ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Republican Rep. Jon Porter lobbed a partisan grenade across the Capitol in January 2006.
He called on Sen. Harry Reid to return campaign contributions from clients of disgraced federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Taking on a fellow Nevadan, the leader of the other house in Congress, was a daring and highly visible act by the state’s newest lawmaker in Washington.
But Porter has been in retreat since — and with good reason. Democrats won control of both chambers in the November 2006 elections. Republicans could no longer afford to be as intensely partisan if they wanted to accomplish anything.
Worse for Porter, his Republican district was becoming Democratic. He barely survived the election that year, defeating political neophyte Tessa Hafen, Reid’s 30-year-old former aide, by fewer than 4,000 votes.
As 2007 unfolded, Porter began a political metamorphisis. He toned down the rhetoric. He quit voting in lockstep with his party.
His unity rating, which measures how often a lawmaker votes with his party, dropped from a high of 94 percent in 2003 to 75 percent at the end of 2007, according to Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan Washington publication. With that record, Porter argues that he’s not simply a follower.
This year, his challenger is formidable: state Sen. Dina Titus. And registered Democrats have surpassed Republicans in the district, and not by a small amount. The edge is nearly 31,000.
Porter’s campaign to win a fourth two-year term has been nasty from the start, especially as it is waged in Porter’s television ads. As has been true with all of his House reelection campaigns, he is running negative ads against his opponent, rather than positive ads touting his achievements.
The Las Vegas Sun has routinely examined ads by both candidates. By any objective measure, Porter’s ads are more negative and less truthful than his opponent’s.
One reason Porter does not run many positive ads is that he can site few major accomplishments.
Porter’s congressional counterparts, Republican and Democrat, say he fits a profile: a hard worker, but quiet and reserved. His low-key style has left him with a modest record.
To be sure, even the most ambitious of congressmen face an uphill battle to accomplish much in their early years. Seniority largely rules on Capitol Hill and loyalty to party counts more than anything.
Six years ago, when Porter entered Congress, Republicans held a firm grip on power, fueled by a popular president and backed by majorities in both the House and Senate. Lawmakers were expected to fall in line behind House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay.
Porter is a former independent who became a Republican in the 1980s after a local lawmaker asked him to join the party. He says he was surprised to arrive in Washington in 2003 and learn how the capital worked. Freshmen Republicans and Democrats were quickly segregated. He says he was stunned.
Porter distinguished himself less by what he was than what he wasn’t. In the big-ego world of Washington, he became known as a quiet, unpretentious addition.
Over the years, he rarely took to the floor to deliver rousing speeches. On committees, he was low-key. In weekly party conference meetings, he’s “not the first one to the microphone by any stretch of the imagination,” said Rep. J. Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican who has remained friends with Porter since they were both freshmen.
Much of his record in those early years reflected the broader Republican agenda — he voted to approve the Bush tax cuts, supported the Iraq war, and took a hard line on illegal immigration. He joined his party on conservative social issues that defined the agenda, from intervening in the Terry Schiavo case to voting for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage to upholding limits on abortion.
During a tense floor vote in 2003, Porter famously switched his yea to nay after being confronted by party leadership, creating a 213-213 tie and effectively killing a bill that would have given U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a $1,500 bonus. The defeat of the bill was intensely political: Democrats had proposed giving the bonuses. By defeating the measure, Republicans prevented Democrats from getting any credit for supporting the troops.
Porter said he changed his mind after learning that the legislation contained other kinds of benefits for troops.
“The partisanship in Washington amazes me everyday,” Porter said recently. “It’s something you have to work very hard at from happening. There’s a core of us who’ve resisted that.” He said he tries to talk to a new member on the floor every day.
Porter’s own bills tend toward what are sometimes called on the Hill “cats and dogs” variety — the parochial interests back home rather than the big-ticket items leading the national news.
Some easily passed in the House. This session he had a bill celebrating national adoption day; last session there was one noting the contributions charter schools make to education.
Other bills have more substance, such as those to transfer federal land to the National Guard in Nevada and to fight the zebra mussel invasion in Lake Mead. Both became law this year.
