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Black Is Polished Veteran Among GOP Newbies

Majority Makers is an occasional feature profiling Republican freshmen who helped the party win back the House majority in 2010.

Rep. Diane Black buys her shoes at Dillards and chats up constituents at the local grocery store in her middle Tennessee district.

The 60-year-old Republican frequently talks about her grandchildren, her time as a nurse and the conservative values she has carried in her public life. But Black is worth $29 million and ranks among the wealthiest freshmen.

In a freshman class composed of political novices and small-business owners, Black is the polished veteran who has perhaps the brightest future ahead of her.

“I’m just a passionate person, and really, to be honest with you when folks say, ‘Oh, you’re looking to be up here,’ I say, ‘No I’m looking to be where I am today and where can I make the biggest difference in what I believe in today,’” Black told Roll Call in a recent interview. “And if that leads me this way or that way, when the time is right, the time will be right for me.”

She came to Congress with 12 years of experience in the Tennessee Legislature. Republicans chose her for a leadership post at the National Republican Congressional Committee and to be the freshman representative on the Republican Policy Committee. She’s one of just two first-term Members on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

On a recent Thursday, Black’s focus was a Ways and Means hearing on tax reform. Though she was awarded the plum spot after being elected last year, Black ranks dead last among the GOP panel members and sat through three hours of testimony before she could ask her questions.

“I’m the last on the totem pole,” she said with a shrug.

But Black didn’t seem to mind.

“One time I said something to Chairman [Dave] Camp [R-Mich.] about being the last one to ask questions, and he reminded me that he was on the committee four years before he got to ask one question,” Black said, laughing. “So I don’t complain.”

Instead, she highlights articles in trade publications while she bides her time on the dais and emails with staff on her BlackBerry, simultaneously keeping an ear to the witness testimony. At the hearing, Black slipped out of the committee room a few times to chat with aides and conduct a meeting with Maj. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the U.S. Army deputy surgeon general and chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. The two nurse brethren chatted about their shared medical backgrounds and military service roots.

“I have a dad who served in the Navy during World War II, and my husband was a Marine, and my son was in the Navy during Desert Storm. We love our military,” Black told Horoho.

Congress is just the latest stop in Black’s wide-ranging professional life that also includes co-founding Aegis Sciences Corp. with her husband, David.

Black represents a district previously held by former Rep. Bart Gordon, who retired after holding the seat for Democrats for 26 years. She was the underdog in her three-way GOP primary for the seat, and after overwhelmingly winning the general, she became one of just nine Republican women in the freshman class. Black is the oldest in that group of women and didn’t enter politics until her children were grown. She said she has offered advice to her younger colleagues on how to manage work and family.

If the House is like high school, Black is the freshman who got plucked to play on the junior varsity team. Her upper-class friends include Tennessee Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R) and Steve Cohen (D), whom she served with in the Tennessee Legislature.

Black held leadership roles in the state House and Senate, where she rose to become caucus chairman. In the U.S. House, Cohen said, Black is showing her knack for politics by staying out of the limelight.

“It’s tough when you’re a freshman. It takes a while before you can make your mark, but she’s not made any mistakes,” Cohen told Roll Call. “For freshmen, you can’t make any mistakes. She’s not done that.”

The Democrat added that Black is “not out there trying to run for the United States Senate or run for the president or anything like that, so she’s not going to take positions counter to what the party would want or be a lone ranger. I think she’ll be part of the team.”

So far, Black has done her part. She was an outspoken advocate for Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) sweeping budget proposal. This month she joined a host of freshmen in criticizing President Barack Obama for attacking Ryan’s plan and blasted those out “to score cheap political points,” sounding a lot like GOP leaders.

Like many new Members, Black said she’s had an adjustment period since coming to Washington, D.C., four months ago. She complained that Members of Congress has “given much of their power over to the executive branch in way of administration agencies” and said that she plans to sign on to a bill from Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) that would give Congress the final say in crafting major agency regulations. She was frustrated by the slow pace in Washington in January and particularly annoyed that “we can’t get the Senate to move on some of the bills we’ve sent to them.”

But Black likes to talk about working for 10 years on legislative priorities in Tennessee before they won approval on the floor, proving that “sometimes it just takes being persistent, plugging away at it.”

Does that mean she plans to stay in the House 10 years?

“I have no idea, truly, how long I’m going to stay here. As long as I have that fire in the belly and that persistence to make a difference, I will work at it,” she said. “When I finally get to that point where I say, ‘Yeah, we’re on the right track,’ I may say, ‘I’m going to lay on the beach somewhere.’ I don’t know; that’s not in my personality.”

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