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Rep. James Lankford
Drew Angerer/The New York Times
Rep. James Lankford

David and Goliath

Politics | Second-term congressman James Lankford lacks the so-called credentials to take on Washington establishment, but he will anyway

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Four chairs and a couch surround a glass-top coffee table in Rep. James Lankford’s Capitol Hill office. On it mementos sit neatly arranged: military coins, tickets to an Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State football game, and pieces from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which took place within his district. There’s also a Bible—Lankford’s mom gave it to him when he professed faith in Christ at age 8, and he was sworn into Congress on the same Bible in 2011—35 years later. 

Some items don’t need explanation, but why the sling and five rocks? “A friend of mine made that sling and put five smooth stones around it, saying, ‘Go to Washington and take down the giants,’” the Republican lawmaker explained.

Lankford, 45, now in his second term, is taking on the biggest giants Washington offers: Attorney General Eric Holder over Justice Department scandals, and now former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi scandal—not to mention federal budget-cutting, human trafficking, and other issues. 

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Lankford has made a name for himself as someone who soaks up information, asks hard questions, and is helping to fill a leadership void in Congress—even though he arrived in Washington with no prior political experience. His work as a freshman prompted colleagues to unanimously elect him the Republican Policy Committee chairman—the fifth-highest House leadership position—for the 113th Congress. 

The Policy Committee considers what issues might be on the horizon weeks or months down the road, meaning virtually every issue falls in Lankford’s domain. But colleagues refer to him as a “sponge” for retaining information.

At a May 8 hearing on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, Lankford landed in the spotlight (see sidebar below). Seconds after Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR), called for a 10-minute break during six hours of testimony, four members—including those most active in the investigation—spontaneously gathered at Lankford’s desk for a strategy session.

Issa told me Lankford’s leadership on the Benghazi investigation is “particularly impressive when you consider that James doesn’t come from a State Department or national security background.”

Lankford earned an education degree at the University of Texas and a master’s in divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary, then spent 14 years as the director of Falls Creek Camp in Oklahoma—the largest Christian camp in the nation with more than 50,000 annual visitors. “I assumed I was going to be there forever,” Lankford told me. 

But the camp director grew unsettled in 2008. He felt God was telling him to “get ready,” but he couldn’t figure out why, even after much prayer. 

Just before the 2008 election, Lankford heard that Mary Fallin, then representing Oklahoma’s fifth district in Congress, was considering a run for governor in 2010. “That’s what I want you to do,” Lankford felt God saying to him. “Well, that’s insane,” he thought. “That’s not even rational.” Lankford didn’t tell his wife Cindy because, he said, “normal people” don’t go tell their wives, “Hey, let’s quit our job and run for Congress. That’d be fun.” 

Three days later, while Lankford reviewed congressional district boundaries online, his wife walked up behind him and peered over his shoulder: “What are you looking at?” she said. “County statistics,” he responded. After a pause, she said, “We’re about to run for Congress, aren’t we?”

Lankford resigned in early fall 2009 and spent the next 15 months in his first political campaign, winning a seven-way primary, a runoff, and a general election (with 63 percent of the vote). What Lankford lacked in political connections he made up for with social media prowess, an army of Christian campers and their parents, and pure substance on the issues—which he discussed at length in hundreds of “in-home coffees” with voters. 

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma’s fourth district, said all seven primary candidates came to visit him. “Lankford just had this ability to connect with people—not that the others didn’t, but his was clearly superior,” he said. “He built a great relationship with voters in the district.”

Twenty-two years of youth ministry helped with more than campaigning: OGR chairman Darrell Issa knew it took a lot of organizational skills and a level head to run such a large camp. “He could be the adult at the table,” Issa says he thought, and immediately installed Lankford as a freshman subcommittee chair. 

Lankford’s seminary training also provided a great foundation for lawmaking, especially coming from an institution committed to the inerrancy of the Bible. He said it translated easily into studying the Constitution and understanding the authors’ intent. 

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