which she also sees as a potential economic engine. 

Regardless of geography or party affiliation the new House members interviewed see the economy as a top priority.

Rep.-elect Tom Rice (R) was Horry County, S.C. council chairman prior to being elected to represent the state’s the new 7th Congressional District in the northeastern corner of the Palmetto State. A tax attorney, he’d like to bring that expertise to Washington, along with his county perspective. 

“My primary goal on County Council and my primary goal here is going to be to spur economic growth and job development,” he said. “I think that helps county government; I think it helps state government, city government, the federal government and everybody.” He has expressed interest in any of the House committees that deal with the “financial aspects of government,” such as Ways and Means or Banking.

While Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach, constitutes 38 percent of his district’s population, the district comprises parts of seven other counties: Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown, Marion and Marlboro. 

Jobs, Rice said, are priority one. Marion County’s unemployment rate is the highest in the state, 17 percent; Marlboro’s is “about 15 percent.” “Horry County (population 269,291) has the lowest wages among large counties in the country, so there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. 

County Council president was his first elective office; he was encouraged to run by friends and party officials. 

It was a job that gave him “a good foundation in the realm of politics, helped me with building consensus and helped me with issue prioritization.”

Those skills should stand him, and his fellow first-timers in Congress, in good stead in Washington.

Years of county experience headed to Congress

Of the 12 new members of Congress with ties to county government, seven served as recently as this year. In addition to Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Tom Rice (R-S.C.) (profiled above), they are:

  • Tulsi Gabbard (D), council member, Honolulu, consolidated city-county, 2nd Congressional District
  • Donald Payne Jr. (D), freeholder, Essex County, N.J., 10th Congressional District
  • Eric Swalwell (D), deputy district attorney, Alameda County, Calif., 15th Congressional District
  • Ami Bera, M.D. (D), chief medical officer, Sacramento County, Calif., 7th Congressional District     

Freshmen Facts

Gabbard, 31, is of Samoan descent and will be the first Hindu member of Congress. She volunteered for tours of duty with the Hawaii Army National Guard in Iraq and Kuwait. “She’ll work especially well across the aisle,” according to Stanley Chang, Gabbard’s City Council colleague and NACo board member. “She is a very hard worker, always well prepared, focused and extremely easy to work with.” She has been a member of NACo’s Next Generation Network.

Payne, 53, was elected to fill the unexpired term of his late father, Rep. Donald Payne, who died in March, and the two-year term that begins in January. He served six years as a county freeholder and was also president of the city of Newark’s City Council.

Swalwell, 32, worked in Washington, D.C. from 2001–02 as an intern for Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D–Calif.). He caught the political bug via student government at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Bera, 47, is a physician. He challenged incumbent Rep. Dan Lungren (R–Calif.) in 2010 and lost by 7.9 percentage points. In this year’s rematch, votes were still being counted late last week, but Bera was leading 51.11 percent to 48.89 percent as of Nov. 16. Lungren, however, had yet to concede.

Other new members of Congress with recent county service are Chris Collins (R), Erie County, N.Y.’s county executive from 2008–11, and Dan Kildee (D), Genesee County, Mich.’s treasurer from 1998–2009.

Those with more distant county service are: Susan Brooks, former deputy mayor of Indianapolis, Marion County, 1998–99; Mark Pocan, a Dane County, Wis. supervisor from 1991–96; and Joyce Beatty, who was director of Health and Human Services for Montgomery County (Dayton), Ohio for 10 years early in her career, according to The Columbus Dispatch.