By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The executives from Prudential are waiting in the lobby. The reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week are calling for interviews. Lunch is at the White House. The founder of Staples is stopping by in the afternoon.
Ohio Governor Bob Taft (left) says Rob Portman's strong ties both to the White House and House leaders makes him influential.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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But right now he's rushing to a videoconference with some high school kids from Adams County.
Everyone, it seems, wants to talk to Rob Portman.
After a decade in Congress, the Terrace Park Republican has emerged as the best-connected man in Congress.
In the White House, his friendships are unmatched among House members, thanks to a stint in the White House of the first President Bush.
"He's very close to the president," said White House chief of staff Andrew Card. "The president values his advice and counsel and frequently seeks it - compared to a lot of members of Congress - an awful lot."
In the House, fellow members of both parties gush about his trustworthiness and hard work. House Speaker Dennis Hastert named him chairman of the House Republican leadership, tapped him for a special committee to write a new homeland security law, and uses him as his eyes and ears in the House. Congressional staffers rated him one of Congress' top "workhorses" in a 2002 Washingtonian magazine survey.
Portman, 47, is one of a handful of members with a coveted "hideaway" office in the Capitol itself. He doesn't promote himself in many news releases, but he's been quoted in the New York Times more in the last year than even his congressional neighbor John Boehner, who chairs a committee writing education and workplace laws.
"He does seem to be involved in just about everything," said Brad Close, who runs the lobbying operation for the National Federation of Independent Business, a powerful small-business group.
For the Tristate, however, Portman's power has not yielded a new highway or a federal agency outpost. As a conservative, Portman doesn't see himself as a pork-puller like Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, famous for using his clout to haul federal money to West Virginia.
"I don't think my job is solely to produce benefits for the Second District of Ohio," Portman said. "My role is to do what I think is best for the country ... getting major legislation passed that benefits not just my constituents, but the country."
Portman's protests notwithstanding, his connections have yielded some federal help: money for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and other downtown projects, a tweaking of laws to help Clermont County pay for bus service, some help here and there for Tristate companies.
"Any time we have an impasse, especially dealing with the federal government, Rob himself has been right there to help us," said Bob Proud, president of the Clermont County Board of Commissioners. Portman saved the county about $450,000 this year by getting Congress to pass a change to an obscure federal transportation designation.
Beyond that, Portman's connections give the Tristate a megaphone to the federal government.
It's not senior citizens in every city who get to unload complaints directly to the head of Medicare. But Medicare Administrator Tom Scully is an old friend of Portman's from the first Bush White House, and Portman brought him to Mercy St. Theresa Center last month to hear from seniors.
During the April 2001 riots, Portman updated White House officials in "real time" and explained that the riots signaled something deeper.
"He was making sure we paid attention," Card said. "That this is a cauldron that is boiling over."
Portman is credited with helping end the Comair strike, by calling an old friend at the Department of Transportation, Michael Jackson, and getting the agency to intervene. Portman didn't do any negotiating, but he helped push the two sides into a meeting to end the strike.
This month, Portman is working to help General Electric Aircraft Engines in Evendale. He's pressing the man writing a defense spending bill, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., to let the company compete for the right to build engines for a new Navy warship. It could mean 300 jobs, he said.
"He knows where to turn for assistance for us," said Susan Laffoon, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce's vice president for public affairs. "He knows who the decision makers are, and how to get those decisions made more quickly ... Certainly it helps us."
It's hard to find anyone in Cincinnati who doesn't like Portman.
"He's a very bright, nice guy, easy to like and get along with," said Tim Burke, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "It's very clear that he's one hell of a hard worker. He certainly has a reputation for being quietly effective."
Says another Democrat, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken: "If I was in his district, I'd vote for him." A former congressman himself, Luken said most members of Congress don't have the connections that Portman does.
"He's not the kind of guy who goes around saying , 'I know the president' or 'I pulled this string or that string,' " Luken said. But money for the Freedom Center, for Fort Washington Way, for riverfront studies - much of that, Luken said, was due to Portman.
"I think everyone acknowledges, without Rob, the level of federal support would be much less," he said.
The rise of Rob
Portman was born to be well-connected.
Though his family wasn't old money - Dad worked for Procter & Gamble and as a salesman before founding Portman Equipment Co. in 1960; Mom's family owned the Golden Lamb in Lebanon - they sent young Rob to private Cincinnati Country Day School in Indian Hill.
