A mysterious Texan returns to Congress, gunning for EPA

More than 15 years ago, then-Rep. Steve Stockman wrote a bill aimed at curbing U.S. EPA's regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act.

It was short-lived. The Texas Republican failed to attract any co-sponsors, and the bill never made it farther than introduction. But when Stockman returns to the House next month, he'll find a wealth of Republican colleagues now pushing for similar restrictions on environmental regulations.

Whether the rest of Stockman's agenda will find such mainstream approval is a mystery. His last stint in Congress, which lasted only one term, cemented him as an extreme conservative, with bills that proposed eliminating background checks for firearms and blocking automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Stockman is often referred to as a wild card, a politician known for opinions outside the mainstream. He has a colorful past, once finding himself homeless before becoming a born-again Christian and earning his bachelor's degree at age 35.

He was mostly silent during his recent campaign for Texas' 36th District, rarely granting interviews and voicing few substantive opinions. But in an interview this week, he outlined goals that were less ideological and more grounded in local concerns.

Among them: securing funds to dredge Cedar Bayou, a local port. Stockman said he has already met with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to discuss the $17 million project.


But he also said his opinion on EPA -- and regulations in general -- hasn't changed. He is a proponent of the "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act," or REINS Act, which would require congressional approval for any new regulation that has $100 million or more in total economic impact. The GOP bill passed the House last year but failed to gain any traction in the Senate.

Stockman also reiterated the need to curb EPA's power over states, particularly when it comes to permitting for the oil refineries that employ his new constituents.

"The EPA is stepping in and interceding and not allowing us to run our own program," Stockman said. "Let the companies be accountable, but also make sure you're not impeding new jobs. ... There has to be a balance, and right now the pendulum has swung against the individuals who want to create jobs."

'Perhaps a knave or a joker'

Stockman's win in 1994 was an upset, and his two-year tenure was full of controversy, mostly for his views on gun rights.

In an infamous Guns & Ammo article, he accused President Clinton of orchestrating a raid on the Branch Davidian cult to promote a ban on assault weapons. The 1993 siege in Waco, Texas, ended with 85 people dead; Stockman argued that since the House had refused to ban semiautomatic weapons, "an incident had to be encouraged to happen."

Indeed, he can probably thank gun advocates for his 1994 win, in which he unseated 42-year incumbent Democrat Jack Brooks. Brooks, who died last week, helped pass an anti-crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons, leading opponents to accuse him of advocating gun control. Stockman, in his third try for a House seat, won by 6 percentage points that year.

Gun rights remains one of his main issues, and he was endorsed by several gun rights organizations in his latest campaign. Still, his win was a surprise; in a crowded Republican primary, he managed to beat state Sen. Mike Jackson before winning the general election against Democrat Max Martin.

Given a second round in Congress, it's unclear what kind of lawmaker he will become. His campaign, run out of a motorcycle shop, was so low-key that it's hard to find anyone willing to speak about Stockman's platform.

His life since losing re-election in 1996 lends few clues. He worked at the Leadership Institute before leaving to take care of his father, who had Alzheimer's disease. Some of the volunteers in his recent campaign came from the conservative organization, which trains activists in grass-roots campaigning and fundraising.

"LI's training gave us the edge. More than half of my campaign staff was LI trained," Stockman said in an article on the group's website. "They were very dedicated. They slept on the floor in a warehouse for just a few hours each night."

Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant, predicted that Stockman would remain controversial on the issues he's passionate about -- such as gun rights -- and vote the party line on everything else.

His take, in a nutshell: It's wait-and-see.

"He's been sort of a low-profile figure. He's not real upfront on some things, and sometimes it's hard to find and hard to figure out his position," Mackowiak said. But "he's going to have to start voting on things, and he'll have a chance to put his views on record more."

David Castle, a political science professor at Lamar University, said he expected the same lawmaker from 1994 whose votes scored 100 percent with the Christian Coalition and 4 percent with the League of Conservation.

Stockman, he said, is not only a wild card, he's "perhaps a knave or a joker as well."

"We [his new constituents] have also noted his stealth campaign; perhaps the less he reminded voters of his previous one term in the House, the better," Castle wrote, noting Stockman's failed run for several political offices since his 1996 re-election loss. "Apparently, he has finally found one he can win -- at least once."

Stockman may get a leg up from his previous term -- not so much in seniority but in knowing his way around Congress. And he said he hopes to influence legislation through his assignments on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Science, Space and Technology Committee.

But will he stay out of the headlines this time?

Not likely, by his own account: "I'll probably turn it up."

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