An Interview With Todd Rokita, Indiana’s Fourth District

-By Warner Todd Huston

Interview with freshman Representative Todd Rokita of Indiana’s Fourth Congressional District (Rep.-Elect at time of interview).

Being here in Chicago right adjacent to Rokita’s turf, I was already familiar with his work as Indiana’s Secretary of State and so when the RP team offered me an interview with him, I jumped at the chance.

Rokita made quite a stir in the Hoosier state with his idea of requiring voters to present a photo ID before they were allowed to vote. This law was a campaign promise he made as he ran for the Secretary of State’s office. It was a law that he got passed, too, so we already know that he has a history of fulfilling campaign promises.

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Rokita was particularly proud of his voter ID law. In our conversation he noted that the left has failed repeatedly to get it thrown out by an act of the courts. “The other side really can’t find the hurt voter. And that’s one of the main reasons they keep losing. You know, we thought it through, not perfectly but well enough to where the courts just keep upholding it.”

He even told me a sort of ironic tale about how his efforts to protect the integrity of the vote actually worked in the Democrats favor even as they kept suing him over it all.

Democrats, they sued me a million times, were asking that I count absentee in person ballots even though the person had improperly filled out the application form to — they didn’t sign the document which is a document to be signed under penalty of perjury that everything is accurate in it. And so, under our law, really, you know, we could have rightly denied that vote but because it was in person and because we have proof of who turned in the ballot [with the voter ID law], I end up tallying the ballots for the Democrats. So photo ID saved them.

Last year he also made partisans of both parties mad at him when he proposed to make it a felony for legislators to draw districts based on data favorable to politicians. Rokita maintained that politicians shouldn’t be allowed to draw districts in their own favor and should be forced to draw them along geographical lines, or based on school district maps or some other more logical criteria.

In fact, Rokita is not resting on his laurels and just sitting around waiting for his term in Congress to begin. The last few weeks he’s been doggedly fulfilling his role as Secretary of State and keeping a close eye on the many recounts and voter fraud charges currently going on, especially the one involving the likely incoming Secretary of State, Republican Charlie White.

Rokita told me that he was really concerned with one recount in Evansville, Indiana. “We had a recount down in Evansville,” he told me, “and I was determined to get it done in one day. And so, we went from 12 to 12 yesterday.”

In short, Todd Rokita seems to be more interested in true reforms than mere political career building. This notion was reinforced in our interview when I asked him about the committees that he got assigned to in the coming 112th Congress. I wondered if he got the committees he wanted and if not, which one he wished he got. His answer was less about himself and more about the rest of the freshman class. This is because Rokita was elected to the prestigious steering committee.

Along with two other freshmen — Joe Heck (Nev.) and Pat Meehan (Pa.) — Rokita was elected by his peers to the Republican Steering Committee, the committee responsible for assigning the members of the House to their new committees. Rokita was determined, he said, to use his place on this committee to aid as many freshmen as possible. He hoped to place them on as many influential committees as he could.

As I asked him about committees, his mind was all on the freshmen. I did recently find out that he was assigned to the House Budget Committee, but even so, he worried that government had gotten way too big and out of hand.

I ran for the steering committee and that’s an elected position. Part of my campaign promise is for the freshmen, you know, to work for them and try to get that settled first then I’ll worry about myself. I don’t know how it’ll end up, Warner, but what I think is useful is really — and all committees do this to an extent — but overseeing the bureaucracy because I think that’s our biggest challenge.

That’s one of the scariest things for me. It scares me more than the debt. And that scares me because… people are telling me stories. They tell me Todd you can go and do surprise visits on agencies, subpoena all the people you want and you’ll never make a ripple in the water. They’re so big, they’re so huge, they make so much more money now than you do in the private sector and you just can’t do anything to it. And I’m a guy whose running a Secretary of State’s office on a 1987 budget adjusted for inflation.

You know, that’s the mindset I come to in running a bureaucracy that we can do 75% of our transactions over the Internet so we leverage technology to drive that cost down. And we’re not diminishing services, that’s the type of thing, the type of skill set that I bring to my committees being a former attorney [and member of state government] to ask these bureaucrats the right questions.

It appears that his disgust at government over spending is no act, either. He has made it known that he refuses to pay $2,000 a month to rent a place to live in Washington D.C. and will sleep in his offices. About his sleeping arrangements, he recently told the media, “I’m not doing this as a political stunt,” he said. “I’m doing this because I’m a cheap bastard.”

Next I asked Rokita what he felt was his chief message during the campaign.

The closest that I have right here message-wise was the idea of stopping the spending. And it was really ironic because, you know, in the beginning, my advisers were saying, oh every word out of your mouth is going to be jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And it’s true but I wanted to know if this district — if the state — was ready to have an adult conversation. And I’ve been — and I know people use it now so it’s cliché, I’m not the first one… I can’t imagine I’m the first one that started using it but I saw the need — I don’t want to sound arrogant about this — but I’m not doing this for my career. After my second term as Secretary of State I was contented going into the private sector, or what was is left of the private sector. So at 40-years-old, I was really going to my revenue earning years. But I thought, okay, if I do this, I want to know upfront if people are really serious about stopping the spending, getting rid of this debt. So, I didn’t talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. I talked of stopping the spending and getting government out of our lives.

