The Parent Makes the Politician?

Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:00pm

By now, almost everyone has heard Speaker John Boehner talk about the lessons he learned sweeping the floor of his father’s bar.

But the Ohio Republican is not the only lawmaker whose parents’ jobs influenced his politics.

Rep. Howard Coble has a similar story. His father, who only finished the seventh grade, started out mopping floors at the Belk department store and stayed with the company until he retired as a store manager, 44 years later.

“I try to practice things that I learned from my mom and dad in my present job,” the North Carolina Republican said, “to work diligently and perform well on the job, don’t take shortcuts and take the time and do it right. That’s exactly what they did.”

There’s a wide range in Members’ roots: Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s father was a cement finisher, while Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s father once worked for the CIA. 

Many have another politician in their family tree. Reps. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) all followed in their fathers’ footsteps when they entered Congress. 

Several grew up as the children of ministers or priests, including Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Many grew up in farming families, including Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Sens. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

More than a handful of Members have parents who were life insurance salesmen, teachers or grocery store owners.

Regardless of the jobs their parents held, many Members credit their own work ethics to their upbringings.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) is originally from Milwaukee, where his father climbed telephone poles for Wisconsin Bell. A German immigrant, Risch’s father worked for the company from the time he left school until he retired.

“He was really insistent that all of us get up in the morning and go to work. That was in the family’s blood,” Risch said. “It’s just the habits they get you in from the time that you’re able to walk.”

It’s not just parents, either. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) was raised by an aunt and uncle during the summers after her parents died. She says watching her uncle work at his barbershop in Lewiston, Maine, taught her the value of small businesses.

“You don’t realize it at the time, but you draw so many lessons from those life experiences, particularly as you’re growing up,” she said. “Little could I appreciate or realize then that I would be in a position where all those experiences could bring to bear my views on those very same policies before the Senate.”

The lessons Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart learned from his parents apply directly to Congress. The Florida Republican, whose father was once the Majority Leader of the Cuban House, grew up in exile after Fidel Castro took over the country. His dad retrained as a lawyer but continued fighting for freedom in his home country, founding the first anti-Castro organization in Cuba. 

“Everything that I stand for I learned from my parents,” Diaz-Balart said. “What makes me tick is freedom … wherever oppression exists. I’m really passionate about that.”

Members’ parents influence their political lives in subtle ways, too. Rep. Gary Ackerman’s father, a longtime New York City cab driver, was a big help in his son’s campaigns.

“When I decided to get involved in politics, I had a full-time, round-the-clock pollster,” the New York Democrat said. “He knew everything about what people thought on all sides of the issue, and he could tell me exactly why I was wrong.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra’s father used his connections to find the California Democrat his first job.

Becerra’s father worked a host of manual labor jobs throughout his life, first as a shoe shiner at the age of 6. He spent time picking crops, cleaning ships’ hulls and canning tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup Co. until he retired as a road construction worker. Eventually, father and son had the chance to work side by side.

“I’d get to relieve him from some of the more burdensome tasks like working with a jackhammer,” Becerra said. “So that was fun. I really enjoyed being able to let him take it easy for a bit while I took over the jackhammer.”

Becerra wasn’t the only one who used family connections to land a job. Coble’s father helped his son get a job working at a Belk store. Snowe’s uncle persuaded a neighbor to give his niece a waitressing job in his restaurant. Risch’s father made sure there was a job waiting for his son when he left for college.

If they can’t offer employment, parents with interesting jobs have other perks to offer their children, ranging from sweet treats to free rides. When she was very young, Snowe would visit her father at the diner he owned in Augusta.

“I’d sit at the counter and he’d give me my hot fudge sundaes,” she said.

Ackerman bummed a ride or two from his father, too.

“He never charged me, anyway,” Ackerman said. “When he drove me, it was always in his taxi — but not with the meter up.”

Whatever their parents did for a living, lawmakers said they were proud of them and the opportunities they gave their children.

“We’re not a wealthy family, but I have the greatest inheritance that any parent can give their kids,” Diaz-Balart said. “A last name that represents their integrity and honor and dedication.”

