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Tucson Weekly Mr. Smith' Goes To Washington... And Kicks Newt's Ass!

Congressman Matt Salmon May Be A Republican, But He's Also One Of The GOP's Staunchest Critics

By Emil Franzi

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  MATT SALMON doesn't look like a revolutionary. Instead he resembles Central Casting's ideal of Mr. Middle America, a wholesome-looking business and family man from the 'burbs who sprinkles his political discourse with sports analogies. He's Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, even though his actions are reminiscent of Robespierre (the dude who guillotined many of the French Revolution's original leaders).

It was Arizona's Matt Salmon who took out Newt Gingrich. Salmon was the man who ended the career of the conservative firebrand who ignited the much-ballyhooed GOP Revolution of 1994.

The national media recognized Salmon's role. The Arizona Republic sort of reported it. The southern Arizona media basically ignored it. The feisty Arizonan was quoted by major news outlets from CNN and Larry King Live to NBC Today and The New York Times as he set the parameters for Gingrich's removal as speaker of the House of Representatives. As Salmon told Larry King two days after the November election that turned into a near disaster for Congress' seemingly impregnable GOP majority: "For the last three years, we really have been leaderless."

King pressed Salmon with the question: "Is one of the problems you (Republicans) face, that any speaker (of the House) would face, is that you're up against an incredibly extraordinary politician (in President Bill Clinton)?"

Salmon's response was a classic. "If Rocky Balboa had taken a dive in the first round, he would've never known he could go the distance with Apollo Creed. You don't win by taking dives...I'm not even articulating what the agenda should be, but we should have an agenda and it should be articulated."

The November election reduced the GOP margin in the House to just five more than necessary to elect a speaker. Salmon was furious. He promptly announced that he and six other Republican House members would not cast their votes to retain Gingrich as speaker. Two days later, Gingrich announced his retirement.

Many think the Newt's statesmanlike withdrawal was based on the simple reality that he didn't have enough votes in his own caucus to be re-elected. Others believe Salmon was bluffing. Several national media outlets have speculated as to who the other six congressman might have been, with three or four pretty good guesses including representatives Chris Souder and David McIntosh of Indiana.

Would such a rank-and-file GOP rebellion have elected Democrat Richard Gephardt speaker?

No, says Salmon--the seven maverick Republicans would've just withheld their votes by voting "present," keeping anyone from getting the necessary 218 votes and forcing the GOP back into caucus. At best it would've been a major embarrassment for Gingrich, even if most of the seven ultimately recanted. And it clearly had an impact on Gingrich's decision to hang it up.

Salmon was part of the group Gingrich sneeringly called "The Perfectionist Caucus." But Salmon says he was more closely aligned with Republicans of all stripes who simply believed it was time for the GOP to post a damn agenda.

While conceding that in nationalizing the 1994 election via the Contract with America, Gingrich made a brilliant stroke which brought Republicans their congressional majority, Salmon and others are still waiting for the next move.

"Ever since we re-opened the government in December of 1995 by basically caving in to the President," he says, "we've had no overall plan. All we've done for three years is hunker down and play defense, reacting to initiatives from the White House and launching none of our own."

SALMON'S OPPOSITION to Gingrich's leadership was based on much more than the normal "pragmatics" of winning and losing. Regardless of one's place in the political spectrum, Matt Salmon is impressive as that rare breed of politician who cares more about principle and doing what he perceives to be right.

Unlike most pols who are always considering re-election as a major factor in what they say and do, Salmon's support of term limits--three in the House, two in the Senate--means he won't seek re-election to a fourth term in the House, although he might seek another office, such as governor or U.S. senator.

He has a low opinion of Washington, D.C., and many of those who inhabit it: "Too many plastic people whose only goal is self promotion--it's a place where too many of those who are supposed to serve the people are only serving themselves."

Lest we confuse him with a number of idealistic liberals and moderate Republicans who say such things, Salmon is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. His voting record for the last three years places him firmly on the right side of the spectrum, along with his Phoenix-area GOP colleagues.

But it's a refreshing, almost non-confrontational kind of conservatism that preserves the principles without going out of its way to accumulate the usual turnoffs--almost a generational quality he shares with some of his younger conservative house colleagues in the Class of '94 like Steve Largent and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All of them, even the most dedicated leftist will admit, are folks with considerably more charm than Jesse Helms or the Newt himself.

The irony would be if those who stood firmer on conservative principles than Gingrich turned out to be better salesmen for that political philosophy.

Salmon may have the talents for the job. He's no follower, and he's not the type of Beltway Bozo whose votes are determined by the latest poll data. Instead, he tries to change public opinion through leadership.

When asked what the GOP agenda should be, Salmon doesn't hesitate. He says one of the federal government's first priorities should be to pay down the national debt, an old-fashioned and rather quaint idea that most Americans, deeply in hock on their plastic, can identify with.