But Porter’s bills are rarely the kind that showcase legislative heavy lifting required to do business across the political divide in Washington.
Important bills can take years to gain traction on the Hill, as is the case with Porter’s bill to increase penalties on cop killers, which has been introduced the past two sessions of Congress.
In summer 2006, as Porter faced an increasingly tough reelection fight, Republican leaders ensured that he had a legislative victory to take home to voters. Porter’s bill, which strengthened screening criteria to prevent pedophiles from being hired by schools, was wrapped into a larger crime bill signed by President Bush in a Rose Garden ceremony with Porter and other lawmakers.
Perhaps some of Porter’s biggest legislative splashes have been over Yucca Mountain. In 2005, he used his perch on the government oversight committee to investigate the falsified Yucca Mountain reports scientists joked about in e-mails.
But when he was unable to get the White House to fully comply with a subpoena request, the investigation quietly ended.
Last year he tried to tackle Yucca Mountain again, with an amendment that sought to strip the project’s funding. It was quickly killed, 351-80.
Dealing in this seemingly mundane terrain of pothole politics has given plenty of lawmakers successful careers in Washington.
In some ways, this is the Porter colleagues in Nevada know, the mild legislator from Boulder City.
Upon coming to Washington, Porter sought out membership in the travel and tourism caucus. “I was impressed with his enthusiasm and background,” said Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat from California who now co-chairs the caucus with Porter. “It wasn’t about ego. A lot of people get on these caucuses for their resume. He was interested in being a working member.”
According to the nonpartisan Congress.org’s “Power Rankings,” Porter ranks 244th of 435 house members in terms of influence. His high point came in 2006, when was rated 120th.
After winning reelection in fall 2006, Porter was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Barrett says Porter told him at the time he knew other lawmakers were more deserving.
But leadership was again watching out for a vulnerable member. The tax policy committee would give Porter clout as well as access to deep-pocketed donors. Virtually every industry, including Nevada’s casinos, has tax issues before the federal government. Porter makes no secret of his fundraising skills, and the seat would not be wasted on a fundraising wallflower.
“Jon has stepped up” on fundraising, said Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican who served as a mentor to Porter. “Every time the team has asked something of him, he’s always been there to help out.”
Nevertheless, politics played a key role. “There’s a reason he has that seat,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “And that’s because he’s in a vulnerable district.”
If reelected, Porter will rise in rank on the committee because of so many retirements this year.
Porter’s third term didn’t start noticeably differently. When Congress convened in 2007, with Democrats in charge for the first time in 12 years, Porter still strongly backed the Iraq war, even after Republicans endured devastating losses in the midterm election in part because voters turned against the war. He voted multiple times against efforts to bring the troops home.
But as Bush’s popularity plummeted and Porter’s district started trending Democratic, the congressman’s votes and rhetoric began to shift.
In April, 2007, he became one of the first Republicans to call for the firing of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after the Justice Department scandal involving the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys, including Nevada’s.
By fall, he had switched his vote to support the expansion of a popular children’s health care program, even though Bush vowed a veto. Porter voted to override.
This year, Porter voted to expand GI benefits for veterans who had served since the Sept. 11 attacks, defying the Pentagon’s objections and opponents who didn’t want to impose a new tax on millionaires to pay for it.
As Nevada’s jobless rate topped the national average, Porter was an early backer of additional unemployment benefits, among just three Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee to do so. By the time Congress was confronted with the controversial $700 billion Wall Street bailout it was no surprise Porter would distance himself from his party’s conservative wing, which was leading the opposition. Porter voted in favor of the bailout. Twice.
Porter still busts out his Republican credentials when it suits him. As $4 gallon gas topped voter worries during summer break, Porter returned to Washington to join his party for a historic protest on the House floor.
But as lawmakers left Washington this month to campaign full time for the November election, the transformation was complete.
“Jon never came across to me as a hard liner,” Farr said. “He’s just someone who wants to get things done.”
That wasn’t his record in his first or second term. The question now is whether the Jon Porter of the last two years is someone the voters want to return to office.