At the elite school, Portman befriended Joe Hagin, who also went on to work for the elder George Bush during his 1988 campaign and at the White House. Now, Hagin serves as deputy chief of staff to the younger President Bush.
Portman went on to the Ivy League's Dartmouth College, and then, after law school, landed a job with one of Washington's premier firms, Patton, Boggs & Blow. He returned to Cincinnati to work at the Graydon, Head & Ritchey.
He had interned for the district's former congressman, Bill Gradison, and loved politics. He worked on the first President Bush's 1988 campaign and, like many campaign workers, found himself a job in the new administration, first as a White House counsel and then as a White House lobbyist. In that job, he worked both with top people inside the White House and in Congress.
"He was the funnel through which all knowledge passed," recalled Card, who was deputy chief of staff in the first Bush White House. "Rob was Mr. Inside."
During George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, Portman also served as an informal consultant. He played the Democratic vice presidential and presidential candidates in debate rehearsals. ("Rob - you were much tougher than my opponent," scrawled Dick Cheney on a poster advertising the debate, which now hangs in Portman's office.)
But for a guy who is Mr. Inside, Portman seems to have genuinely avoided Potomac Fever - the tendency for Washington politicians to get more and more engrossed in the Washington scene.
His wife and three children live back home and Portman returns to Cincinnati every weekend. He shares a townhouse on Capitol Hill with Rick Lazio, a former New York congressman best known as the guy who lost to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
He's usually up at 7 a.m. and exercising. He's an avid kayaker who has paddled the entire Rio Grande and did the Grand Canyon two years ago. At home he kayaks on the Little Miami River.
What's odd about Portman's power in Washington is that it's almost entirely unofficial.
He leads no committee, or even a subcommittee. His job as chairman of the House Republican leadership was something concocted by party leaders; there's no such job in the Constitution or in House rules. He's not even that prolific a fund-raiser.
Yet, Portman has probably amassed more clout than any Cincinnatian in Washington since Sen. Robert Taft in the 1940s and '50s, according to Zane Miller, a retired University of Cincinnati history professor. In the House, you'd have to go back to former Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, in the 1920s.
With his strong ties both to the White House and House leaders, "he can be really influential," said Gov. Bob Taft, another old friend. "He may be somewhat unique from that standpoint, in terms of having a foot in both camps."
Portman is renowned for his politeness, his soft-spokenness, and his aversion to ideological exhortations.
"I don't recall ever seeing a harsh word or impatient word from Rob Portman," said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
"I'm more of a listener than a yeller," Portman explained.
One of Portman's jobs is to sound out the GOP factions and members. He convenes a group of eight members to keep tabs on what's happening among the rank and file.
Portman's political philosophy is unequivocally conservative - he supports low taxes, smaller government, less regulation, more freedom for businesses.
As far as the Christian Coalition, small-business lobbies and gun owners are concerned, Portman voted the right way 100 percent of the time, according to scorecards they put out on legislators. As far as the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned, he got a zero.
But moderates like him.
"We've always found Rob to be pragmatic and reasonable," said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., one of the leaders of the House moderates. "He's been helpful within closed doors, the rooms we don't get in."
Portman's connections can help regular constituents, too. Judy Lloyd, 55, who owns the Ohio River House bed and breakfast in Higginsport, called his office last March to ask about educating children with disabilities.
"The most difficult part of wading one's way through the bureaucracy is finding out who the heck you're supposed to talk to," she said. "The assistance I got from his office about who to talk to - they helped me wade my through the morass. He and his office having those connections as to knowing who does what is very critical.''
Though their voting records are almost identical, Portman's manner sets him apart from the other Greater Cincinnati Republicans: Boehner and Rep. Steve Chabot.
Boehner was one of the architects of the Contract with America and a leader of the 1995 Republican Revolution that sprang from it. Chabot was elected as part of that class. Chabot and Boehner are more likely to jump into ideological battles: Chabot is one of the House's leading abortion opponents; Boehner, who once led the charge to eliminate the Department of Education, now leads the House education committee.
Portman, said Hamilton County Democratic co-chair Burke, is "less doctrinaire."
Glen Brand, the Sierra Club's Cincinnati-based Midwest representative, said Portman votes the party line, resulting in an environmental record he termed "disgraceful." Portman has gone along with the Bush administration's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to fight higher gas-mileage requirements and to let local power plants spew more pollutants, Brand said.
"Kayaking a lot in Ohio is wonderful, but what we really need in a representative is someone who walks the walk," he said.