Salmon also believes it's past time to cut the federal budget--particularly while so many state and local governmental budgets are swelling--and make the federal government less intrusive in our daily lives. He sees too many competing tax collectors.

Not only has Salmon consistently voted with the social conservatives on many issues, he makes no bones about being one himself. Note, however, that his personal political agenda is prioritized to stress economics and the size of the federal government. In a New York Times op-ed piece, he stated: "Members may still butt heads on social issues, but these differences could be managed if the party refused to buckle on the issues on which we agree."

He went further in that piece: "This year we became the Seinfeld Congress, a Congress about nothing. We failed to put forth a clear agenda for America, instead choosing to run out the clock. It seems that we were convinced that history guaranteed additions to our majority...So we spent a good portion of the year naming roads, bridges, and post offices. While President Clinton was building a bridge to the 21st century, the Republican Congress was busy naming it. We spent more time trying to make Puerto Rico a state than we did discussing tax relief, fighting crime or reducing the size of the government. When we ousted the Democrats from power in 1994, it wasn't because they had failed to produce a 51st state."

THAT KIND OF talk makes GOP party hacks nervous. Of course, just about anybody who says anything makes their kind nervous. Which makes one wonder how Matt Salmon ever got to Washington in the first place.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1958, Salmon moved to Mesa at 12, attended ASU, and received a master's in public administration from Brigham Young University. He spent two years (1977-78) as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin and also acquired an interest in foreign policy. He was employed by U S West for 13 years, spending the first two in Tucson heading construction crews. He ended up the firm's top risk manager with 200 employees reporting to him. He and his wife Nancy have four children, ranging from 10 to 17.

He was not politically active above the GOP precinct committeeman level until 1990, when he decided to run against incumbent Republican state Sen. Jerry Gillespie in a safe East Mesa District. Salmon wasn't supposed to win, but he out-worked and out-charmed Gillespie. Re-elected in 1992, Salmon became known as a hard-line conservative, but he was never pegged as one of the "kooks."

In 1992, Democrat Sam Coppersmith defeated three-term GOP incumbent Congressman Jay Rhodes. Two years later, Coppersmith tried for the open U.S. Senate seat of Democrat Dennis DeConcini, losing to Republican Jon Kyl in the process. Also in 1994 came the emergence of three new GOP Congressman from the Phoenix area: John Shadegg replaced Kyl in the 4th District, J.D. Hayworth beat one-term Democrat Karan English in the 6th, and Matt Salmon was elected in the vacant 1st. All three GOP freshmen are conservatives, and all three won multiple GOP primaries against some reasonable contenders. Once again, Salmon out-worked and out-charmed his opposition.

It wasn't long before the maverick streak began to show. Before Salmon had finished his first term, he was in the forefront of the Gingrich critics, and by 1997 he was part of the internal coup to dethrone King Newt. Salmon was one of the 11 GOP House members who openly opposed Gingrich's leadership. Newt put down the rebellion--that time.

Salmon was re-elected in 1998 with no serious primary or general opposition--in fact, his Democratic opponent died and was replaced by another candidate. Some thought it wouldn't have mattered much if they'd just left the dead guy on the ballot.

Besides his maverick attitude towards his party's leadership, there are a few other indications that Salmon is not your normal pol. One story his staff loves to tell: Between his stints in the state Senate and U.S. Congress, the usually well-conditioned Salmon gained 70 pounds. Resolved to take it off, Salmon twice participated in the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon, shedding the extra weight.

Another way to judge Salmon is by the quality of his personal staff and the freedom he gives them. Most congressional staffers have no opinions of their own they dare share; they're uptight, scared to death they'll offend someone. But Salmon runs a much looser ship than most of his colleagues, allowing his people the leeway to write letters to the editor expressing their own opinions, or to going on radio talk shows to do the same. As a result he's accumulated a group of intensely loyal and dedicated people.

"My father told me some people are intimidated by those who are smarter than they are--but I try to hire them," Salmon says.

Take his chief of staff, Mike Paranzino. An attorney who quit his law practice to work for a congressman he genuinely likes and respects, Paranzino is an Italian Catholic working for a Mormon WASP. It's noteworthy that Paranzino, like the rest of Salmon's initial D.C. staff, never had a previous Washington gig.

SO WHAT DOES the future hold for this 40-year-old, boy-next-door insurgent?

There's considerable pressure on him--and several other Class of '94 Republicans who also support term limits--to change his mind and stay in the House. "No way," Salmon says. "If politicians want to be taken seriously again, they have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I made a commitment to stay just three terms, and I plan to keep it."

He says he'd consider a run for the U.S. Senate if a seat opened up--both are now held by Republicans Jon Kyl and John McCain. And he's looking seriously at the governor's job when Jane Hull steps down in 2002. But if none of that works out, Salmon says that's OK with him.

"I can always go fishing or spend the time with my family. And I'm perfectly happy to return to private life after 10 years in public office. I don't really want to be a lifer politician."

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