Meehan Finds Not a Moment to Waste

Posted February 18, 2011 at 6:54pm

Roll Call begins an occasional series profiling Republican freshmen who helped the party win back the majority in 2010.

He is racing through the dark hallways of the Capitol Visitor Center, a small entourage trying to keep up.

There isn’t a moment to waste.

For many years, Patrick Meehan was one of the most powerful lawyers in Pennsylvania. But he is just another GOP freshman here. And his ability to ask an early question in his first Homeland Security Committee hearing depends on how fast he can navigate the intestines of the Capitol.

“You’re like a freshman in high school again in a big campus,” he later reflected. “You still sometimes open a door and there you are saying, ‘Oh my God, this is the cleaning room. I thought I was walking to an elevator.’ You kind of laugh about it.”

But there is no laughing on this recent Wednesday morning, especially with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano waiting.

Meehan and three staffers burst out of an elevator and into the Cannon House Office Building’s bustling third floor three minutes before 10 a.m. He shuffles into the anteroom with a handful of Members moments later.

And just like that, this former U.S. attorney, a soft-spoken, one-time National Hockey League referee, a man who has emerged as a leader in the largest and perhaps most influential freshman class in a generation, is ready to begin.

A New Kind of Member

In a wave election that may be remembered most for the success of fiery tea party candidates across the nation, Meehan is an anomaly.

The 55-year-old speaks in the serious, but hushed tones of someone who has spent much of his adult life in a courtroom. He overuses sports metaphors, speaks kindly of Democrats and says he will not join the Tea Party Caucus.

Meehan scored a convincing victory in the race to fill the seat vacated by unsuccessful Senate candidate Joe Sestak (D) in Pennsylvania’s 7th district. The suburban Philadelphia region leans Democratic, as evidenced by strong victories there by President Barack Obama in 2008 and failed presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Meehan defeated state Rep. Bryan Lentz (D) by 11 points, becoming part of the 87-strong GOP freshman class of the 112th Congress.

If there is one thing members of this massive freshman class have in common, it is a lack of governing experience, so the longtime prosecutor is not unique. Most have business backgrounds, but there are six doctors, three car dealers, three former U.S. attorneys, two funeral directors, an auctioneer, a former FBI agent, a former Philadelphia Eagles lineman and a lumberjack champion, among others.

Meehan has quickly brushed off the inexperience with flashes of political skill throughout his first weeks on Capitol Hill.

He captured one of three freshman seats on the Republican Steering Committee, the panel that oversees committee chairmanships and assignments. Fellow freshman Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), who became friends with Meehan during orientation, was among those pleasantly surprised by his colleague’s ascension.

“There’s a lot of different leaders in the freshman class. We have some official leaders, who are doing a great job. And we have some behind-the-scenes leaders,” says Hultgren, who begins many days with Meehan in the Rayburn House Office Building gym. “I see [Meehan] behind the scenes always checking in with people ­— he has a great memory of what my interests are. … He continues to be a leader, a voice people respect when he speaks.”

Meehan acknowledges that his role on the Steering Committee elevated his status and brought him closer to both freshman and senior Members.

“We had an objective, which was to maximize the representation of the freshman class,” he says, adding that the committee freshmen tried to “speak with one voice” to boost their influence. “People don’t even know your name, and you’re getting called by chairmen or potential chairmen saying they want to come down and see you.”

Just don’t expect Meehan to speak too highly of his role.

“I think there are remarkable people in this class,” he says. “I have gotten the ability to see how many people bring different experiences to the table. So I don’t think that anybody is the leader of the class.”

At best, he says, certain freshmen can become trusted voices in key areas. He is trying to fill that role on homeland security and terrorism issues. GOP leaders have noticed. Perhaps that’s why Meehan is one of just 15 freshmen who was granted a subcommittee chairmanship.

‘Hitting the Ground Running’

Arriving two minutes early may have paid off.

Meehan waits an hour and 20 minutes for his turn to speak, becoming the 10th Member allowed to address the Homeland Security Committee’s featured guest.

He tells Napolitano that he became a U.S. attorney just five days after the 9/11 attacks.

“I think the greatest marker of what we’ve done right is the incredible record of safety in the American homeland in that 10-year period. But we’ve also spent a lot of money,” he says, pushing her to explain whether taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively.

Government spending was at the heart of the elections, but on this day, Meehan is the first panel member to mention it.

On March 2, Meehan will have a different focus, holding the gavel for the first hearing of his Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

“He is hitting the ground running,” Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) says. “Pat may be a freshman Member of Congress, but due to his experience as a U.S. attorney, he fully understands the terrorist threat to our homeland.”

Eye on 2012

Long after the hearing is over, in a sparsely decorated fifth-floor Cannon office, Meehan reflects on his first weeks in one of the world’s most powerful political institutions.

He downplays early conflicts between GOP freshmen and Republican leadership, suggesting a dust-up over the USA PATRIOT Act was “a small speed bump, if even that.” (He sided with leadership.)

“I think there’s going to be natural tension that’s going to exist through this entire process because we’re doing some pretty remarkable things. … This is going to be a long, hard slog,” he says. But “I don’t see myself as being a freshman or part of the freshman class against leadership. I see myself as a Member of Congress.”

The pace is sometimes exhausting, he concedes.

“I think part of the adjustment here is understanding that you can’t be all things to all people,” he says, glancing at a cluttered desk topped with thick binders.

The realities of governing sometimes cloud the wave of excitement that immediately followed the 2010 midterms, and his planned 2012 re-election race already looms. (“I intend to run [again] for the House,” he says.)

Democrats have targeted Meehan’s district as a 2012 pickup opportunity. It’s one of just 14 nationally that was carried by Obama and Kerry, but is currently occupied by a Republican.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is pushing news that an ex-Meehan employee is under investigation for soliciting campaign donations on his behalf inside the U.S. attorney’s office.

Meehan says that most days he sees the big picture. He’s reading former Speaker Henry Clay’s biography to “put all of this in perspective, the incredibly history of this institution, and its role in American history,” he says.

“I don’t pretend that I’m anything more than a participant in this,” Meehan says.