Why Tom Cole thinks former staffers make the best lawmakers
Stint as aide to Rep. Mickey Edwards put him ahead of the game
The Congress that smokes together stays together, according to Rep. Tom Cole, who’s been known to enjoy a stogie inside his offices on Capitol Hill.
“If you want to smoke a cigar, we have a place for you,” the Oklahoma Republican says, and he means it. Cole takes pride in lighting up with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, part of a larger push to just sit down and talk. “I believe in hospitality,” he says.
Make no mistake, Cole came up through the world of partisan politics. When he worked for Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards in the early 1980s, he started out as a political “enforcer” of sorts. But he also got a two-year crash course in how to get along, as he served as a field representative and district director in a state that was almost entirely Democratic then. (Edwards was the only Republican in a six-member House delegation.)
Cole still emails back and forth with his onetime boss, and a recent message came with a heads-up: Edwards was leaving the GOP, calling it a “cult” in thrall to Donald Trump.
That’s not the path for Cole, who objected to certifying certain 2020 presidential election results on Jan. 6, but he’s listening. “Who am I to quibble with a guy that smart, and that deeply concerned about the country?” he says.
Cole reminisced with CQ Roll Call earlier this fall about his staffer days, noting that he loves to see former aides run for Congress. “They make great members on both sides of the aisle, I promise,” he says.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you start working for Edwards?
I was brought on to be the political eyes, ears and, I guess, enforcer, to some degree, for the congressman. Redistricting had happened in Oklahoma in ’81, ’82, and his district changed pretty dramatically. I’d been executive director of a state party, I’d been deputy campaign manager in a governor’s race, and I was looking for a job. And he was looking for somebody who knew the ground.
And then I ended up getting to be the district director after that. My background had been partisan up to that point, political. And this gave me a really good look at governing and all the complexities that the state of Oklahoma has. Mickey represented Tinker Air Force Base, and he also had the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, which is still where we train most air traffic controllers in the United States. So these are substantial federal investments.
Q: You’re one of the few Native American members of Congress. When you were a staffer, were there many other Native American staffers? And what about today?
A: Not too many, but there were certainly some. Mickey’s district had a strong tribal presence, even though Oklahoma County has no tribal governments. But you got to the northern part of his district, and then you had Poncas and Kaws and lots of tribes along the Kansas border, and the Osage Nation as well.
Today, it’s gotten better. I had one work for me a number of years ago, a guy named T.W. Shannon, a fellow Chickasaw who rose to be speaker of the House of Representatives in the state of Oklahoma and now runs a big bank. He’s a ubiquitous presence on Fox News, and I joke that I see him on there a lot more than me. Josh Jackson, who’s actually now working in the administration, headed up Native American issues for me for a long time. He’s a Cherokee from northeast Oklahoma. So I think we’re doing a better job of reaching out.
I’ve certainly seen this as I travel the country. My friend Ann Kirkpatrick, in her old district in northern Arizona, had a terrific tribal staff presence working with a variety of tribes. Out there you obviously have Navajo, Hopi, some very complex relationships. A lot of offices have begun to recognize the importance, particularly when they have large Native populations in their area. Would I like to have more Native Americans? Absolutely. You always want more.
Q: What’s something you learned as a staffer that’s stuck with you?
A: I have enormous respect for staffers who run for Congress. I joke with my friends Rodney Davis and Richard Hudson about this a lot. When they were running, I have a very active political action committee, and I maxed out to those guys immediately. As a rule, when staff first become members, they’re way ahead of the game. They know how congressional offices work and the legislative process. They know who the good staff people are, and their hiring decisions are usually exceptional.
They also, quite honestly, have a better idea of what the life is like. This life isn’t for everybody. There’s a lot of strain, a lot of movement, it’s tough on families. They know all that going in.
I usually find former staffers are a lot more sophisticated than just showing up and wanting to go to Ways and Means. They think, “No, I represent a military district, the House Armed Services Committee makes more sense for me,” or “I represent a district with a high concentration of research facilities, so maybe I want to think about doing Ed and Labor, but then also moving over to Appropriations, where a lot of the federal funding is, in places like Labor-H.” In other words, they know where to go.
I think of my friend Jo Bonner, the former member from Alabama. Jo worked 17 years for Sonny Callahan, and his last several were as district director, so nobody knew Mobile and the surrounding area like Jo Bonner. If you’ve already worked in an office, you start out way ahead of anybody else.
Q: On the Rules Committee, both you and Chair Jim McGovern are former staffers. Have you bonded over that?
A: Jim and I look at the world differently politically, but I’m a huge admirer of his. He’s very much an institutionalist, and I like to think I am too. Most former staff members are. We cherish the institution.
Nobody, in my view, knows the Rules Committee as well as Jim McGovern. My member, Mickey Edwards, was not on the Rules Committee, and I really didn’t have much association with it until former Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert put me there over my protests, almost, in my second term. But Jim worked as a staffer on the committee, worked his way up on the Democratic side from the lowest position, from the bottom of the dais up to the very top. I always tell him he’s made to be the ranking member. [Laughs.] But he’s also exceptionally prepared to be the chairman.
