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How Joe Barton Struck Out

Retiring Texas Republican was thwarted by his own political instincts

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, faces retirement after a sex scandal. His career in Washington had already reached its peak. (CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, faces retirement after a sex scandal. His career in Washington had already reached its peak. (CQ Roll Call)

Leadership be damned, Rep. Joe L. Barton thought. He knew he was right, and as soon as he was convinced of that, hardly anything in the world could move him.

Just a few months into his first term, the Texas Republican was angling for something between protest and revolution. House Democrats had voted to declare themselves the winner of a contested Indiana House race — in Republicans’ eyes, a theft. While his own party’s leadership urged restraint, Barton fumed.

He started wearing a fist-sized turquoise pin with the words “Thou Shalt Not Steal” on his lapel. He even staged a solo picket — none of his Republican colleagues joined him — outside a Fort Worth building with Jim Wright, the Democratic majority leader, inside.

“I got in a lot of trouble with the establishment Republicans for that,” Barton said in his gentle Texas twang, with evident pride. He volunteered the story over a bag of Cheetos and a caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper (his signature). To him, it’s a testament to his commitment never to stand down on principle.

Tales like these, of flying in the face of his party’s leadership, are key to Barton’s conservative bona fides. He never found much of a voice on social issues or raised hell in partisan mud fights, but he has strong convictions and has never feared being the thorn in his own party’s side.

Barton, 68, is now looking for a new job. His political career fell out from under him last November, when an anonymous Twitter account published a nude photo he’d sent to a woman in his district while separated from his second wife. Racy text messages emerged in the following days, as well as the revelation that he’d been desperate to keep the affairs a secret.

It proved to be a gamble he couldn’t survive. His support from the Republican establishment evaporated within days. Leaders in his state called on him to resign. Two Republican candidates, smelling blood, jumped into his previously uncontested primary race. Barton announced a week later he would retire at the end of his term.

“I’m not happy to go out with a black mark like that,” Barton said. “In hindsight, would I engage in those types of activities? The answer is no. I’m not doing it now. I don’t ever intend to do it again. But it shouldn’t have happened, and it’s my own fault.”

Mr. Energy

By November 2006, Barton was on a winning streak and looking for more. Now chairman of the high-powered House Energy and Commerce Committee, he’d just notched one of his career’s crowning legislative achievements: the 2005 bipartisan energy policy bill. Like picketing Jim Wright after a big election win, it seemed the perfect time for Barton to take on Goliath.

Meanwhile, House Republicans, after losing big in the midterms, were about to pick a new minority leader. John Boehner, then the second-ranking Republican in the House, led the race. Barton threw his hat in the ring days later — but quickly found the votes weren’t there. He dropped out days before the election, and the innermost circle of Washington power stayed out of his reach.

Boehner alone did not thwart Barton’s quest for leadership. Barton’s rise was stopped short by his own political limits.

First, his niche in Congress as the GOP’s policy-deft and staunchly pro-oil “Mr. Energy” became a political liability. A former natural gas consultant, Barton’s consistent opposition to environmental and air-quality regulations earned him the nickname “Smokey Joe” from critics and more than $2 million dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas lobby.

He’s also been teased for questioning the existence of human-caused climate change, and induced headaches in his party in 2010 with a tone-deaf defense of BP executives after the Mexican Gulf oil spill.

Second, Barton didn’t have the far-reaching network of connections or relationships with leadership that boost careers in Washington. Barton was an “engineer type,” hardworking and reserved, not one to frequent cocktail parties or schmooze over drinks. “He succeeded more on the substance,” said Cathy Gillespie, his chief of staff for a decade.

His third strike, according to people close to him, was his appetite for bugging the boss. A self-described “independent thinker” who rarely held his tongue, he had a blind spot when it came to avoiding political grudges.

“You’re going to think this is odd, but when he stands up on principle and gets in someone’s face, later he doesn’t understand why they remember that,” former Barton staffer Bud Albright said. “He says, ‘All I was doing was standing up for what I thought was right. Why would they hold a grudge about that?’”

That was how the 2006 minority leader’s race came back to bite Barton. In 2010, when Republicans took back the House, the Texan needed Boehner’s blessing to again head the Energy and Commerce committee — and Boehner shut him down. Challenging Boehner in 2006 “put some doubt into his mind about how loyal I would be to him,” Barton said.

‘We can’t catch pop flies’

Barton now leaves behind one of his last leadership positions on the Hill: general manager of the Republican Congressional baseball team. The memorabilia-covered walls of his office show he’s well known as a longtime player, coach and manager. And he thinks he knows why the team has tanked in recent matches against the Democrats: “We aren’t very good.”

“We can’t catch pop flies. We can’t catch grounders. We can’t throw it to first base. We can’t throw it to second base,” he said while his aides sat chuckling in the chairs against the wall.

Though no longer a chairman and never a party leader, Barton has remained a key lawmaker on the Hill, particularly as a bridge between leadership and the conservative House Freedom Caucus on health care. He’s worked with Democrats on reforms to the Department of Energy and pushed against Republican hardliners, so far unsuccessfully, for a bipartisan immigration compromise. His biggest regret, he says, is not reigning in the federal debt.

And while his career in Congress is all but over, he may not be the last Barton on the Hill. His youngest son, 12-year-old Jack Barton, is quite the people person, he said, and getting darn good at baseball.

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