But other groups that might be expected to denounce a conservative like Portman have nothing but praise.
Sheila Adams, president of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, said Portman had been a "tremendous help" for the city, especially for his anti-drug work; Portman founded the Coalition for a Greater Drug-Free Cincinnati
"He is accessible and responsive," she said.
Portman darts around his district like a junior member worried about re-election - not really an issue for a guy who routinely wins re-election by three-to-one margins in one of Ohio's most Republican districts. It runs from downtown Cincinnati along the Ohio River east to Pike and Scioto counties.
During his week off for the Memorial Day break from Congress, for example, Portman opened a new office in Portsmouth, marched in two parades, met with the mayor of Fairfax and met with the Scioto County Farm Bureau.
"We see Rob all the time," Proud said. "He's extremely, extremely responsive. ...
"As far as I'm concerned, Rob Portman walks on water."
The Portman file
Born: Dec. 19, 1955, in Cincinnati
Education: Bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College, 1979; law degree from University of Michigan, 1984.
Family: Wife, Jane, two sons and one daughter
Home: Terrace Park
Career experience: Lawyer, Patton, Boggs & Blow, Washington, 1984-86; lawyer, Graydon, Head & Ritchey, 1987-1989 and 1992-1993; associate White House counsel for President George Bush, 1989; Director, White House Office of Legislative Affairs, 1989-91. Elected to Congress, May 4, 1993, following retirement of former Rep. Bill Gradison. Chairman of House Republican Leadership, 2001-present.
Committees: Budget; Ways and Means
What people say about Rob Portman
"The president sees Rob and speaks to Rob more than he sees the vast majority of members of Congress, and maybe a little less than he sees the speaker."
-- Andrew Card, White House chief of staff
"He's one of those people that attracts friends. He manages to maintain hundreds of meaningful relationships. That's one of the secrets of his success."
-- Curt Steiner, Ohio Republican consultant
"Portman is, from the Southwestern Ohio delegation, by far the most connected member of the United States Congress. I think a number of people were surprised, frankly, that he's just sitting in the United States Congress, rather than in the Cabinet or White House."
-- Hamilton County Democratic Party co-chairman Tim Burke
"He's an excellent leader and listener and strongly supportive of pro-business, pro-growth issues."
-- Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Jeannie Tharrington
"I can tell you that Representative Portman's environmental voting record has been a real disappointment."
-- Glen Brand, Midwest representative, Sierra Club
"When I think of him back in those days, I think of this smiling kid, just a happy kid, really well liked by both students and teachers."
-- Former Cincinnati Country Day School teacher Joe Hofmeister
"He probably is closer to the White House than any other member of the House, just in terms of personal relationships that go back over a period of time. That leadership position he has is an appointed one. It means he was selected by the speaker. They wanted him at the
-- Former Rep. Bill Gradison, R-Ohio
"Brains and good looks."
-- Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, explaining Portman's rise in the House
"He definitely does not have to rely on his staff to give him everything. He knows what he's talking about."
-- Brad Close, lobbyist, National Federation of Independent Business
"He's a considerate roommate. He's clean outside his bedroom."
-- Former Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., Portman's housemate in Washington, D.C.
How he has voted
North American Free Trade Agreement: YES
Amend constitution to require balanced budget: YES
Welfare Reform: YES
Brady bill, requiring waiting period to buy handguns: NO
Increase minimum wage: NO
Amend constitution to protect flag: YES
Ban partial-birth abortion: YES
Campaign-finance reform: NO
Ban drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: NO
Impeach President Clinton: YES (on three of four charges)
Authorize airstrikes in Kosovo: NO
Support force in Iraq: YES
Losing child-care help could keep some workers home
Howard: Some Good News
Radel: 'The Ice Cream Lady' a treat
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Congressman has finger in every pie
His next stop in politics is a mystery
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Upgrade of Fairfield bond rating to save $250,000 in next 20 years
Flooding in Butler unlike 2001
From Forest Park to fame
Monroe expecting crowd for meeting
Officials still seek refund for stadium
Woman honored for reaching out
Clermont juvenile center to rise
Kings clearing out old jerseys
Meet-greet aims to overcome police, community barriers
Fairfield H.S. adds administrators to team
Free HIV testing offered as public effort expands
Tristate A.M. report
Bellevue church closes doors
Patton pardons called 'a disgrace'
Samuel Hornsby a career bus driver
Gottfried Merkel, 98, a UC luminary