Rep. Harry Teague Relishes the Limelight

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:42pm

Newly elected Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.) was so excited for the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the start of his own Congressional career that he could barely put his feelings into words.

“This is not just a regular deal; this is a monumental inauguration that we’re fixing to have,” he said before Obama’s swearing-in. “It’s pretty phenomenal, but as a matter of fact it’s so big that I don’t even know how to quantify expectations.”

Life’s pretty good for Teague these days. In November, he won the race to represent New Mexico’s 2nd district — no small feat for a 59-year-old high school dropout who spent his first nine years in a house without running water.

“It’s been great,” he said of his past few months. “I mean, we just got elected to Congress. How could it be anything but great?”

Teague, who hails from the small town of Hobbs, quit school at age 17 and went to work in the New Mexico oil fields for $1.50 an hour. He used the knowledge he gained in the field to eventually launch a company that works on oil and gas wells in southern New Mexico. Just over a year ago, after serving as a county commissioner, Teague decided to run for Congress.

“I was looking at the people that were going to be running for this seat, and I knew that if I didn’t run and win this seat we would be represented by one of them,” he said. “I thought we needed someone like me that was a businessman and had built a business, not someone who was just running to have a job.”

Teague, who set up house in Pentagon City with his wife, Nancy, has now been in Washington, D.C., for nearly a month, and he is already learning his way around.

“I’m getting really comfortable with riding the Metro to work and everything,” he said. “I was just thinking on the way to work this morning, ‘Hey, I’m getting this to be second nature!’”

Teague’s wife, children and grandchildren joined him in Washington on Jan. 6 for his swearing-in ceremony. As he took the oath, Teague placed his hand on a Bible that his wife and daughter gave to him in 1974. He said the experience was overwhelming.

“Outside of my wedding day and the birth of my children, that’s probably the most exciting day of my life,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever have another day like that. It was a tremendous day, a tremendous feeling.”

Going forward, Teague has vowed to have an open-door policy with his constituents. He certainly kept this promise over inauguration weekend, when he played host to a group of 15 high school students from Deming, N.M. He invited the eager teenagers into his office for hot chocolate and conversation on Monday and also provided them with tickets to the swearing-in. As they chatted, it became apparent that he, in many ways, is just as wide-eyed as they are.

“I’ve never seen this many people,” he told the students, referring to the massive crowds who surrounded the Capitol in hopes of securing inauguration tickets.

The students, who bubbled with energy, settled into the couch and chairs that pepper Teague’s undecorated office in the Longworth House Office Building. They munched on chips and cookies as they took turns asking Teague questions: When did you get here? How has your life changed since being elected? What’s a typical day like for you?

“Every day is pretty exciting,” Teague told the group in a drawl. “Contrary to what a lot of people may think, they really do put a lot of time in up here. These people here are just like the people back home, they’re friends and neighbors.”

The students raised money for the trip by hosting talent shows, selling roses for Valentine’s Day and holding other fundraisers. The state Democratic Party donated $1,000 to the students’ cause, and in the end each student had to pay $1,700 out of pocket.

“We ultimately got to come and I’m completely, completely excited,” 17-year-old Kursty Keeler said. “When you’re little you don’t think you’ll ever have an opportunity like this.”

The students eagerly told the Congressman about their visits to Mount Vernon, the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall, where they scoped out their inauguration seats.

“My expectations at first were not high because I didn’t think the seats would be close, then last night we went to see it and they were amazingly close,” Jazymyne Garnand said.

“I’m so excited, I get goose bumps just thinking about it!” added Cynthia Garcia, a senior at Deming High School.

The median income in New Mexico’s 2nd district is $37,000, and for some of the students this was their first time on an airplane. Teague hopes this trip teaches the students that they can do anything.

“I think if they could leave here realizing that from Deming, N.M., that they can reach the nation’s capital and therefore the rest of the world, I think that would be enough for them to learn on one trip,” he said.