Cover Story

'It's time we had a fact-based conversation'

"'It's time we had a fact-based conversation'" Continued...

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Huizenga made three promises during his campaign last fall and even printed them on T-shirts. Protect life. Create jobs. Stop spending.

He recently reached 30,000 people from his district during three telephone town hall meetings on the budget. He said two-thirds of the callers encouraged him to vote for the Ryan budget. "You have to say it a lot and you have to say it loud to make it sink in," he said about being upfront about entitlement woes.

So, after ending a recent phone conversation with me, Huizenga said his next call was to a Michigan hospital executive who had written urging the congressman to oppose proposed cuts to Medicaid.

"We have to budget for future generations," he said, "not the next election cycle."

Americans and budget priorities

Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll

What two items should be the top priority for the federal government
• Job creation and economic growth - 56%
• The deficit and government spending - 40%
• Healthcare - 28%
• National security and terrorism - 20%
• Energy and the cost of gas - 20%
• The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - 13%
• Immigration - 12%

Which of the following programs do you think could be cut significantly?

• Subsidies to build new nuclear power plants (Totally or mostly acceptable: 57% | Mostly or totally unacceptable: 40%)
• Federal assistance to state governments (52% | 45%)
• The Environmental Protection Agency (51% | 46%)
• Medicare (23% | 76%)
• Social Security (22% | 77%)
• K through 12 education (22% | 77%)

Will it be necessary to cut Medicare to significantly reduce the deficit?

Yes: 18% | No: 54% | Not sure: 28%

Will it be necessary to cut Social Security to significantly reduce the deficit?

Yes: 22% | No: 49% | Not sure: 29%

If the deficit can't be eliminated by cutting wasteful spending, which of these do you favor?

Cut important programs: Feb. 2011 35% | June 1995 27%

Raise taxes: Feb. 2011 33% | June 1995 23%

Pulled into politics

Not long after giving one of his first speeches on the House floor, Rep. Bill Huizenga settled into a plush leather chair beside a fire in the lodge-like Speaker's Lobby located just off the House chamber. He then told me how his new title as congressman marks the pinnacle of a series of "Jonah moments."

As a high-school senior, Huizenga had no plans to go to college. He figured he'd work for the family business, maybe take some courses at the local community college, and enjoy the quiet life in Zeeland. But school counselors pushed him to Calvin College.

He began there as a business major, but his first political science class captivated him. When he tried to tell his advisor that he should remain a business major, the advisor pointed out how animated he got when talking about politics. Soon Huizenga was the chair of the college's Republican Club. He left school for a semester his senior year to intern at the Republican Study Committee in Washington.

After graduation Huizenga again resisted politics and settled on a path toward becoming a partner in a West Michigan real estate firm. When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Huizenga turned down a chance to move to Washington to work for his district's congressman, Pete Hoekstra.

Then two years later-with Huizenga edging closer to partner status at the firm-Hoekstra called again. This time he asked Huizenga out to lunch, and, after another initial rejection, Huizenga eventually signed on as the congressman's district director.

For six years, Huizenga traveled the district cultivating relationships. That work paid off in 2002 with election to the Michigan legislature-but his time in Lansing was frustrating, as Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed any conservative bill that managed to pass both chambers.

Term-limited out of office after six years, Huizenga felt like a "washed up old has-been at the ripe old age of 39." The gravel company he had bought an interest in was facing hard times with the collapse of the construction industry. That's when Huizenga literally got called into the principal's office one day after dropping his children off at school.

"I don't care if you are 4, 14, or 40, if you get one of those hooked-finger looks from the principal, it is like, 'What did I do? Am I in trouble?'"

But the summons came with a job offer. He went to work at the Zeeland Christian School. Two years later he ran for Congress. In a seven-way primary Huizenga got outspent 3-to-1 by the frontrunner. He wasn't sure going to Washington was a door God would open: "I had to come to the point in my own walk that I knew that I was being faithful in the journey," Huizenga said. "The destination was God's, and I had to give that over."

Huizenga is strongly pro-life. His wife, Natalie, had five miscarriages leading up to the birth of their first child. Doctors told them that they should consider adoption or a childless marriage. He recalls, "It is times like those that you either get closer to each other and God or get driven away from each other and God."

Today they have five children. Their oldest son recently turned 13, and Huizenga spent the last decade as the Right to Life representative for his church, Haven Christian Reformed Church. Natalie is on the board of a local crisis pregnancy center.

Huizenga says his first months in Washington have shown him that he is not alone in his beliefs. "People tell you that I am glad there is at least one person of faith, one Christian, in Washington," he said, "and then you start describing who some of the people here are and they say, 'Oh, I didn't know.'"

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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