Senator from Ohio
Every national debate has its key players/villains/heroes. The debt ceiling is no different. John Boehner, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid play these roles to a t. Yet, apart from these sizable characters, exist minor figures; influential participants rarely acknowledged by the media. One such person is our Member of the Week, Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. A former budget director and trade representative for President George W. Bush, Rob Portman has proved a valuable asset to top GOP debt negotiators; so much so that his name and 2012 Vice Presidential contender have been mentioned in the same sentence.
Robert Jones Portman was born on December 19, 1955 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up in an entrepreneurial environment; his father owned the Portman Equipment Company, a forklift dealership where he and his siblings all worked. His family’s background in small business and constantly “hearing talk about regulations, and taxes, and government getting in the way of small business” contributed to his burgeoning political philosophy.
As a young man he showed an early interest in the international community, studying in Sweden while a high-school student at Cincinnati Country Day School, and then in France while attending Dartmouth College. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1979 with B.A. in Anthropology. In 1984 Rob Portman earned his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Rob would go on to work for two years as an international trade attorney at Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C. before returning to Cincinnati.
1989 saw the beginning of Portman’s career in public service. It also marked the beginning of his connection to the Bush family. Despite working on George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988, Rob joined President Bush in an official capacity as Associate White House Council in 1989. He was then made director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, becoming the president’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, before leaving the White House in 1991.
Though technically a “freshman” senator, Rob Portman has been a member of Congress before. In 1993, Portman entered a special election to fill the seat of Congressman Willis D. Gradison Jr., who had stepped down to become president of the Health Insurance Association of America. Though he faced a crowded Republican primary field that included a six-term former congressman and a real estate developer, Portman won easily. He went on to defeat his Democratic opponent by nearly 30,000 votes.
His tenure as the U.S. Representative of Ohio’s 2nd District was marked by a willingness to work with Democrats. Portman authored or co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including legislation to reform the Internal Revenue Service, curb unfunded mandates (projects and programs Congress insisted that states adopt even though the federal government provided no money for them), expand pensions, 401(k), and IRA plans offered by small businesses, and create Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His reputation as a rational legislator who worked with colleagues from both sides of the aisle resulted in six reelection wins without any serious challenge.
Rob Portman connection to the Bush family further blossomed when then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas ran for president in 2000. An early supporter of the Governor, Portman helped both Bush and vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney practice for the debates by playing the roles of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman in debate practice. His close relationship with Bush led then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert to appoint Portman as the House’s liaison with the White House.
Rob Portman ended his first run in Congress on May 17, 2005, when he was sworn in to be the United States Trade Representative. As a result, he became the first sitting congressman to hold the post. He served in this capacity for about a year, during which he helped convince Congress to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Rob was then made Director of the Office of Management and Budget – he was confirmed on May 26, 2006 – in hopes that his pragmatic approach and connections on Capitol Hill would help the Bush administration advance its budget priorities, despite growing federal deficits. He resigned on June 19, 2007, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
His hiatus from 2007 till 2008 was marked by the creation of the Ohio’s Future political action committee. Dedicated to ensuring “that the critical policy issues important to Ohioans remain at the forefront of Ohio’s political agenda”, Ohio’s Future helped Portman stay active in the political and policy area prior to his senate run in 2010. Moreover, during his time away from Capitol Hill, Portman was cited as a potential running mate for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. But his ties to the Bush administration and lack of name recognition outside of his House district counted against him.
Rob Portman ended his one-year hiatus on January 14, 2009. Two days after Ohio Senator George Voinovich announced he would not seek re-election, Portman officially declared his candidacy for the open seat. He ran against Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and, despite the Democrats hoping to capitalize on Ohio’s severe economic problem – including an unemployment rate near 11 percent – Portman had a 9-to-1 cash advantage. Rob won the election with 57 percent of the vote, winning 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
A freshman senator with unusual access to senior Republican leadership in the Senate, it is clear that Portman’s experience and expertise are giving him a bigger platform to influence the caucus’s economic policies. He holds a spot on the Senate Budget Committee as a result of his close relationship with Mitch McConnell and in May, Republican leadership rallied behind Portman’s jobs plan that called for a balanced-budget amendment, spending caps, and tax code reform. Within the confinements of the debt ceiling debate, Senator Portman is of the opinion that spending, not tax cuts, causes future deficits. With the economy at the forefront of the national psyche, Portman’s know how, and more importantly, his influence behind the scenes makes him one to track beyond August 2nd.