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Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest List

Black has a minimum net worth of at least $21.24 million. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Black has a minimum net worth of at least $21.24 million. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ten years ago, the 50 wealthiest members of Congress were 60 percent Republican even though the GOP held 52 percent of all the seats — just like this time. Then, as now, all the lawmakers on the roster were white, no more than 1 in 5 was a woman and a dozen of them had spouses to thank for the bulk of their money.  

But, for all those partisan and demographic echoes, the new roster of Roll Call’s 50 Richest reveals how the economic and political upheavals of the past decade have altered the nature of affluence on Capitol Hill.  

The heir to the family fortune has become an endangered species at the apex of congressional wealth. Now it’s dominated by the self-made multimillionaire. And the shift is entirely because of the changing face of the Republicans.  

Back in 2004, five GOP senators and 10 GOP House members were among Congress’ richest 1 percent principally because of their inheritance — fortunes made in glass, textiles, real estate, appliances, hospitals, farming, frozen food, publishing and banking. This year the comparable roster has shrunk to just four: Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (a great-grandfather engineered the success of Kimberly-Clark) and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey (descended from a Procter & Gamble founder) remain from a decade ago and have been joined by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio (his dad built one of the nation’s biggest heavy-equipment distributors) and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida (a granddad started the Pittsburgh Steelers).  

The 2014 list includes 22 Republicans (four are senators) who can point to their own business acumen as the reasons their minimum net worth exceeded $7.7 million at the end of last year. Ten years ago, there were only a dozen such Republicans.  

In other words, the GOP trust funders who have fallen off the roster since 2004 have been replaced almost one-for-one by GOP entrepreneurs. (The number of Democrats who are really rich thanks to either family money or the fruits of their own labors is essentially unchanged.) Fourteen lawmakers on Roll Call’s roster were also among the richest a decade ago. Four senior members of the 113th Congress, who ranked between No. 25 and No. 48 in 2004, have seen their relative net worths decline compared with their colleagues and now rank between No. 53 and No. 73. The other 32 members who made the list 10 years ago have died, retired or were defeated.  

But the new list suggests the most interesting reconfiguration has been relatively recent. It appears to have been brought about, at least in part, by two factors: The recession at the end of the last decade caused many high-net-worth trust portfolios to sag, while a growing number of newly successful business executives have sought to bring their conservative views to the Capitol.  

“The nature of the 1 percent has changed a lot in the last few years, and it sounds like the Republicans in Congress are reflecting some of that,” says Alan Ehrenhalt, whose 1991 book, “The United States of Ambition,” explored differences between Republicans and Democrats who run for office. “The question is whether small-government conservatives who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps are willing to stay in Congress very long. That would be a big change.”  

Nine of the newest 50 Richest are Republicans elected in or after 2010, the year the party won control of the House and significantly narrowed its disadvantage in the Senate. The freshman senators are a very successful bank executive (John Hoeven of North Dakota) and a guy who made a killing in plastics (Ron Johnson of Wisconsin). The junior House members include a corporate turnaround expert (Chris Collins of New York), a construction company founder (Richard Hanna of New York), a nursing-home kingpin (James B. Renacci of Ohio), the CEO of a steel wheel manufacturer (Curt Clawson of Florida) and a pair of big time auto dealers (Roger Williams of Texas and Scott Rigell of Virginia).  

The other junior House Republican on the list, Diane Black of Tennessee, exemplifies another important way the 50 Richest of today are different from the group a decade earlier.  

There were 10 females on the 2004 roster , but each and every one of them appeared principally because of the financial success of their husbands; there was not a self-made woman in the group. This year the list has nine women, but two of them engineered their own assents into the ranks of the very well-off.  

In 1990, Black and her husband, David, started Aegis Sciences Corp., now a nationwide purveyor of drug tests for sports teams and corporations. He still runs the company, but the couple profited enormously by selling to a private equity firm just before Black won her House seat four years ago. She’s now No. 20 on the list, with a minimum net worth of $21.24 million.  

Ten notches above Black, with a minimum net worth of $37.89 million, is Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington. She amassed that fortune by launching a pair of successful Internet startups and rising through the ranks of Microsoft to become vice president for mobile communications marketing. (Her husband, Kurt DelBene, retired from the software behemoth a year ago as a top executive and is now managing as a volunteer for the Obama administration.)  

Between them, Black and DelBene have spent more than $6.5 million of their own money to launch and sustain their young congressional careers. If the visage of noblesse oblige in American public life is going to change once again during the next decade, look for more female entrepreneurs like those two to be at the leading edge.  


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