Utah's new, old guard vow to serve
Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart's new congressional office has no art on the walls and no books on the shelves. His desk remains largely empty. And yet, on his first day in office, the place was alive.
His six children, their spouses and four little grandchildren crowded around in the moments before their slow march to the House chamber, where they would see Stewart raise his right hand and vow to serve the nation and protect its Constitution.
The oath reminded Utah's fourth House member of the one he took years ago, when he became a U.S. Air Force officer and that turned his thoughts to his late father.
Boyd Stewart was an Air Force pilot in World War II, and he was the one who administered the military oath to his son, one of four Stewart boys who joined the armed services. His father was a farmer and a man who taught his 10 children to serve their communities.
"Seven years ago today was my dad's funeral," said Chris Stewart, R-Utah. "I was kind of thinking of him today."
He also reflected on the weight of his new responsibility. He is one of 84 freshmen who joined the House at a time of deep partisan divisions and intractable political challenges.
In coming months, Congress and President Barack Obama will attempt to reach an agreement on reducing spending, reforming the tax code and revamping the immigration laws. And Democrats are working on a gun-violence bill as well.
"This is a really important Congress. This is a really important time," Stewart said. "These few years are a tipping point for the nation. I think they will determine who we are as a people depending on what we do."
But those are votes for another day. On Thursday, Stewart supported House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for another term, which he won after a drawn-out vote that spoiled planned receptions throughout the Capitol. Stewart was still able to receive a warm welcome from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in the morning, while former Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, stopped by in the afternoon.
Chaffetz's chief of staff, Justin Harding, has known the Stewart clan for a dozen years. Harding and Stewart's brother Tim both worked for former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. Tim Stewart is now a lobbyist in Bennett's firm, and he also stopped by to wish his brother well.
"They are an extraordinary family," Harding said. "They are just very pragmatic, effective people in all that they do."
But that doesn't mean he knows Chris Stewart well, at least not yet. While other family members, such as Utah federal Judge Ted Stewart, have deep political experience, Chris Stewart was a novice when he jumped into the 2nd Congressional District race. It ended up being an open seat when Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, elected to run in the state's new 4th Congressional District, and his easy victory was overshadowed by Matheson's close call against Republican Mia Love.
In a delegation led by heavyweight Sen. Orrin Hatch and headline grabbers such as Lee and Chaffetz, Stewart will have to continue to fight for the spotlight. As a new member, he seems intent on learning the process and acclimating to the world of national politics.
The nation will hit its debt limit in two months, marking the next round in the lengthy partisan fight over the nation's fiscal health. Stewart said he wants to see how the debate takes shape before staking out a position, though, like most Republicans, he calls for spending less.
He talked politics as restless grandchildren played behind him in the halls of the Cannon Office Building, enduring a lengthy day made longer by speeches and votes setting up the 113th session of Congress.
Their day concluded with a ceremonial swearing-in with Boehner.
Stewart forgot the family Bible and his wife, Evie, joked that he should place his hand on his smartphone, since that's where he generally accesses the Scriptures. The family ended up finding the traditional bound variety before gathering in front of eight American flags. The speaker nestled in the middle between one of Stewart's sons and Evie Stewart.
The family was all smiles except for 16-month-old Chase, who fell asleep on his dad's shoulder.
Before the family disperses on Saturday, Stewart's wife plans to punctuate the occasion with a tour of the Capitol dome and a trip to the national Archives to see the document that Chris Stewart vowed to uphold.
2nd Congressional District
Utah's newest Congress member represents the 2nd District, which has been represented for more than a decade by Rep. Jim Matheson. The district has been dramatically reshaped by redistricting and now includes all of Salt Lake City, dips north to pick up southern Davis County, heads west to take in Tooele County and then sweeps south to include all of western Utah, all the way to St. George. The district is solidly Republican with the exception of the capital, which leans left.