[This story is the shorter of two versions – 786 words.]
WASHINGTON – When long-time Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne retired,he was bugged by a desire to remain active
John Ensign,a Las Vegas veterinarian,was bugged by Bill Clinton.
King County,Wash.,Sheriff Dave Reichert had chased robbers and serial killers long enough that he wanted to take on new challenges.
Rush Holt,a physicist at Princeton University,mastered plasma physics but couldn't figure out Newt Gingrich.
The rumblings these four men felt were unique but similar,and each found the same solution. They ran for United States Congress.
“I thought I was going to follow politics as just a citizen,” Holt said.
Today,the four – Osborne,Reichert and Holt in the House of Representatives,and Ensign in the Senate – are among a short list of members of Congress who never expected to be there,but now stand out from the lawyers,business leaders and career politicians who crowd the Capitol's halls.
More than 40 percent of the 109th Congress,like many before it,consists of lawyers. Many members come from business,and more than half served as state legislators. Meanwhile,Osborne,a Republican,is the only college football coach. Holt,a Democrat,is one of two physicists. Ensign,a Republican,is one of two veterinarians. Reichert,a Republican,is one of three sheriffs.
In the 20th century,television has helped citizens outside the legal profession get into politics,said Senate Historian Richard A. Baker.
“Over the last 30 or so years,an ambitious veterinarian or heart transplant surgeon can jump past all that. It makes the system more accessible to a wider range of backgrounds,” he said. “Some spark plug can get up there and say,‘It's time to change things in Washington,and I'm the one to do it.'”
That's exactly what Osborne,Ensign,Reichert,Holt and others have done.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,of Tennessee,and Rep. Charles Boustany,R-La.,are surgeons. Rep. John Hostettler,R-Ind.,is a mechanical engineer. Rep. Mike Pence,R-Ind.,hosted a radio talk show. Rep. Louise Slaughter,D-N.Y.,worked in microbiology. Reps. Gary Ackerman,D-N.Y.,and Terry Everett,R-Ala.,owned newspapers. Rep. Vernon Ehlers,R-Mich.,is the other physicist. Sen. Wayne Allard,R-Colo.,is the other veterinarian,and Reps. Solomon Ortiz,D-Texas,and Tim Holden,D-Pa.,are the other former sheriffs.
Osborne,Ensign,Reichert and Holt all cited the motivation to make a difference that sparks most politicians,but the transition can be a challenge.
Ensign,who ran a 24-hour animal hospital in Las Vegas before being elected to the House in 1994 and the Senate in 1998,likened campaigning to “being an insurance salesman.”
“Nobody gave me a chance,” he said. “My parents didn't think I could win. I don't know if any of my friends thought I could win. I'm not totally convinced I thought I could win.”
Reichert,well-known in the Seattle area for the investigation and capture of the Green River serial killer,said he has had to adapt to new surroundings in his first few months in Congress.
“To me it's like walking into a bar fight. As a police officer,when I walked into a bar fight,or a domestic violence call,the first thing I'd do is walk in and just kind of look around a little bit,” he said. “You're not going to jump into the middle of a bar fight not knowing who the good guys are. So you've got to figure out where everybody is first.”
The four congressmen said their backgrounds have given them an edge on certain legislative topics. Osborne often works on education reform. Ensign pays special attention to health care. Reichert said his experience translates well to homeland security. Holt,meanwhile,takes on an array of science legislation.
Reichert has been nicknamed “Sheriff,” among his colleagues,but he,Osborne,Ensign and Holt all said their unique careers have never left them pigeonholed as one-dimensional.
“At first,when you arrive,people look at you as a football coach,” said Osborne,who retired with a 255-49-3 career record,“but after a short time,people are interested in how you look at issues. People start looking at what you do as a congressman,and being a football coach isn't as important.”
That a man who spent his life in football – a mere game,some might say – is a testament to the representative structure of Congress,even if it is a bit lawyer-heavy. Regardless of background,everyone can participate.
“I often ask school students when they come to visit in Washington,‘What's the greatest invention in history?' and they,knowing that I'm a scientist,usually come up with various technical suggestions,” Holt said. “I say it's our system of government. I really think it's an ingenious invention.”