What Rep. Bill Huizenga learned from his 1990s cellphone

Michigan Republican was an early adopter

Rep. Bill Huizenga walks down the House steps of the Capitol after a vote in April. The Michigan Republican worked for Pete Hoekstra in the 1990s.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Bill Huizenga walks down the House steps of the Capitol after a vote in April. The Michigan Republican worked for Pete Hoekstra in the 1990s. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 28, 2022 at 5:30am

Being a real estate agent in the mid-1990s meant you probably had a cellphone, even if none of your friends did.

“I had mine hardwired into my car,” says Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican.

That came in handy when he took a new job as a congressional staffer, though it did raise some eyebrows. “Why was my cellphone bill so big?” Huizenga recalls his fellow staffers asking.

He liked to roam the district as he worked for Pete Hoekstra, who represented a long stretch of Lake Michigan’s western shore. 

“It was such a different way than they operated in D.C., where you were tied to your desk,” says Huizenga, who eventually went on to replace his former boss in Congress.

A lot has changed, but Huizenga still draws on his time as a district staffer. He sat down with CQ Roll Call this spring to talk about his memories of working for Hoekstra, who most recently served as ambassador to the Netherlands during Donald Trump’s presidency.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q:  How did you start working for Hoekstra? 

A: In the spring of 1991, I interned for the Republican Study Committee, so that was my first exposure on the Hill. This was right at the end of the first Gulf War, and I got to help organize the national victory parade in D.C. 

And then I went back home, graduated, got into real estate as a profession. Being an independent contractor meant I had a very flexible schedule — so I was a well-used volunteer by Hoekstra’s campaign.

Q: What kind of things did you do for the campaign?

A: He had challenged the sitting congressman in a primary, a guy named Guy Vander Jagt, who was head of the [National Republican Congressional Committee]. Until Eric Cantor lost to Dave Brat, that primary in 1992 was viewed as the biggest upset in modern Republican politics. 

Very quickly after Pete got elected, I was brought on by his campaign staff to be a volunteer and help organize events. My dad had been a local official, so I had started volunteering for the county party before I could vote, literally. I was usually the youngest guy in the room. I had been a poll watcher since I was 18, and I was chair of the college Republican club — that kind of stuff.

But Pete had zero of those contacts. I mean, none. He had run this outsider race and barely had two nickels to rub together. They didn’t have those connections, but I did.

Q: When did you go from volunteer to employee?

A: When Pete’s first district director left, right after the ’96 election, he asked me to come on board and be based here in Michigan. It was supposed to be for two years, and it turned into six. 

And I just really enjoyed it. My job was to be the bird dog on issues back in the district, and my title technically was director of public policy. 

I remember somewhat early on, the chief of staff came out. And he was like, “I just want to spend a couple of days with you, really see what you’re doing.” I was a pretty active person on the road, and the prior person wasn’t. The district was huge, and I would be out at a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast or visiting an elementary school. So I was turning in a lot of mileage and expenses. 

This was the late ’90s, and because I was a Realtor, I had a cellphone, but most people didn’t. As we were driving to this event, I banged out four or five calls in 20 minutes, and when I hung up, he goes, “That was amazing.”

It was such a different way than they operated in D.C., where you were tied to your desk. After he spent a couple of days with me, he never questioned any of my expense reports after that. 

Q: Do you see any tension like that now between district and D.C. staffers? 

A: I work very hard to make sure our staff in D.C. understand what the district staff is doing, and the district staff understands what life is like out in D.C. 

I think we probably do it better than the average office. We have some people who’ve gone back and forth. My comms guy, who used to be out in Washington, ended up moving back to Michigan and still is my comms director, but Michigan-based. 

And we’ve got a number of long-term staffers. In fact, two people work for me now that I helped interview and hire when I worked for Pete Hoekstra — my deputy chief, Heather, and my immigration specialist, Beatrice. 

Q: What moments stand out to you from your work in the ’90s?

A: Well, there was the impeachment of Bill Clinton — so I’ve now worked during the time of three different impeachments, twice as a member of Congress, and once as a staffer.

Another big one was the Teamsters investigation. Hoekstra started getting anonymous packets of information, and I ended up being in some really interesting meetings with dissident union officials — people who were really unhappy with both sides, unhappy with James Hoffa and unhappy with Ron Carey. 

Q: Hoekstra is maybe best known for chairing the House Intelligence panel, but what was he like behind the scenes?

A: We had a lot of car time. On the ride home from events, when we stopped at a gas station, Pete would get black licorice and a Dr Pepper. That was his thing. And we’d call our wives, just checking in and goofing around, doing things we thought were hilarious. Our wives would usually end up hanging up on us and going, “You guys are just weird.” 

[When I ran for Congress in 2010], I had a seven-way primary, and that was a challenge. Pete ended up running for governor, and he didn’t endorse me in the primary. And honestly, it was for the better, because I was able to prove he wasn’t the reason I won. I wasn’t just his guy. 

Q: You picked up at least one of his old habits. He slept in his office instead of renting a place in Washington, and you do that too.

A: I’ve done it now for almost 12 years. I don’t fit on the couch, so I’ve got an Aerobed cot thing I set up. And then in the morning I head down to the House gym, get a workout in, get my shower and am off for the day. 

It’s not for everybody, but it works for me. It’s usually somewhere between nine and maybe 12 nights a month, and I really don’t even think about it. When I’m in D.C., I’m very focused on D.C. and what has to happen there.

Q: What else has stuck with you? 

A: I meet with the exact same farmers now — apple growers, asparagus farmers. I might still have relationships with people I started working with when I was a staffer 25 years ago. 

Pete came from an office furniture company called Herman Miller, and the CEO at the time ended up writing a few books on leadership — they called it roving leadership. You might have a title, but don’t let the title get in the way of what needs to get done. 

I wasn’t micromanaged, and I guess that’s something I’ve tried to carry on. What I say to my staff is, hopefully I’m going to be your dream boss, because I get it. But I could also be your nightmare boss, because I know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how you’re doing it. Because I did it. So you can’t BS on this.