Issa prepares to push reform on his own terms

Rep. Darrell Issa's younger years did not foreshadow success: A high school dropout, he was twice charged with car theft and once convicted for the possession of an unregistered handgun.

But the California Republican went on to enter the Army, earn his college degree and start a car alarm company that has made him a multimillionaire. Ambitious, articulate and polished, Issa has become a forceful critic of the Obama administration as the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

And come next week -- if Republicans win the House in the midterm elections, as expected -- he will become the presumptive chairman of the powerful oversight panel. After more than a decade in politics, Issa is on the verge of becoming a well-known thorn in President Obama's side.

What drives Issa is up for debate. Critics say he is all selfish ambition; supporters credit him with a persistent desire to reform government. Issa himself has claimed an ongoing pursuit of limited government and accountability.

"His life is about how to make things work better," said spokesman Kurt Bardella, referring to Issa's successful business, Directed Electronics. "The idea of fixing things, making things better and being a reformer -- this is why he came to public office in the first place."


Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of a political tipsheet called the California Target Book, said Issa is "extraordinarily smart" and well-liked by his San Diego constituents. But his ideology is somewhat unclear: While Issa has cast himself as a moderate in recent years, he once ran for the U.S. Senate on what Hoffenblum called a "hardcore right-wing campaign."

"He's politically ambitious -- there's certainly nothing wrong with that -- and he knows how to position himself to get into the limelight," Hoffenblum said. "The question is, does he use it for good or does he use it for personal gain?"

The past year provides a window into Issa's tactics and priorities. He has often overshadowed Oversight Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) by peppering the media with countless calls for investigations on everything from bonus payments at Merrill Lynch to Countrywide's V.I.P. loan program. His press releases often follow White House announcements and can be eye-catching, such as one issued in the middle of the health care reform debate titled "First Question for President Obama: Did You Lie About Moving Forward on Malpractice Reform?"

Issa also has said that he will pursue "Climategate" if he becomes oversight chairman, launching an investigation into last year's controversy over e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. Unearthed by hackers, the e-mails sparked allegations that scientists had manipulated climate data to silence critics. But investigative panels in both the United States and Britain have cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing.

One of Issa's biggest issues has been the controversy surrounding the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement). In a recent interview on CNN's "The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer," Issa criticized Congress for not demanding the reform of MMS when it first learned of the agency's cozy relationship with oil companies. Instead, the Interior Department reorganized the agency only after the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf.

"Our failure was not that we didn't figure out MMS was dysfunctional, but over those intervening years we didn't fix it," Issa said. "Ultimately BP is not about the failure in the Gulf, it's about MMS's failures ever since Reagan put them in business."

Second coming of Dan Burton?

When discussing Issa's potential as oversight chairman, political experts inevitably point to Rep. Dan Burton's tenure as a cautionary tale. The Indiana Republican issued hundreds of subpoenas during President Clinton's administration and, in one infamous investigation, tried to prove that White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster's death was murder by re-enacting his suspicions in his backyard with a pistol and a pumpkin.

So far, Issa has portrayed himself as a conservative willing to work with Democrats to root out fraud and abuse. He has said that he will use subpoenas sparingly and only go after issues that are in need of reform. Bardella pointed to Issa's support of a bill targeting the Republican National Committee's use of fundraising mailers that looked like they came from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of course, Issa also is quick to mock liberals. Last week, he released a tongue-in-cheek statement thanking supporter George Soros for endowing $1.8 million to NPR and proving that the radio organization does not need federal funds.

"Once NPR is free from the umbrella of accepting, receiving and being eligible for taxpayer dollars, maybe Soros can fully finance NPR's fall schedule with spin-offs of some of America's favorite shows such as, 'Dancing with the Czars' or 'Socialist Survivor' and 'Lost: The Obama Presidency.'" Issa said in a statement.

Ultimately, Issa's future political goals will depend on his ability to come off as a moderate, Hoffenblum said. Though Issa's San Diego district is conservative, his home state is anything but.

"The point is: Does he want to go beyond? Does he have ambitions beyond his congressional district?" Hoffenblum said.

Towns and several other Democrats on the oversight committee declined to be interviewed for this article, but Issa certainly is not beloved by the Democrats in his district. Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, called Issa "abrasive" and unwilling to be challenged.

"This is a guy when he sees an opportunity, he runs for it," Durfee said. "One of his most telling events of his career was when he bankrolled the recall of [California Gov.] Gray Davis (D) and then basically found himself forced out of the race."

Indeed, this could be considered Issa's third attempt to enter the spotlight. In 1998, he ran for the California Senate seat, spending millions of his own fortune in an attempt to take on Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. He lost the Republican primary but was able to snag an open House seat two years later.

After a few quiet years in Congress, Issa again waged an effort to further his political career, spending almost $2 million on the successful recall of Davis. His name -- then unknown by many Californians -- showed up in the numerous media reports on the effort. But Issa was forced to bow out of a gubernatorial run when Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race.

Ted Costa, a California conservative who started the recall, remembers Issa's consultants coming into his office and asking him to sign over the recall to the lawmaker. Costa refused, but Issa funded the recall anyway, transforming a failing effort into a successful one.

Not Snow White

Issa, Costa said, seems "highly capable" of leading the House's oversight panel.

"Listen, I'm not the guy's biggest fan. But if the man is the only man with the guts to speak up against wrongdoing, then power to him," said Costa, who is CEO of the advocacy group People's Advocate. "Maybe he's not as clean as the driven snow -- he's not Snow White, I think he'd tell you that himself -- but by golly, if he is the one to stand up to these people, he should have the position."

Indeed, Issa's somewhat troubled youth was publicly aired during the recall effort. Born in Cleveland, he grew up in a working class family and dropped out of high school to enter the Army at age 17. Over the next 10 years, he had a few run-ins with police. In 1972, he and his brother William were arrested for stealing a Maserati from a car dealership; eight years later, a 27-year-old Issa was again arrested with his brother for car theft. Both charges were dropped.

In the past, Issa has both blamed the arrests on his youth and on a troubled brother. Issa declined to be interviewed for this article, but Bardella shrugged off the car theft charges as "exhaustively reported."

"There are things that have happened in his youth that if he could do over he would," Bardella said. But as "someone who has become very successful -- and grew up in very humble surroundings in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio -- he has been able to really capture what everyone hopes is the America dream."

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