Imagine you’re an incumbent Republican member of Congress in the months leading up to a contested primary election, and Fox News calls to see if you’d be interested in doing an on-air interview to roast the Obama administration’s continued Benghazi sham. Without pause, you’d clear the calendar for a great opportunity for exposure—one your upstart opponent certainly won’t get—with a national audience. It’s a no-brainer, right?
Not if you’re Jimmy Duncan, the thirteen-term representative from Tennessee’s Second Congressional District. Instead of hopping into the make-up chair for a Saturday morning cable TV hit, the congressman is in the teacher’s workroom at Dandridge Elementary School during one of his “constituent days” doing back-to-back meetings with anyone who wants to chat him up. The small town of Dandridge rests sleepily between the front range of the Great Smoky Mountains and Knoxville, the largest city in Duncan’s district. It’s a pretty place, but not one you end up at unless you mean to go there. And on this particular Saturday morning, it seems there is no place Duncan would rather be than with his constituents in this tucked-away corner of Southern Appalachia.
For Duncan, that’s par for the course. Since he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1988, he’s earned a reputation as a man of the people, and the margins of his wins at the polls have been some of the most enviable in the country—in a bad year he only gets 70 percent of the vote. When I ask him why he enjoys such overwhelming support, especially when congressional approval ratings are so dismal, he leans back in his seat to think before rocking forward with a two-part answer: “While I don’t like to ever miss votes, I make a point to spend more time in Tennessee than in Washington, and only 1 percent of the events I attend at home are Republican events.”
Though he’s unquestionably a conservative, Duncan is deliberate about connecting with all of the residents of his home district, regardless of political affiliation. He talks with equal pleasure about attending Eagle Scout ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, and commencements, and the time he was asked to be the grand marshal of a local Martin Luther King Day parade. Since political events can often be too narrow in their appeal, Duncan says he likes to break free of the typical glad-handing scene, opting instead to go out into the communities he serves to forge important relationships.
But while Duncan puts in long hours to log as much face time with his electorate as possible, his successes at the polls are also helped by the fact that Tennessee’s Second Congressional District is one of the most conservative in the United States. In 2012, Knox County, the most diverse county in the region, voted almost two-to-one in favor of Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.
Duncan is a lifelong conservative whose entire first paycheck as a grocery bagger went to support Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. The political issue nearest to his heart—one that resonates deeply with the people who vote for him—is fiscal responsibility. When I ask him to sum up the crux of his political philosophy, he offers a one-word response: “freedom,” and then quickly adds that the biggest threat to that freedom is the federal government’s out-of-control spending. Though he takes the matter very seriously, Duncan laughs when he tells me that the first question he usually asks about any legislation is “How much will it cost?”
Nine times out of ten, this question makes him a very popular man among his peers. But on a few occasions it has gotten him in hot water, both in Washington and Tennessee. Duncan recounts from his earlier years on the Hill the times he and Tom DeLay tussled over GOP spending bills that party leadership wanted to pass through the House, but that Duncan didn’t think represented the core Republican principles of smaller government and limited spending. This habit of bucking party orthodoxy has probably cost Duncan some of the sexier committee appointments and leadership positions during his Washington tenure, but nothing he’s done has ever put him in a tougher spot than his refusal to vote for U.S. forces to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein from power roughly a decade ago.
Duncan voted for the Gulf War in 1991, he says, after listening to Norman Schwarzkopf’s briefings on the vast international dangers posed by the Iraqi regime. “Then, when I watched their elite troops surrender to CNN cameramen,” he remembers, “I realized the threats had been greatly exaggerated.” Fast-forward to the months leading up to the post-9/11 Iraqi escapades and Duncan was staunchly opposed to any military intervention.
One of only a handful of Republicans who were outspoken against squaring off with Iraq a second time, Duncan says he was corralled to the White House on multiple occasions to be lectured on the importance of a unified Republican vote, as well as the necessity of deposing America’s longtime antagonist, Saddam Hussein. Sitting across a table from then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Duncan asked his usual question: “How much will it cost?” According to Duncan, Rice ballparked the total price tag at $50 billion, a bit less than America’s previous Iraqi adventure. He balked at her lowball estimate.
Duncan knew that his opposition to the invasion would be unpopular among his congressional colleagues, but he also worried he was also running afoul of the wishes of most East Tennesseans. In the days just before the decisive vote, he says over 70 percent of his district’s residents were in favor of taking out Saddam Hussein.
Exhaling and staring over my head in the teacher’s workroom, Duncan remembers casting the most widely disliked, yet most principled, vote of his life. “As I pushed the button to vote against the war, I seriously wondered if I was ending my political career.” He says that in the wake of it, he experienced more abrasive treatment at home than ever before, to the extent that he was even disinvited from speaking at a church about twenty minutes outside of Knoxville.
“But guess what?” he continues without a hint of gloating. “The most unpopular vote I ever made slowly, slowly, became one of the most popular.” As the government threw billions upon billions of dollars into a protracted American stay in Iraq, and those infamous weapons of mass destruction never materialized, Duncan’s position—that the U.S. should have never gone into Iraq in the first place—moved him from near-pariah status to that of a sage statesman.
The lesson was clear: Sticking to principles may often sting in the short term, but in the long run refusing to waver can bolster a legacy.
After the 2008 elections, Duncan’s long-held small-government values were in vogue across the country as his political twin in Congress, Ron Paul, became a household name. This popularity, though, doesn’t mean Duncan has been without competition for the seat he’s occupied for the past quarter century. Every few years, he’ll get a challenger, and of late they’ve ironically come from the Tea Party elements of the right wing.
Before I met with Duncan, I asked his longtime chief of staff, Bob Griffitts, how Tea Party courtiers propose to out-conservative the man who’s been referred to as Ron Paul’s ideological heir. “I’m not sure, you know?” he says, shrugging with a bit of an eye-roll. “I mean, we were the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party.” And that remark isn’t too much of a stretch when considering his voting record. In addition to voting against the second war in Iraq, Duncan was one of only forty-five House members to vote against No Child Left Behind and one of ten to vote against opening the Department of Homeland Security, which to him has ushered in the creation of a security-industrial complex.
If a bill represents government growth, there is a very good chance Jimmy Duncan will vote against it. With that in mind, I ask him if it’s fair that congressional productivity is now heavily equated with how many bills are passed into law. “David,” he says, “we’ve passed so many laws, rules and regulations that there’s barely a computer—let alone a human being—that can keep up with all of them.” I jot down “no” in my notes, and he continues, “The number one goal of conservatives should be to decrease laws and regulations.”
Of the laws passed recently, very few substantially address America’s monstrous spending problem, according to Duncan. On his official website, he keeps a running calculator of America’s real-time debt accumulation. Before heading to Dandridge to meet the congressman, I checked the site, and the total was speeding towards the $17.5 trillion mark. Duncan tells me that “if every member of Congress voted like I have, we’d have no debt.” If reckless spending is the country’s biggest threat, I pose, then why doesn’t it get more serious bipartisan action? “Because,” he says, “17 trillion is an incomprehensible number.”
And this is what’s truly scary to conservatives who share a like mind with Duncan. If the national debt has reached a level of incomprehension and the economic sky falls, the negative impact of that financial liability will also be incomprehensible.
After about half an hour of talking, we both look at our watches. I can tell Duncan’s anxious to get back to his meetings. I ask him why he does these “constituent days” so often instead of the ever-popular town hall forums, to which he responds, “Folks either want to express their opinions to me personally or ask for help.” He looks past my shoulder to his staff and signals them to bring in the next constituent. “And it’s my job to hear them out individually.”