The most notorious moment of Representative Steve King’s career was cleverly calculated.
The immigration debate had undergone a sea change in favor of reform, with bipartisan Senate passage of a sweeping bill in the months after Hispanics carried President Obama to a resounding reelection victory. The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, kept up the pressure on the House by delivering speeches arguing that young undocumented “Dreamers” were some of the finest in society — high school valedictorians, even, who deserved the same opportunities as native-born children.
This really irritated King. “It was wrong,” he tells TPM in a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I go down to the border and … I see these guys that are coming across.”
Seeking to get back at Durbin, the Iowa Republican gave an interview to the conservative outlet Newsmax in July 2013, declaring, “For every [young undocumented immigrant] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
The quote went viral, unleashing a firestorm from immigrant-rights activists. House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, publicly denounced King’s “hateful” remarks and called him an “asshole” behind closed doors.
|King speaks during a rally to build a fence along the U.S./Mexican border near Palominas, Ariz. on Saturday, May 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Khampha Bouaphanh)
King concedes that the one hundred-to-one claim was an “estimate,” but with a mischievous smile, he points out that he succeeded at shifting the immigration debate. He fueled the conservative antagonism that killed the Senate bill in the House. “I’d suggest that we have now more objectively characterized Dreamers,” he snarks, “and [Durbin] hasn’t yet said thank you.”
Brent Siegrist, former Republican Iowa House Speaker who served with King in the legislature, is familiar with these tactics. “I’ll say this about Steve: Most of his controversial comments are the kind that you might say are off the cuff. They’re not. He’s a bright guy,” he says. “He knows what he’s doing when he’s stirring the pot. And he likes that.”
The episode reveals the method to King’s madness — how a rank and file congressman came to call the shots on one of the most important issues of the modern era, much to the chagrin of his own party’s leaders, who worry that alienating the increasingly powerful Latino community could shut them out of the White House for a generation.
‘EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW, EVEN IF IT’S YOUR MOTHER’
Born on May 28, 1949 in Storm Lake, Iowa, King first learned about illegal immigration when he was 10 years old. His father, then the mayor of a small Iowa town called Goodell, came home and told his son that the town had apprehended an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “Equal justice under the law, even if it’s your mother. That was a point of admiration in our household,” King recalls. “It was drilled into me.”
King describes his entrance into politics as an accident. After dropping out of Northwest Missouri State University after just five semesters, he founded a construction contracting business, in 1975, which he later passed on to his eldest son, Dave. His first campaign came about in 1996 when he was annoyed with his state senator, Republican Wayne Bennett, for opposing parental notification for a minor seeking an abortion. “I set about recruiting somebody to run for state senate who reflected my values,” he says. “Pretty soon I had a kitchen cabinet that was following me. It’s kind of the way Dick Cheney became vice president.”
During the campaign, he stumbled upon his signature issue in the legislature: English as the official language. He remembers the moment, down to the exact date. During an October 10, 1996 fundraiser at Yellow Smoke Park sponsored by then-Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, he made the speech that shaped his political future. “I was running through my topics and I said, ‘And I believe English should be the official language of the state of Iowa.’ And it just brought the house down. There was this huge applause,” King says. “I knew how strongly I believed in it. But I didn’t know how strongly they believed in it.”
|King speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Friends of the Family Banquet in Des Moines Iowa Saturday Nov. 9, 2013 (AP Photo by Justin Hayworth)
Today, Latinos are the Hawkeye State’s fastest-growing demographic, a fact that may resonate with King’s conservative district. From 2000 to 2010 Latinos nearly doubled, many attracted to the growing meatpacking industry. Although Hispanics constitute a mere 5 percent of the state’s population, their presence has surged to about quarter of residents in Buena Vista County and Crawford County. King represents both counties. Out of the nine Iowa counties where Hispanics made up 10 percent or more of the population, King represents — or, due to redistricting, has represented — seven of them.
King recalls getting “pounded” by the local press during that state senate campaign, when he discovered his thirst for confrontation. “Well, when somebody decides to pound you, you can do a couple things. You can curl up in a fetal position or you can fight back. And what I’ll do is I’ll always fight back,” he says.
Kathy Witzke, a self-described farm wife from Newell, Iowa, who worked on King’s eventual campaign for Congress, says, “He’s just a regular person who’s speakin’ plain Midwestern English like we all are out here. We don’t have time to tap dance around this crap and make as many people like us as possible.”
King went on to defeat Bennett, and began a long fight for the official-English cause, eventually succeeding. “I held it up for a couple of years,” says Siegrist, then the House Speaker. “Frankly, I didn’t think it did much and it was very divisive. Steve always pushed really hard for it.”