By the way, then I would say, as a way to create more jobs. The government doesn’t give jobs. The private sector does. The best way to do that is to get the boot off their neck and not have any long-term debt that we owe to people around the world. That would be the long-term economic advantage of reducing the debt and stopping the spending. And that, you know, that’s the thought.

In a 13-candidate primary, I won with 43% of the vote. My closest guy was 25 points behind and he’s the one that ran a quarter of a million dollars of negative ads against me because I’d say these things in debates.

So, the question would come up, okay, Mr. Rokita with this spending, what would you cut? I would list ten things to do: raise the age for social security and curtail or means-test the prescription drug program those sort of things. People say all these kind of things are the third rail. So, I was riding the third rail the whole time during this campaign. So they ran a negative ad on me that had me videotaped at one of these many debates, you know, and their message was that Todd Rokita hates old people.

And that’s the guy that lost by 25 points. So, that’s at least anecdotally how I know that I’m comfortable with going forward with this message.

In light of this campaign message he offered the voters of Indiana, I asked what he really wanted to accomplish in Washington?

You know, I’ll only be one of 435. So, the overarching goal is to keep this freshman class organized and unified and no one gave me the scepter or the authority to do such a thing but that’s my own personal goal. And my first way of doing that was to run for the steering committee because as the freshman representative to the steering committee, that would ensure that I knew my freshmen. And I do. I can’t think of a freshman I don’t know, that I haven’t talked to… by virtue of that fact that they wanted to talk about the committee assignments. And that gave us a chance to talk about the committee assignments, that gave us a chance to bond.

And I really truly believe that success in carrying this adult conversation to Washington — and not only just talking about it but acting on it — is taking my one vote and making it at least 87. Add that to the conservatives that are already there and we’re going to have to be listened to. Heck, without anyone else, we’re going to have to be listened to if we stay unified and appear organized. Really, that’s my goal.

The good thing is, we analyzed the new member races and I gave campaign donations to about 25 other guys before we even won. I also gave the NRCC another $35,000 so I probably gave direct contributions totaling about 70 grand, raised another 100. And again, split the direct contributions to freshmen and then, you know, I put some out to NRCC and my thinking there was to make sure I got the camel’s nose under the tent trying to push this agenda forward rather than getting there and immediately being on the outside. So the thinking was that in the end, it seems to be working and I’m sitting at a table [in the Steering Committee] that is the heart and soul of the GOP Conference.

In that Steering Committee you know we’re going to have [next Speaker of the House] John Boehner in there, Eric Cantor (R, VA) but we have Pete Sessions (R, TX) at the NRCC and Jeb Henserling (R, TX) ahead of the conference, you have every regional rep there from around the country. And, you know, for better or worse, we certainly don’t always agree. But they know me. They know my passion and they know that I’m an honest broker for the freshmen. And we also have two other freshmen reps and they’re doing an equally good job. I want to make sure that’s clear. And we’re a pretty good team.

Then he told me an amusing little story about a long-time, “old bull” congressman that confronted him when he was last in Washington.

But you know, there was an old bull, of course you know what I mean by old bull, right? The guy has been there forever. Knows what — and he probably does know everything, has done everything and seen it all. I don’t mean that flippantly. But he’s used to telling everyone else what to do and he always gets his way. So, this guy, and there are several of them, came after me and said, “Well, you’re not a ‘Class.’ You’re a herd.”

And what is that? By looking in his eyes and seeing is his face he was saying that, yes, you’re big but you’re still in the corral. And so, I just paused and I looked back at him and I said, “Oh, you better not spook us.” And his eyes got big as saucers. That’s how I view this freshmen class at this time. They know we’re big. We’re there to be serious and they’re not going to hurt us unless we don’t stay together. Because together we’re a force and so far most of us are saying cut the spending, get government under control, we appreciate the orientation week, we appreciate issues conference that we’ve been to so far, but I’m ready to get to the voting buttons. Let’s go.

Rokita did say that leadership has been very supportive of the freshmen thus far. When he approached Speaker-to-be Boehner and insisted that the freshmen get spots on the more powerful committees, he found that Boehner already planned to do so. Not only that, but Boehner was planning to do this in a more consequential way then did the chiefs of the last Republican tidal wave election under Speaker Gingrich.

And because of the freshmen they put on in ’94, there’s been a lot of grousing in conference about that because what they did in ’94 was that they put on powerful committees some of the weakest freshmen, the ones in the tightest districts, the worst fundraisers and that was to get them more money in contributions. And we’ve got 20 some freshmen, we got a third of GOP Conference and we have this, about half of the eight committee spots that were available. So, it’s really worked. If you look at those 20 some freshmen, you know, they’re strong people. They have either proven records and they’re state legislators with a record of saying “no” to this spending or they’re strong advocates for cutting spending and they’re not here for their career.

