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updated: 3/29/2011 7:14 AM

Walsh cooperates, but won't call it compromise

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  • U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh greets Rachel Lipke of Northbrook in his Washington, D.C., office.

      U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh greets Rachel Lipke of Northbrook in his Washington, D.C., office.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Rep. Joe Walsh of McHenry keeps a fast and often informal pace in his D.C. office.

      Rep. Joe Walsh of McHenry keeps a fast and often informal pace in his D.C. office.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Senior Legislative Assistant Zach Stone relays a message to Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh during a meeting of the Committee on Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

      Senior Legislative Assistant Zach Stone relays a message to Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh during a meeting of the Committee on Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Congressman Joe Walsh takes a phone call in-between meetings in office in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

      Congressman Joe Walsh takes a phone call in-between meetings in office in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Rep. Joe Walsh walks back to his office in Washington, D.C., after an early morning meeting.

      Rep. Joe Walsh walks back to his office in Washington, D.C., after an early morning meeting.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Congressman Joe Walsh in his Washington, D.C., office, where a flag given to him by a Vietnam veteran hangs on the wall.

      Congressman Joe Walsh in his Washington, D.C., office, where a flag given to him by a Vietnam veteran hangs on the wall.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer


WASHINGTON -- Underground tunnels have been specially built for members of Congress to conveniently shuttle back and forth from their Washington, D.C., offices.

Members have separate entrances to their assigned quarters. Separate elevators. Separate lines, even, in the basement cafeterias.

But 8th District Congressman Joe Walsh makes a point not to use any of them.

Outside on this crisp, almost-spring day, Walsh, of McHenry, is completely alone as he walks back from the House to his congressional office.

The fact that he is a Washington outsider is part of the image the tea partyer has crafted in contrast to three-term incumbent Melissa Bean, the Barrington Democrat whom he defeated without party money or support.

For Walsh, perhaps more than most of the other 87 freshmen GOP lawmakers, that independence will be something he will try to hold onto fiercely, as he's won over voters with its allure. Yet, in Washington, he is witnessing firsthand that progress often depends on compromise and collaboration.

Walsh stops briefly at the crosswalk, raking his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. In a blink, he's gone, his wiry frame dashing into the Cannon House Office Building and, after a quick wink at the security guard, up the four flights of stairs into his office.

It's about 8:30 a.m. and Walsh has already been at a GOP breakfast. Many of his staffers have been at work for the better part of the hour when he bursts through the door of Cannon 432 -- an office brimming with energy and chatter, and an air of informality.

"There is a radio show that's talking about Joe and Charlie Sheen in the same sentence!" Press Secretary Elizabeth Lauten laughs as she comes in the door, removing her white ear buds. "It's awesome. People are tweeting about this."

Upon Walsh's entry, his staff pauses momentarily but resumes business as "the Boss" heads to his desk, leaving the door open behind him.

"We've got good, young, hungry guys," Walsh says, as Aindriu Colgan, a red-haired staffer with an Elvis-style pompadour and slim cut gray suit, briefs him on legislation.

"In many cases we've had people who have grown into some duties and responsibilities, which has been wonderful."

Holding elected office for the first time, Walsh is growing into his position, too, in his own decisive and deliberate way.

Since Bean's Nov. 17 concession, Walsh has rushed into Congress at breakneck speed. So fast, in fact, it seems he's constantly moving -- clapping, pacing, fidgeting, pointing, and always scrolling through his Blackberry.

"Get your running shoes on, kiddo," he likes to say in his colloquial style.

He says he's out to make a difference, reform government spending -- and prove along the way that he's beholden to no one aside from his constituents.

Reminding Walsh daily of the promises he made is a burgundy quilt on his office wall that a campaign volunteer from McHenry gave him on Election Night. It's hand-stitched with excerpts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There's also a simple 8-by-11 sheet propped up with "291" printed on it -- his victory margin against Bean. A flag, still creased from its military folding, given to him by a Vietnam veteran in the district. A congratulatory poster board signed with hundreds of names.