‘GUNS ARE FOR MEN WHAT JEWELRY IS FOR WOMEN’
King was no stranger to controversy in the state senate. He once got into a heated debate with a Democrat named Johnie Hammond during a Judiciary Committee meeting about closing the so-called gun show loophole, something he sternly opposed. King interrupted Hammond while she was making a point in favor of the restriction, and said, “You women don’t understand — guns are for men what jewelry is for women.”
Hammond remembers the moment well. King’s wife, Marilyn, whom he married in 1972, “is a gun collector too — so he’s more likely to give her a new gun for Christmas than a new watch or ring,” she says. The two didn’t stay angry at each other for long. “We joked about it enough that he looked for a little gun charm that he could give me to wear on a chain.”
|King with his wife, Marilyn, on their wedding day on June 1972 (courtesy King’s office)
Looking back, King lets out a high-pitched laugh and says, “I think I described that accurately. Yes, guns are to men what jewelry is to women!”
Kathie Obradovich, a journalist with the Des Moines Register who has covered King since he was a state senator, says, “Steve King is not the kind of guy who has his finger in the wind looking at polls. He’s just not.”
Michael Gronstal, a long-serving Iowa Democrat and now the Senate majority leader, says it was clear early on that King craved a national stage. “From the start he was one of the people who gave speeches on the floor in the evening,” he says. “It was essentially theater, like for C-SPAN.”
King sealed the deal on his pet piece of English-only legislation in 2002, when he and Siegrist faced off in a crowded primary for a safe Republican congressional district. King telegraphed a threatening message to Siegrist through one of the Iowa Speaker’s friends: If Siegrist didn’t bring up the bill for a vote, King would “hit him over the head with it at every stop on the campaign trail.” At the time, the legislation enjoyed the support of 80 percent of voters.
Siegrist relented; the bill passed in the House on February 26 of that year and was signed into law by Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack.
King ended up winning the nomination by some 15 to 20 votes, which launched his career in Congress. The official-English bill, King smiles, “may have made the difference.”
‘THE ORIGINAL ENERGIZER BUNNY’
When he arrived in Washington in 2003, King struck up a friendship with Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, who describes King as “the original energizer bunny.” The were “simpaticos,” he says — not just because they were equally hostile to immigration reform. They looked so much alike they were mistaken for one another by reporters, fellow lawmakers, and even family. One night, around 11 o’clock, Tancredo was giving a speech on the House floor, when King’s sister-in-law called King’s wife to say, “Steve is doing a great job!”
“Members of Congress would come up on the floor and confuse one of us for the other,” Tancredo says in an interview. “Steve would always say, ‘Look into my eyes. Mine are blue, his are brown!'” In 2007, the two went to an annual Christmas party at the White House and switched name tags just to prank the other guests. “That was a lot of fun,” Tancredo says with a nostalgic laugh, recalling that King took his back before they met President Bush because Tancredo had a frosty relationship with president.
|King, left, jokes with Tancredo, right, before they address a small event staged by a new conservative group called 9-12 Project Liberty Circle in Loveland, Colo., on Saturday, June 19, 2010. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The two helped kill Bush’s reform push in 2006 and 2007 by channelling the nativist anxieties of the conservative base, even as strategists like Karl Rove warned that Republicans needed a pro-Hispanic vision to remain a strong national party. King chilled the atmosphere early by saying at a well-attended press conference that anyone who voted for reform “deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter, ‘A’ for amnesty.”
In March 2006, King claimed the country would be safer without immigrants, arguing that every day, 12 Americans are killed by “murderous illegal aliens” and another 13 by “drunk driving illegals.” Like with the “cantaloupes” claim, the numbers were fudged. King borrowed them from a government study but ignored the distinction between lawful and undocumented immigrants as well as data showing first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
Regardless, the claim took on a life of its own — repeated by right-wing activists, including Clyde Harkins of the American Constitution Party, and radio host Peter Boyles. Bush suffered a major defeat when the bill was shot down by the Senate, thanks also to outside groups like FAIR and NumbersUSA, and a faction of labor-aligned liberals who opposed guest-worker provisions.
“King stirred up the pot pretty good,” recalls John Feehery, a former aide to the Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, now a lobbyist supporting reform. Sure, other lawmakers were also effective, such as Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who “framed the argument in stark economic terms, which was a better approach than the thinly veiled racism of others,” but King, Tancredo, and their allies had successfully shifted the debate enough to the right that Republicans were forced to abandon the cause.
Tancredo left Congress in 2009, running two failed bids for governor. King has stayed behind, passing up a chance in 2013 to seek retiring Democrat Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat, deciding instead to fight on immigration from the House. King honed his message with a laser-like focus on illegal immigrants. “I’m fighting to preserve the rule of law,” he said this year. “Why would we reward people for breaking our laws? Rewarding law breakers produces more law breakers.”