So, those were the kind of freshmen I was looking for to put on those committees to make it work. So, that’s what we’re doing with this.

So, it appears that Rokita is pretty sanguine that the GOP leadership will be interested in working with the incoming freshman class, in fact they already are.

So far so good. And as long as the freshmen aren’t going to go to sleep, you know, and we’re watching and we’re going to keep pushing as well. I mean, we’re all of one mind and we’re going to have to keep an eye on that stuff but so far so good. I’m really happy with it. And you got to remember, we’re one half of one third of the federal government.

One of the fist votes, Rokita said, was going to be a repeal of Obamacare. “You’re going to see a bill, from what I understand, to vote to repeal Obamacare and that’s one of my first goals. We’re going to take that vote. I think that’s very, very important.”

But there as an even more important vote soon to hit Congress, one Rokita really wanted people to pay attention to.

Secondly, we have a huge, a huge vote that makes Obamacare look simple. And the guys on the blogs need to start paying attention to this a little bit and start the conversation with us that it’s a terrible vote — it’s about raising the debt ceiling limit. The United States Federal Government is going to reach its credit card limit somewhere between April and July 2011. Now, this is spending for what’s already occurred so it’s really unfair to the freshmen because, you know, we didn’t vote for this spending. We were not around. Yet, the bill’s coming due at the beginning of our watch.

I don’t want to sound like Obama, either, and I know I am not using that as an excuse. I’m just telling you the facts of the situation.

So, that puts us in a position of okay, what are you going to do? Are we going to let to the federal government default by not raising the debt limit? Are you going to raise to the debt limit? Well, I can tell you, even in a safe district like mine, it’s not what I came to do. And I don’t know how you’re going to convince me. I don’t want to have a conversation with my kid one day that daddy worked in Congress because he kept talking in his speeches about how long this was going to be that we were paying this debt into our future. And one of the first votes he took was to raise the debt ceiling limit?

What’s a freshman to do? We need to really start as a family thinking that through and I’d invite the good bloggers to be a part of that discussion. Does it makes sense to do it just one more time and get a lot for it on the balance sheet like a balance budget? Or maybe get it on a stand-alone bill? But what can we add to the debt ceiling vote that would be tacked to structural change? Or is the only way we’re going to learn as a country is to make us worse than Greece, at least temporarily, to wake everyone up? I mean we’re told by not voting for the debt ceiling to increase, that’s what we’re doing. In fact, you’re past Greece into South American countries.

This in a lot of ways is the next TARP vote with this debt ceiling vote so it’s very serious. And the more the conversation is transparently conducted as an American family between now and April, you know, the better informed the new reps could be about the feeling of it in their district.

My last question concerned President Obama. I reminded Rokita that Obama was forced to compromise with the Republicans over extending the current tax rates (the Bush tax cuts, as the media erroneously calls them) and that this was the one and only time in his entire political career that he’s ever compromised with the other side on anything. I said that Obama has an undeserved reputation for working with the other side, but until this month he’s never, ever done so. That being the case, I asked Rokita if he expected Obama to make more of these compromises with his upcoming 112th Congress?

Rokita told me that he fully intends to force the president to continue compromising. “Well, that’s really my intention,” he said.

Perhaps only half in jest, Rokita said that he had hoped that Obama would continue down his extremist, left-wing path so that we could more easily get rid of him in 2012.

My question is I wonder if he really is becoming more like Bill Clinton, which in a way, you know, to be quite blunt and honest with you, I was hoping for him to stick to his wrong ideology so we could ensure that we’d get rid of him.

But it wasn’t just for party points he was hoping to get rid of Obama. “If he ends up turning like a Clinton,” Rokita said, “then we may not get that true repeal of Obamacare if he gets the second term.”

Even with that Obama compromise, Rokita didn’t think the tax deal went far enough.

Well, for the record I don’t think the tax deal went far enough. I would have asked for more. I think a — I think we blinked too soon. But that’s just me. I mean I’m very aggressive like that and I don’t know. I wasn’t there at the table to make the full judgment. But given from what I know through the news I wouldn’t have blinked so soon because I think they were going to have to do that tax cut anyway. Tax cut… what am I talking about? They would have had to hold the line on taxes.

At this point we ended our conversation due to time constraints. I was pleased to get nearly 40 minutes with Mr. Rokita, so the congressman-elect was quite generous with his time.

All in all, what I discovered was a serious man with specific ideas of what he wanted to achieve while in congress. He had carefully considered how to get the freshmen into positions of influence and was certainly centered on a specific ideological agenda. He was a pro-growth conservative looking for true reforms, not simply an office seeker looking for personal aggrandizement.

Todd Rokita seems to be a hard-charging man on a mission. Now let’s see if his enthusiasm can wake up some of those “old bulls,” take them by the horns and shake up this moribund government.

Good luck, Mr. Rokita. You have a huge job ahead of you.

(Originally posted at

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