It was, after all, just weeks ago that more than 200 supporters jammed into his newly opened Fox Lake office following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Perched on desks and stairs and window sills of the former restaurant space, they munched on pizza, toasting "their" guy with Coke cans amid a din of noise.

A former history teacher at the Hebrew Theological Institute in Morton Grove and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Walsh says he's set on being an "a radically old kind of representative" who doesn't compromise on his ideals.

So, he said, for that reason, he sleeps in his office and has declined what he calls the "cushy health care plans" available to members of Congress. He will not, he has pledged, collect on any federal pension or retirement benefits that he earns in office.

Those choices haven't made life easy for him. Wife Helene in late February had a medical procedure the family will be "paying off for a while" under their private insurance plan.

And that black leather couch that doubles for a bed doesn't a comfortable night's sleep make.

"I had a tough time last night," he tells Chief of Staff Justin Roth earlier that morning, as he's briefed on the full day ahead from the couch, flexing his neck from side to side.

"With these warm temps, it's really hot in here. A cleaning crew was out in the hallway all night, sweeping or cleaning the floors. Right out there must be the cleanest spot in the building," he laughs.

Roth says he's got a small fan back at home that might help. Does he want him to bring it in? Yes, Walsh nods.

Despite his purposeful positioning as an outsider, Walsh says he has learned that to be effective, to get some of his goals accomplished, he must work within the system that's been established.

Walsh is perhaps the most outspoken tea partyer in the freshman class. Yet the Tea Party Caucus founded by Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann hasn't been a natural fit. Instead, Walsh said, he's found his groove with the Republican Study Committee, a conservative GOP policy group founded by his 8th District Republican predecessor, former Rep. Phil Crane of Wauconda.

Of the 87 House GOP freshmen, 70 are members, representing nearly half the group's membership, says Communications Director Brian Straessle.

That group, Walsh says, meets and provides policy analysis far more regularly than the Tea Party Caucus.

While he believes there should be a formal caucus for the tea party movement, it is clear he is not a fervent supporter of the group that exists right now. In January, Walsh even publicly criticized caucus leader Bachmann's reaction to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address -- which she presented separately from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's "official" GOP response.

"I like Michelle. I just thought she was so out of line," Walsh said. "I wanted to say it publicly because it mattered to me, but I also thought as a tea party guy that I could call her out on this respectfully. God, it was such a blunder. It looked terrible. We're all part of the same team. But I did get grief."

And while Walsh is respectful of that "team," and of Republican leadership, he has, like a teen beginning to test his parents, realized he, too, has power.

After all, he notes, Republican freshmen make up one-third of the of the GOP's majority in the House.

"At one level, they have to listen to us," Walsh says.

That was evident in early February, when Republican House leaders presented a plan that would have cut $32 billion from the federal budget -- far less than many Republicans, including Walsh, had promised during their campaigns.

Members of the Republican Study Committee, including Walsh, balked, and the GOP upped the ante to $61 billion.

"It was about standing up and having a frank and cordial discussion. We need to do more. It needs to go farther," Straessle said.

But the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected that plan, and House leaders prepared a temporary funding solution to bide some time, one Walsh voted for after several long talks with members of leadership, including GOP Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Wheaton.

"There were some of us that weren't enamored with this two-week (vote). We put our necks on the line two weeks before and voted for huge cuts," Walsh tells Chicago's WIND 560 AM hosts John Howell and Amy Jacobson during a phone interview that day in D.C., scrunching down on his knees behind his desk, phone cord stretched.

He calls the measure a "smart, clever play" by GOP leadership, noting he will support it only temporarily.

Holding true to that statement, 10 days later, when a vote for another temporary funding solution comes up, Walsh put his foot down, calling for Republicans to take bolder steps.

"I really believe that if Republicans, who have been given another chance, if we squander this because we're not bold enough, I think we'll have a hard time keeping the House in two years," he said.

Of course, Walsh's ability to talk -- and walk -- a big game is a product of the way he arrived on the Hill.

"In a way, I'm very freed up because I don't owe anybody here anything," he says.

Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady of St. Charles boasts that Republicans won "five of their top four races in Illinois," Walsh being the fifth and unexpected wild card. Three of those races were in Northwest suburban districts.