‘I KNOW HE DOES NOT HAVE A RACIST BONE IN HIS BODY’
Though King had plenty of help, his quest to scuttle immigration reform paid off again this year, when the stakes were higher and the obstacles greater. Far from heeding Boehner’s call to embrace reform, House Republicans danced on its grave by passing bills in 2013 and again in August 2014 to ensure the deportation of everyone in the country illegally. The first was authored by King; the second was written with his counsel. “It was like I ordered it off the menu,” he boasts. “I was on the list of four or five people that [Boehner] thanked in conference after we got that resolved, and that’s the first time I remember him thanking me.”
Earlier this summer, Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, said it was “the first time that I’ve seen leadership recognize, with respect and admiration, the work that Steve King did.” The terrific irony is that King’s party may be a victim of his success. Feehery, the Republican strategist, opined earlier in 2014, “It’s hard to predict the future with great exactitude, but I will tell you this: If we don’t pass immigration reform this year, we will not win the White House back in 2016, 2020 or 2024.”
Liz Mair, a former Republican National Committee spokeswoman who now works for the immigration reform cause, says, “King’s main effect on the immigration reform debate is Overton Window-ish,” invoking a political science term that describes the “window” of policies considered acceptable at a given time, named after Joseph P. Overton. “Very, very few grassroots conservatives or elected Republicans actually agree with him on immigration policy. However, he enables elected Republicans who are more restrictionist or otherwise hardline … to strike a pose that reads as ‘moderate.'”
Since King came to Congress, his most over-the-top rhetorical outbursts include comparing immigrants to dogs, calling illegal immigration a “slow-motion terrorist attack” on the United States, claiming Al Qaeda would be “dancing in the streets” if Barack Obama was elected president, and declaring that racial profiling wasn’t an issue in Ferguson, Mo., because protesters were from a single “continental origin.” (King even skipped the wedding of his middle son, Mick, to cast a vote against Obamacare in November 2009.)
|King holds a copy of the health care bill over his head after a rally against the legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Comments like these infuriate Democrats and embarrass Republican leaders, but they endear King to his base. “For the media to make him sound like this screwball nutcase from Iowa who just embarrasses people for no reason — well if he’s just embarrassing people how come he’s served so many terms?” says Witzke, the King constituent.
Tancredo chafes at allegations that King’s immigration views are driven by racial animus. “I know he does not have a racist bone in his body,” the Coloradan says. “I’m Italian. I assure you that … if Italy were on our southern border we’d have the same stance. It’s got nothing to do with race or ethnicity.”
King rarely eats his words, but one exception came in 2006 after he said, “There probably are not 72 virgins in the hell [terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is] at. And if there are, they probably all look like Helen Thomas.” He called the veteran White House correspondent to apologize.
Hammond, the former Democratic state senator, says, “There are so many things to be outraged about in Steve’s philosophy. I mean, humanism! People! When he talks about calves like cantaloupes, what is that?!” Hammond recalls a conversation the two had back in the legislature when she chided him for using the term “pro-abortion,” and he obliged. “Steve needs more of those conversations where you see the humanity in the Democrat.”
‘MORE THE CONSCIENCE OF THE CONSERVATIVE THAN … SOMEONE LOOKING FOR CONSENSUS’
Every year, in late October, King holds a pheasant hunting event near his home with Iowa politicos and other friends. Past attendees have included Tancredo, former Representative Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, and ex-NRA President Kane Robinson. Each year there’s a high-profile attendee; last year, it was Ted Cruz. Because Iowa plays a key role in the party’s presidential nomination process, smart conservatives have courted King.
|King, left, and Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, pose in front of pheasants following a hunt in Akron, Iowa, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
“It’s great camaraderie,” King says. “Once, I dropped a pheasant in the middle of a bunch of [reporters] and they thought I shot over them. Well, I did. But the bird was up there 40 yards and, y’know, what are you gonna do?”
King, a lifelong hunter, remembers his father taking him duck hunting when he was 2, with a 1951 Remington 870 Wingmaster. King still has that gun, now with his late father’s name and the years of his life engraved on the side. He treasures it, along with the shotgun his grandmother used to shoot prairie chickens.
King’s overarching goal is not to seek higher office or enter the ranks of leadership. “I don’t know that that’s my style,” he says. “I’m more the conscience of the conservative than I am someone looking for consensus.” He wants to elect a president in his image. Journalist Obradovich says, “When Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum come to Iowa, they absolutely want to see and talk to Steve King.” But he’s subtle: he didn’t endorse his friend and close ally Bachmann during her short-lived 2012 campaign.
“If I can be involved in elevating, advancing, nominating and electing a president who understands the pillars of American exceptionalism, is on a mission to restore them, and whom God will use to restore the soul of America, I’m good,” King says. “I can put my feet up and watch the world go by after that.”