These aren’t the only Members whose parents held interesting or unusual jobs. Here are some of the most surprising.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Although the Capitol complex is often crawling with tourists, it’s not known for pest problems. But that didn’t stop Abe Schumer, who ran an exterminating business for 32 years, from pointing out a cockroach when he visited his son’s Capitol Hill office in the 1980s. 

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)

The South Carolina Republican rarely leans left when it comes to politics — and he doesn’t seem to have been cursed with two left feet, either. After she divorced her husband, DeMint’s mom, Betty, started her own business. She ran the DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum out of the family home, and when a student needed a partner, young Jim lent a hand. 

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

Joe Franken took over a quilting factory in Albert Lea when the Minnesota Democrat was young. Two years later, the factory failed and the family moved on to the Twin Cities. Ever the comedian, Franken explains in his bio that he later asked his dad why his grandpa had chosen Albert Lea.

“He said, ‘Well, your grandfather wanted to open a factory in the Midwest, and the railroad went through Albert Lea,’” Franken writes on the page. “So, I asked him, ‘Why did the factory fail?’ And he said, ‘Well, it went through Albert Lea, but it wouldn’t stop.’”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA.)

The Georgia Republican might have ended up in politics, but once upon a time, he dreamed of becoming a baseball star. His ambitions might have had something to do with one of his father’s odd jobs; when young Saxby was 5, his father was the announcer for the Rock Hill Chicks, a minor league baseball club in North Carolina. The younger Chambliss later played second base at the University of Georgia.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

They might not have been old enough to imbibe, but this trio of lawmakers grew up around alcohol. Millie and Florence Graham ran a local pool hall, the Sanitary Cafe, in central South Carolina. Lieberman’s father built up his own liquor business until he had enough money to buy a house for his young family. And while Mario Rubio, father of the Florida Republican, might not have owned the store himself, he did work as a bartender at hotels in Las Vegas.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

The fathers of Lautenberg and Kirk had more than one interesting job. Lautenberg’s father, Sam, worked in silk mills, sold coal, farmed and ran a tavern. Kirk’s father, Frank, was described by a local newspaper as a “pilot, pig farmer, computer designer, sculptor, author and Army and Navy veteran.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)

The Maryland Democrat grew up across the street from her father William’s grocery store, Willy’s Market. He would often open his store early so local steelworkers could buy lunch before the morning shift, and his daughter credits him with instilling in her the values of hard work and neighborliness.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

The Washington Democrat knows well how hard her father worked in his five-and-dime store, Meredith’s 10-Cent Store — she and her six siblings also put in long hours at the shop. The Senator still uses the building, now Alexa’s Café, as a headquarters in her hometown of Bothell, Wash.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

There’s a special relationship between politics and the media — one that Wyden and Klobuchar know quite well. Wyden’s father, Peter, worked as an author and journalist with bylines in magazines ranging from Newsweek to Ladies’ Home Journal. Klobuchar’s father Jim, a sports columnist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years, now writes periodically for the Christian Science Monitor. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.)

Growing up, many little boys want to be firefighters — and it’s probably harder when your father has such a cool job. Both Larson and Rogers, whose fathers were firefighters, have sponsored legislation in the House to help support fire departments.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.)

The California Republican got his start in politics thanks to his dad, who served as President Richard Nixon’s personal physician. He remembers walking precincts for GOP candidates as early as age 6.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

The father of the Arizona Democrat migrated to the U.S. in 1945 as part of the Bracero program to bring in guest workers from Mexico to offset the loss of farmers serving in World War II. Now, profiles describe Grijalva’s father as a Mexican cowboy. Dad’s job clearly influenced his son, who still prefers Western bolos to neckties.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.)

The Washington Republican grew up in British Columbia but moved to Kettle Falls, Wash., when she and her brother Jeff were ready for high school. Her father, Wayne, bought an orchard and opened a fruit stand. She and Jeff were often responsible for pruning, thinning and picking produce for the stand.