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Tom Coburn was the ‘semitruck for a lot of people,’ says Rep. Josh Brecheen

Oklahoma Republican started out as a district aide for Dr. No

Rep. Josh Brecheen, seen here arriving for a Republican conference meeting on Nov. 7, says the late Sen. Tom Coburn shaped his approach to governing.
Rep. Josh Brecheen, seen here arriving for a Republican conference meeting on Nov. 7, says the late Sen. Tom Coburn shaped his approach to governing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Josh Brecheen laughs fondly when he thinks about his former boss’ reputation of blocking bills in the Senate.

“I can tell you that he was a taxpayer champion,” he says. “He was willing to take the heat. If something looked like, who could be against that? Dr. Coburn.”

Tom Coburn, known as Dr. No on the Hill for his stubbornness and medical degree, placed so many holds in the Senate that his staff would often get daily updates on new bills, Brecheen says. The freshman Republican from Oklahoma worked for Coburn for six years, starting with his 2004 Senate campaign and staying on his district staff until 2010, when he left to run for office himself.

After two terms in the state Legislature, Brecheen later ran for Congress, casting himself as a disciple of the late Coburn in terms of both policy and personality. “Anybody that had the opportunity to work for Dr. Coburn adored that man,” he said in a campaign ad last year.

Brecheen spoke to Roll Call earlier this month about his first job in politics and “the lonely pathway of fiscal restraint.” This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You said during your campaign that Coburn shaped your approach to governing.

A: Man seldom improves if he doesn’t have anybody at a greater level of authority or positioning to himself. You can’t lead any further than you’ve been. 

Tom Coburn had a profound impact. I was just one of many — some in D.C., a lot of people back in Oklahoma, and even those who didn’t get a chance to work for him. I mean, he shaped the ideology of so many elected officials. 

There’s a concept in NASCAR, it’s called drafting. Or even from my background in the heavy equipment and trucking world, if a semi’s driving down the highway, a car can get in behind it. You’ll get better miles per gallon going down the highway behind the semitruck because it has the wind strain against it first, and it creates a kind of hood over top of it. 

Drafting leadership is something I believe in. Tom Coburn was the semitruck for a lot of people.

Q: How did you start working for him? 

A: When I graduated college, I went back home. I was training cutting horses as a non-pro, and I was also part of my dad’s heavy equipment and excavation business. 

I’m unloading a dozer, and the customer climbs up on the dozer next to me and I start talking to him. I said, “Hey, this member of Congress reached out to me and asked me to go work for him.”

I’d been state president of the Oklahoma FFA Association; I was a young leader. So Brad Carson had left me a voice message because he had a field rep who knew about me. He was a member of Congress who was about to run for the U.S. Senate, and I didn’t know what to think. Politics was not something I’d engaged much in. 

So the guy on the dozer says to me, basically, “The guy’s a Democrat.” I had never read about the policy differences between Democrats and Republicans. And so he says, “Listen, I want you to hear a guy by the name of Tom Coburn. He’s gonna come to Atoka and speak.” 

Q: What do you remember about meeting Coburn for the first time?

A: So I went to the event, and I also saw an endorsement letter from James Dobson, who at the time was heading Focus on the Family. I had worked with James’ son, Ryan Dobson, very briefly in a ministry called Kanakuk in Missouri. 

I’m like, man, this guy’s endorsed by Dobson. He’s a straight shooter. He was talking about fiscal discipline, and I could tell it wasn’t an act. 

And so there’s a guy standing there, his name is Brian Treat, who would later become Tom Coburn’s chief of staff years later. I handed him a business card. And within a matter of months, I’m working on his campaign.

Q: You went on to become a field representative for him. What was a typical day like?

A: I was getting out in the field, getting to know constituents, and also going into federal agencies and sending back information to D.C. about inefficiencies we were finding. How can this program be tightened? Where’s the duplication? We were on a mission. 

It was an eight-hour requirement, and it shaped what I do with my field staff back home today. They probably have one of the tougher jobs in our office, because I know that job. You aren’t under direct supervision. You’re on your own, and it’s easy to not keep those hours straight and be accountable to the taxpayer. 

But I’ll tell you, on my conscience, I made sure I put in my eight hours. And you know who else made sure that? Tom Coburn. He who is faithful over a little will be faithful over much. He was the kind of guy who would talk to you about how much you were spending on your reimbursement on meals. He knew we couldn’t go out there and talk a good game in public about being fiscally responsible and [then say], “Oh, but that doesn’t pertain to us.”

He set the template for leading by example, and I got to see behind the scenes. Tom Coburn was the real deal. He practiced in private what he was saying in public. 

Q: He had a prickly reputation. Did that also match up with what you saw in private?

A: When we’d get in a vehicle, I remember him looking at me. He would have his morning time reading his Bible, and he’d say, “What did you read this morning?” And we’d listen to praise and worship music going down the road. 

The Tom Coburn who was known for fiscal responsibility had a deep rudder of faith. The way his children loved him, he adored his wife, his grandkids. He was a good man. He had a backbone like a steel rod, but when the chips were down, he would show you the love of Christ. 

Q: What was the last conversation you had with him before he died in 2020?

A: He was encouraging me to work with a derivative of Focus on the Family called the Family Policy Alliance. He could barely talk, and within a few months he would pass away. I was on a job for my business, Rawhide Dirtworks, and I remember exactly where I was. We were laying down 4-inch rock and we had trucks getting stuck that day. 

I had a conversation with him, and I teared up because I could tell by his voice how strained it was. He had a desire to see in Oklahoma a group that would make sure that campaign conservatives were called to the carpet when they deviated from what they said they were going to do on the campaign trail. 

Q: You’ve said he walked “the unpopular and lonely pathway of fiscal restraint.” Is that your path too?

Q: He was dealing with $6 trillion and $7 trillion gross national debt. We’re at $33 trillion now. He was dealing with every baby opening their eyes and being in debt $24,000. That baby’s in debt $100,000 now. 

Dr. Coburn saw what other people couldn’t see, that this thing was going into a death spiral financially for us. What we see happening with our interest rates, and what we see happening with our economy, with inflation — I can’t tell you the number of times in the last several years, I’ve thought, man, I’d love to have Dr. Coburn’s view. I would love to have just sat down with him today and said, ‘What do you think about this?’”

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