While Rep. Randy Hultgren thinks Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants did a masterful job in this messy debt-ceiling debate, in the end, the freshman Republican congressman didn’t vote Boehner’s way—he was one of five members of the Illinois delegation who voted “no” on the legislation that was just signed into law by President Obama. Hultgren, who represents the 14th District, said that the final compromise emasculated the Balanced Budget Amendment that Hultgren strongly favors.
The 45-year-old father of four, who is married to his college sweetheart, was elected to the U.S. Congress in the pivotal 2010 election. He calls himself a small-government conservative who acknowledges the Tea Party support in his victory—but his core belief, he says, is “the more local the government, the more effective that that government is and the more accountable. Much of that is alignment with the Tea Party, but these beliefs I had were long before [the group] got up and going.”
I talked to him by telephone today, just after he landed at O’Hare this morning. He seemed happy to be going home to Winfield, a Western DuPage County suburb). Our conversation ranged from his desire for a second term (in the face of a Democratic remap that could scotch those plans) to emotions he felt at the appearance of Rep. Gabby Giffords on the House floor on Monday.
CF: So how are you feeling this morning after voting “no” yesterday, against the wishes of your party’s leadership?
RH: Pretty good. It was a tough decision. I certainly don’t want our nation to go into default, but at the same time, I’m very concerned about our ongoing debt problem. I really felt like this was so important for us to do something that would have structural change in the way budgeting happens in Washington D.C. I ended up supporting two of the three bills that passed through the House; the two that I supported had provisions that would have structural accountability with the Balanced Budget Amendment. Yesterday’s bill just didn’t have the same strength.
CF: Did it keep you up at night that we might miss the August 2 deadline and not be able to pay our bills? Would it have been as big a deal as advertised?
RH: I took it very seriously, not flippantly. I didn’t think it was a hoax. I thought it was real. I was pretty convinced that sometime here in August we clearly would not have had enough money to pay all of our bills.
CF: According to Politico, in a closed-door meeting with Democrats Monday, Vice President Joe Biden seconded the characterization of Tea Party people as “act[ing] like terrorists.”
RH: That’s ridiculous. The ones that I’ve connected with are… people who have worked hard, played by the rules, and now they’re fearful for our country’s future for their kids and grandkids. The Vice President missed that these are good people. I think for Joe Biden to say that was wrong, and I think he probably regrets it.
CF: You told me that you received calls from people in 46 states expressing their opinions on this debt-ceiling bill. Would you characterize any of those calls as a threat from Tea Party members: “If you don’t vote no, we’re going to oppose you in 2012?”
RH: Certainly not from my constituents; it was respectful, well presented. There might have been other people who sent nasty emails with threats saying we’re never going to support anybody who votes for this. My focus is on my constituents
CF: So you’re definitely running for re-election next year. With the recent Democratic remap do you know what district you’ll be running from?
RH: My colleague Judy Biggert (R-13th District) has a good line: `I’m running for Congress; I just don’t know from what time zone.’ I think we have a very strong opportunity with this court case. [Hultgren has joined most of the Republican delegation in challenging the remap in the courts.] Really, this remap is a slap in the face of Illinois voters from November 2010 and what they said pretty clearly, so I think we’ve got a very good opportunity to have that overturned.
CF: There’s lot of speculation in the press that you’ll be thrown into a primary against your Republican colleague and Tea Party favorite Joe Walsh. Are you two friends?
RH: Joe and I talk often; our offices are literally 50 yards from each other,
CF: Are you following the news that he owes $117,000 in child support to his ex-wife?
RH: No comment.
CF: So you have a couple of teenagers [ages 17 and 15] and two younger kids [nine and seven]. Tell me about your family?
RH: Christy and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary this summer. We met at Bethel College in Minnesota, a small Baptist liberal arts school. I followed that with law school at Chicago Kent. My two older children go to a Christian high school out here, the private Wheaton Academy where I went. My wife is a former elementary schoolteacher, and she decided to make it a very good ratio of teacher to student, so she’s home-schooling our two younger kids. Our two older ones were home-schooled for a couple of years.
CF: Tell me about being lobbied directly by Speaker Boehner.
RH: It was twice at his leading and once at mine. He was strong in his position. Ultimately, he made some adjustments to the bill so I voted for it twice, but I couldn’t do it after the compromise over the weekend. Yes, I was at that pizza dinner in Boehner’s hideaway office.
CF: I always liked that old quote that it’s best not to see how sausage or laws are made. Was there sausage on the pizza?
CF: Did Boehner come out of this process weaker or stronger?
RH: I think a stronger leader.
CF: Who do you like in the race for the Republican nomination for President?
RH: I haven’t endorsed anyone yet. I’d like to see a conservative Republican; I don’t know who that is yet. I’m keeping my powder dry.
CF: What about Texas Gov. Rick Perry?
RH: I don’t know him very well, but definitely interested in knowing more. I think there still might be some people who aren’t even in the race yet who will be in the race.
CF: Would Mitt Romney being a Mormon be a problem for you?
RH: No. I’m looking for someone who is competent, whose strongest plus is his understanding of budget and the economy—whether it’s Romney or someone like Perry or someone like [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie. I think the big thing is to talk about getting people working again and addressing the issues that are keeping small business from being able to grow.
CF: What about your colleague Michele Bachmann?
RH: I get along well with Congressman Bachmann. I think she is very smart, but I’m gonna wait and see who all the candidates are. I will look at their positions on things, and their ability to bring people together, to be successful in 2012.
CF: Tell me what you were feeling when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords showed up to vote yesterday.
RH: It was just wonderful, miraculous, amazing. It was three days after my swearing in when this shooting happened. I didn’t know her well, but we’d gotten sworn in midweek, and the next day, quite a few of us were selected to read the Constitution on the House floor. It happened that Congressman Gifford was a couple of people ahead of me in reading. Word spread really quickly, and then we saw her coming down the Democratic side. I wasn’t able to get close to shake her hand. That was fine. I was happy to be cheering for her clapping for her, grateful that she was back.