Congressman Clueless

A year after East Texas voters elected political novice Steve Stockman to fight in Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, Stockman’s harebrained ideas and headline—making gaffes have made him the laughingstock of his own party.

and she’s furloughed,” he said, hanging up from a phone call. But in solidarity with his freshman colleagues, he had refused to give ground to the president. “What makes you think [Clinton is] gonna keep his promise?” Stockman said he had asked them when Clinton briefly appeared willing to compromise. “I grew up on the street, and I know when we’re being hustled.”

Stockman’s experience “on the street” had only recently become public. It was revealed shortly after the election that in his twenties the Michigan native had spent about six months living at the Fort Worth Water Gardens, too broke and ashamed to ask a Texas relative for help. Stockman now describes that period as an introspective one that led to new questions and newfound maturity (“Why am I here? Is there more to life than partying?”), but the metaphor of homelessness can be applied to his life as a whole. Theoretically, voters turned out Jack Brooks because he was too much of an insider; what they got was his polar opposite: a lost man.

Like so many people who came to Texas in the late seventies and early eighties, Steve Stockman was a refugee from the Rust Belt. He was the fourth of six children born to two Michigan schoolteachers, who were evangelical Christians. Stockman has often described himself as the family black sheep; uninterested in academics, he dropped out of college. “I subscribed to the partying syndrome,” he said. He drove junkers, painting one with house paint so his friends could carve their names into it. Stockman spent more than one weekend in jail for traffic violations, and once, after a girlfriend hid Valium in his underwear before he was incarcerated, he was charged with possession of a controlled substance, a felony that was later dropped. His legal problems had no effect on his social life: Stockman, joking, told a Dallas Morning News reporter that he always had his share of “hot-looking babes. I was the studerino.” He was the quintessential good-time guy: For the flight to his sister’s wedding, Stockman showed up wearing a T-shirt and a bathing suit.

Friends married and started careers, but Stockman remained stuck in party mode. He lived briefly with a brother in Madison, Wisconsin, but even his brother finally had to evict him. After spending one cold night in a bus stop, he decided to head for warmer climes. “So,” he told the Morning News, “I took a bus to Texas.” It was there, at the age of 23, that he “hit bottom,” sharing the Water Gardens with drug-abusing war veterans and the mentally ill.

The story of Stockman’s life takes on the gloss of maturity at this point. “There’s a program on The Learning Channel that talks about significant time changes in history,” Stockman said. “I realized I couldn’t follow the philosophy of the sixties. Living free—there’s no such thing.” In 1980 he moved to Houston and worked at various odd jobs. At one time he ran a business called Stephen S. Studios in a sexually oriented section of Montrose, a fact that has given opponents no end of pleasure. (“It was a house-painting business,” Stockman said, exasperated.) Then, in 1984, while eating pizza and channel surfing with his girlfriend, Patti Ferguson, Stockman caught the Reverend John Bisagno of the First Baptist Church of Houston delivering a sermon. Thanks to the urging of his wife-to-be—and the help of cable TV—Steve Stockman put his life in Jesus’ hands.

Married in 1988, the former life-of-the-party got serious, eventually graduating from the University of Houston–Clear Lake. With his new resolve, Stockman joined the local chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, moving through the ranks to become state chairman. Perhaps it is merely consistent that Stockman’s inspiration to run for office came from watching TV: He maintains that he was angered by Jack Brooks’s mistreatment of Reagan-era renegade Oliver North during televised congressional hearings. But Stockman’s political ambitions got their biggest boost from an advertisement that ran on radio and in newspapers at the time. A company calling itself the United States Citizens Association was offering to “help finance and provide expert campaign help to public-minded candidates who will run against Jack Brooks.” The ads were actually financed by the Suarez Corporation, a controversial mail-order business that had targeted Brooks after he attempted to regulate the industry. Bent on revenge, the company kicked in $80,000 in what it called a loan for Stockman to run against him. Unfortunately for Suarez, he lost the primary in 1990. But the candidate was hooked—and, coincidentally, he had nothing else to do. With evangelical churches providing organization, Stockman won the Republican primary in 1992, and in 1994 he challenged Brooks again.

One more time, Stockman, who ran a shoestring campaign from his garage, owed a momentous transformation in his life to outside forces: a change in the political climate. Owing to social and economic pressures exploited by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, the country was balkanizing. East Texas was not immune: Even though Brooks possessed unparalleled power in the House and had graced his district with countless jobs, his constituents decided that he was ineffective and out of touch. The fact that he allowed a bronze statue of himself to be erected at Lamar University was proof that he had become too grand; his support of Clinton’s crime bill, which contained stiff gun-control provisions, was an insult to a region that—as was oft repeated—had more gun dealers than did the state of New York. It was, in fact, gun owners who became devoted to Stockman, even though he admitted that he had never owned a gun. “But I am interested in personal freedom,” stressed Stockman, as he headed to Washington with 52 percent of the vote.

SUNSET, OUTSIDE THE CAPITOL BUILDING. A giant Christmas tree glistened in the foreground, the Washington Monument glows on the horizon. The freshman Republicans descended the Capitol staircase en masse for a

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