Q: You’ve built a reputation for breaking bread with others, or rather, sharing drinks and cigars. Can you trace that back to your staffer days?
A: Two of my great vices, but I enjoy them both. I really developed a fondness for cigars working for Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma. I was secretary of state, an appointed position in Oklahoma, and before that I’d run his campaigns. Frank liked to have a good cigar.
There are things that bond people across party lines. I always used to give John Boehner a hard time about his cigarette smoking. I said, “Mr. Speaker, you need to switch to cigars. A cigarette is an addiction. A cigar is a relationship.” A cigarette, you’re sitting there for a couple of minutes, inhaling. You never see a 15-year-old kid with a $20 cigar puffing it outside in a cold February. If you’re going to have a cigar, you’re going to sit down someplace for 30 to 45 minutes. It’s a good thing to have a discussion over.
And so in the Rules minority office, famously, if you want to smoke a cigar, we have a place for you. Come on down. We get Democrats and Republicans — mostly Republicans, but certainly some Democrats. Gerry Connolly is a friend of mine, he’s been in there a couple of times to have a cigar, and Tom Suozzi and Jim Panetta. I believe in hospitality.
It’s one of the things we lost when we lost the Speaker’s Lounge as a place where members could sit and have a cigarette or a cigar. I understand the bad PR and how it looks, but members would sit down and get to know one another in ways we make very difficult to happen these days. And that’s unfortunate, because personal relationships are part of good legislating.
Q: Over on the Appropriations Committee, there are even more former staffers, including yourself and Chair Rosa DeLauro, plus Tim Ryan and Barbara Lee. Do you think a pipeline has developed?
A: I do. I’m pardonably prejudiced, but Appropriations is the best committee in Congress. It’s still a genuinely bipartisan committee in terms of its demeanor and behavior. You have to get something done every year. One way or another, you’re going to fund the government.
A lot of people on the committee understand its importance as former staffers, but also the ability to get things done. The great thing about appropriators as a rule is they’re what I call “Let’s Make a Deal” politicians, even if they’re very liberal. One of my favorite members of the Appropriations Committee is now our full chairman, Rosa DeLauro, who I served with on Labor-H, which is arguably the most complex of the domestic spending bills and the most contentious. And yet for six years in a row, four when I was chair, the most recent two when she was chair, we not only reached a deal, but she and I both voted for final passage. We know one another’s red lines. We also know where we can cooperate, on the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, programs like TRIO and GEAR UP that are for first-generation college students, and early childhood programs.
I’m very proud of that. As a committee, we’re one of the more functional parts of a partisan and polarized Congress right now.
Q: After your staffing career, you eventually became a state senator, but then left to work at the National Republican Congressional Committee. What was it like trying to flip the House in the early 1990s?
A: Guy Vander Jagt was the chairman at the time, and Guy was just a wonderful boss and arguably the person who created the modern campaign committee in Congress. The NRCC, beginning in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, was the premier campaign committee. It had more resources at one point than the RNC, a bigger impact. By the middle of the ’80s or so, the Democrats had caught up, and we lost seats in ’86, ’88, ’90.
I was brought in by Spencer Abraham from Michigan [in 1991]. Spence and I had been the two youngest [state] Republican chairmen in America in the 1980s and became very good friends. He persuaded me to resign my state Senate seat, something I told him I would never do. I’d already set up a political consulting firm with two partners at the time, which still exists today. I said, “I can’t leave. I’ve got my business, I’ve got my elected career.” Thirty days later, he had me in Washington, D.C., as his executive director of the NRCC, when he was co-chair.
People forget, but ’92 was the first time in years that a party lost the presidency and picked up House seats. That happened in 1992, and now again in 2020. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon.
Q: Going back to Edwards, what did you think of his announcement earlier this year renouncing the GOP, calling it a “cult”? Have you talked to him about that?
A: Mickey was part of changing the Republican Party himself at one time. He was very much in the vanguard of the Ronald Reagan movement in the 1970s, was chair of the American Conservative Union early in his political career.
Parties change and transform. We’re going through a transformation now, some of which I like, some of which I don’t. I consider myself a Reagan Republican — I ran the Reagan reelect campaign in Oklahoma in ’84, was chairman of the state party under both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. But you change the Republican Party by staying in the Republican Party, and that’s the course I’ve chosen.
I respect Mickey Edwards, whatever he chooses to do. Nobody was more important early in my political career. He was later a client of mine when I was in the political consulting world. So I’ve worked for him, I’ve represented him as a client, he’s been my counselor over the years on knotty issues.
He was nice enough to let me know about the change before it came. I got an email saying basically, “Tom, you’re probably going to get some awkward questions. So let me give you the heads-up.”
He was a big pro-civil rights Republican in the 1970s and ’80s, one of the few Republicans who voted for the Martin Luther King holiday. … So I would consider him well ahead of his time on the issue of race, and probably ahead of his district and his party. So who am I to quibble with a guy that smart and that deeply concerned about the country? When he has something to say, I’m going to listen to it.