Walsh and the other members of the Illinois freshman delegation -- 10th District Rep. Robert Dold, 14th District Rep. Randy Hultgren and 11th District Rep. Adam Kinzinger among them -- are friendly, but not a tight-knit group by any means. Hultgren and Walsh have offices separated by just a few feet, and yet when the men pass in the halls, they give a friendly handshake and go their separate ways.

"I think there's a bond between us because Illinois is such a tough state for Republicans," Walsh says, "and the fact there are five of us who have been elected has been bizarre. But there's a competitive nature as well. You've got redistricting coming up. So everyone's wondering what's going on, what's going to happen."

The Democratic Party has targeted Walsh's district as one of the top 25 it intends to win back come 2012, already cutting at Walsh's "extreme" voting record in recent media ads, one they say is out of touch with the 8th District.

"I don't want to say I don't want to get re-elected in two years," he tells WIND. "(But) I'm not driven by my re-election."

Rep. Don Manzullo, who represents the 16th District and refers to himself as the dean of Illinois' Republican delegation, can identify with Walsh's situation. More than 18 years ago, he was a freshman who was painted as "extreme" by Democrats in a redistricting year. Despite that, he won re-election, with little significant competition since.

"If you're close to the people and you know what the people want then, it's just not that difficult," Manzullo says, noting it's a matter of "representation, not adaptation" on Capitol Hill.

"This place is a pit," the Egan resident snorts about D.C., feet propped up on his coffee table in his messy congressional office.

As one of the freshman Republicans' leaders, Roskam says Walsh needs to make sure he keeps up with changes in the district, as well as changes in the national political conversation. "In the course of a campaign, candidates articulate very specific world views. But that's all based on the premise that the entire set of issues is static. But actually, they always change," Roskam said.

Now in Washington, Roskam said Walsh has "come out and done a very good job of reflecting the 8th District. He's intuitive and he's trying his best to reflect the district, and he's not a loose cannon."

The weeks he is in Washington, Walsh is using his charisma and "winsomeness," as Roskam calls it, to send his message to constituents that they come first.

After his radio interview with WIND, he tapes from his office couch several responses to constituent questions that he posts on Facebook.

Don Moldermaker of Schaumburg has a question about the GOP's position on health care reform. A diabetic, he's seen his costs go down in the last year.

"Don, let me know if you went to high school with my brother Charlie. If so, I'm gonna call you 'Moldy,'" Walsh says, going on to explain that he is for "health care reform done the right way."

Keeping up his frenetic pace, Walsh arrives late to a homeland security committee meeting. He leaves early and, on the walk back through Cannon's marble hallways, calls a constituent, Sylvia from Round Lake Beach.

Walsh calls five to 10 constituents each day from his personal cell phone, those who have written into his office with questions or concerns. A rarity for members, Walsh says some do double takes when they hear him on the other end of the line.

They chat about health care and spending, and Sylvia tells him she's happy he's not "mushy and moderate and meek." He encourages her to come to the Fox Lake office the following week when he returns from D.C.

"Gosh darn it, I want to meet you," he tells her before hanging up.

Just before he heads out to another string of meetings, representatives from Special Olympics and Best Buddies come into his office to protest cuts to government funding.

"Without the funding we need, we're going to be completely losing things that change people's lives," says Rachel Lipke, an International Best Buddies Ambassador who met Walsh during the campaign at the Palatine train station.

Walsh says he understands but tells her that he was elected to stop spending in Washington, something that has gotten out of control lately.

"I know," she says softly.

"I have no doubt most of the district is with me on the fiscal stuff," Walsh said. "Is most of the district with me on some the social stuff? Probably not, but those aren't the issues (right now). This thing has overtaken the normal Republican/Democrat stuff that they argue about."

History points to compromise winning out over ideals in Congress -- after a 1995 government shutdown and negative feedback from voters, a similarly large, idealistic class of Republican House freshmen began to soften on their stances.

Walsh doesn't plan to cross that bridge anytime soon.

"I'm not worried about having to compromise my ideals yet. I don't think that'll happen. What bothers me is there's just not enough time to do a lot of what I want to do."