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California Rep. Denham Thinks Large and Small

Freshman Focusing on Increasing Efficiency Of Federal Properties

A former college football player, freshman Rep. Jeff Denham isn’t exactly someone who blends into a crowd. In the halls of the Capitol, he’s likely to have other Members around him, a team of sorts.

It’s his impatience for inefficiency and dogged drive on even the most specific issues that might best define his approach since arriving in Congress. He’s not bashful about having latched on to a pet bill that has been his main pass route in the House: “I don’t take no for an answer.”

Like nearly all of his freshman Republican colleagues, Denham wants to reduce the size of government. But he’s taking that challenge literally.

Denham has focused much of his legislative effort on a proposal to create a commission evaluating whether federal properties are being used to the utmost efficiency. He wants to see federal buildings consolidated, unused properties sold and the government shedding expensive leases.

A key example, he said, is the annex of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C, which has been unoccupied for a decade.

His proposal has support from the White House, as a similar plan was in President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal 2012. Republican Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) has a related bill in the Senate, but Denham’s bill hasn’t been granted a floor vote.

Denham, who came to Washington as a seasoned California state legislator, still believes it will become law.

“I am very proud of the fact that we’re going to have one of the biggest pieces of legislation that gets signed into law done as a freshman,” he said.

Denham sees this bill as pivotal to easing the financial woes of the federal government. He sought after this policy niche not long after being elected to the House, seeking the chairmanship of a subcommittee dealing with federal property management.

He has aligned with the mainstream GOP on spending issues and is a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, but not the Tea Party Caucus. He’s stayed away from more politically prickly issues, such as the minute details of budget cutting.

He is a frequent presence on the House floor and showcases his legislative knowhow sitting in the Speaker’s dais during debate. During a recent interview with Roll Call in his Longworth office, Denham had to rush off to fulfill Speaker pro tem duties.

A former state Senator and farmer with almost two decades of experience in the Air Force, Denham places a high value on effectiveness, personally and for the government.

“I am somebody who wants to get something done,” he said. “I don’t know how long I am going to be here; I don’t know how long I am going to want to be here.”

Water and Partisanship Woes

At the beginning of December, Denham’s Washington office was decorated for the holidays, featuring a Christmas tree from California.

But more prominently displayed was the massive Christmas tree on the west end of the Capitol complex, from the Stanislaus National Forest in his district. The lighting ceremony for the nearly 65-foot Sierra white fir was held Dec. 6, and Denham briefly addressed the crowd.

Denham brings an understanding of natural resources and agriculture to the House. In 2003, he bought a 40-acre farm to grow almonds, an experience that taught him how pivotal water issues are for his San Joaquin Valley district.

“You do not solve the unemployment crisis that we have in the Central Valley without addressing water,” he said. “There are no easy solutions to water.”

Denham is frustrated that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has yet to tackle the water policy issues he wanted to address and said Members are interjecting partisanship into an issue he views as affecting everyone.

Despite eight years in the state Senate and his allegiance to the more mainstream GOP line, Denham says he finds partisanship distasteful.

A defining moment in his political career came when he was the target of a 2008 state Senate recall election. He had voted against a budget resolution, stalling its passage. He claimed at the time that the plan was not properly balanced.

The recall election failed, and he held his seat with 75 percent of the vote. But the instance left its mark on the legislator.

“While the recall was very personal and it was very frustrating, I think it showed people in my district that I am not going to be bullied or pressured or intimidated. I am going to fight for what I think is the right thing to do,” Denham said.

In 2009, he had actually considered running for lieutenant governor or a state Assembly seat before he was contacted by Rep. George Radanovich, a Republican who was retiring after eight terms. Radanovich called Denham in December, asking whether he would consider running in the reliably Republican 19th district.

He won the crowded GOP primary in 2010 with 36 percent of the vote and then cruised to victory against Democrat Loraine Goodwin.

Climbing Up

After arriving in Washington, Denham was made a member of the Whip team, an unusual feat for someone who just got here. Perhaps it’s because when he served in Sacramento, he roomed for a few years with fellow Californian, and now Majority Whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

“I’m somebody who works hard, whether it’s being a leader in this freshman class or just being involved in leadership in the debate here,” Denham said.

He also was tapped by the National Republican Congressional Committee to be a regional director for the 2012 cycle — he was one of just four freshmen chosen.

McCarthy said Denham is a standout.

“What you find in a big freshman class — he’s a big guy, with a deep voice, so you’re going to see him anyways — but his skills make you see him, as well,” McCarthy said, quipping that Denham was a messy roommate.

Re-election won’t be as easy for Denham, who already has an opponent in his redrawn and more competitive district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting him with radio ads in hopes of reclaiming the majority.

He will likely face former astronaut and Central Valley native Jose Hernandez (D). Roll Call rates the race Leans Republican.

Even after redistricting, his new district maintains a significant Hispanic population. Denham is fluent in Spanish; he said he learned it for personal reasons: to speak with his wife’s grandmother.

“Now my wife and I primarily speak in Spanish when we don’t want the kids to know what we’re talking about,” he said, laughing. “They are learning it now. We need to find a new language.”