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Nugent orients to life as freshman congressman

The reality of his new life as a congressman struck Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent when he walked into the National Statuary Hall on Sunday night.

The chamber in the U.S. Capitol served as a meeting place for the House of Representatives for nearly 50 years. In 1864, the hall with the soaring ceilings and imposing two-story columns became a museum of sorts, featuring statues of influential Americans like Jefferson Davis and William Jennings Bryan.

On Sunday night, Nugent arrived at the hall with his wife, Wendy, not as a tourist, but for a dinner with other newly elected Republican House members.

It was a powerful moment, he said.

"Just thinking about the great Americans that served there a hundred and some years ago, to be a part of that … that's when it really hits you in the face and you say, wow, what a great responsibility you have," Nugent said.

Nugent, who earlier this month handily won the 5th District seat, attended orientation this week for freshmen House members. He got out of bed at 4 a.m. Sunday to make a 7 a.m. flight to Washington. Within four hours, he arrived at the Ronald Reagan Building for a gathering of newly elected lawmakers hosted by the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group for tea party groups across the country.

By Tuesday, he'd learned how to log a vote in the House chamber, got a primer on how to hire his staff and got lessons on ethics and parliamentary procedure.

"It's like drinking out of a fire hose," Nugent said. "There's so much information coming at you so fast."

Nugent had a flight back to Tampa today. His resignation as sheriff is effective Dec. 31, and he'll be sworn in on Jan. 3.

He's in for a wild ride, said former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, who clearly remembers the start of his congressional career.

Shaw, a Republican, was a lawyer who'd served as mayor of Fort Lauderdale for six years when first elected to the House in 1980. He served for 26 years.

But those first days in Washington?

"It's bewildering, it's perplexing, it's confusing," Shaw recalled with a chuckle this week. "After all the celebration you wonder, well, now what do I do?"

• • •

This week's orientation marks for Nugent the start of a new and improbable political career.

At start of 2010, the 59-year old Spring Hill resident was a popular sheriff in the middle of his third four-year term, which he expected would be his last. He was looking forward to retirement.

Then Brooksville Republican Ginny Brown-Waite decided her health would not allow her to seek reelection to the seat she's held since 2002. She called Nugent in March and asked if he would run in her place.

When he said yes, many political observers would argue, his path to Congress was all but assured.

Nugent had little trouble fending off a tenacious but unknown primary opponent in Jason Sager, a tea party favorite, and then Democratic challenger Jim Piccillo who was also a political newcomer.

Now, as a freshman member of Congress, Nugent has to transition from a big fish in the little pond of Hernando County to a small fish in the big sea of piranhas inside the Beltway.

New House members have little impact at first because of the inherent power hierarchy in Congress that rewards longevity, Shaw said, and that can be frustrating for someone like Nugent, who is used to effecting change on the local level.

It took about a decade, for example, before Shaw landed his Ways and Means assignment.

"I can best describe it this way: You go from a job where you make things happen to a job where you wait for things to happen," Shaw said. "You become part of this big, big body, and that's quite different than being county sheriff."

One way lawmakers can exert influence is through work on House committees. Nugent made his requests for committee assignments this weekend and should find out next month what those assignments are.

Junior members tend to land on subcommittees. But with his law enforcement experience, a spot on the Homeland Security Committee seems like a natural fit, Nugent said.

"But I'd also like to branch out from that a bit," he said.

He made other committee requests with the 5th District's demographics in mind. The district sprawls from Levy County, through Hernando and Pasco counties and south into Polk County, and has plenty of agriculture and senior citizens. It also has one of the highest numbers of military veterans of any district in the country.

As the father of three sons in the military, he'd like to land a spot the Armed Services Committee.

"Even though we don't have a major base in the district, I can certainly bring something to the table," he said.

Nugent is already on the radar of party leadership. Over the course of the week, he got face time with Rep. John Boehner of Virginia, who was elected by the GOP to be the 61st House Speaker; Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the senior member of the Florida delegation; and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new party whip. It will be McCarthy who will come to Nugent to make sure he'll be voting with the party, which now enjoys a majority in the House.

On the campaign trail, Nugent recited GOP talking points, railing against Democratic efforts like the economic stimulus package and health care reform. But there will be times when Nugent's principles will run counter to the party line.

"First of all, you answer to your constituents and your own belief in what government should be," Shaw said. "Occasionally you'll be asked to do something you don't care to do, but if you're strongly principled against it, you don't."

Nugent said he's prepared for that, and in fact that issue came up this week.

"One of the things I heard across the board is to be true to yourself and true to your core values and if you do that, things will go well for you," he said. "Nobody up here gets you elected. That's why as sheriff you didn't see me do a lot in Tallahassee. All politics are local. The bottom line is my vote will always be with the district."

On Thursday, he logged his first official vote as part of the Republican conference: an agreement that no member would request earmarks. It passed unanimously.

• • •

Nugent is one of 19 members of the Florida Republican delegation, which is tied with California as the second-largest in the House. He is one of seven freshmen, the largest class of new House members.

Brown-Waite hosted a gathering Monday for the delegation at the Capitol Hill Club, a GOP social club right next door to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee office and two blocks from the Capitol.

Two days later, the delegation selected Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala to serve as its chairman. Stearns was elected in 1988.

Monday's gathering was the only time Nugent saw Brown-Waite on his trip and didn't have plans for a meeting. But he'll be seeking advice from her, he said.

Brown-Waite did not respond to repeated requests from the St. Petersburg Times for comment this week.

On Tuesday night, Nugent attended a reception at the Library of Congress. On Wednesday, he headed to a bipartisan gathering among the blooms at the U.S. Botanic Gardens on the National Mall.

And on Thursday, Wendy Nugent struck out to find the apartment her husband will occupy during the week when the House is in session. Nugent plans to do what Brown-Waite did: make the two-hour flight home on the weekends.

Nugent said his wife, a teacher at Springstead High School, found a place that met his criteria: clean, and within walking distance of the Capitol. Walking, he said, will be "an opportunity to keep healthy and clear your mind."

He may not be as lucky with his office. Members choose their offices in an order decided by lottery, and Nugent on Friday drew number 83 out of 85.

"I'm happy as long as it's not in a tent," he said.

Nugent is accepting resumes for his staff of up to 22. He said he heard on the campaign trail from many constituents who praised Brown-Waite's staff and its ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

That bodes well for those staffers applying for a spot on Nugent's team, he said.

"It's important to have people who understand we're servants and we're supposed to be doing this with a servant's heart," he said. "So the faster you can hit the ground running, the better off we are."

He acknowledged that it takes years to gain influence. But he believes in term limits and while the House does not have such limits, he said he doesn't see himself serving more than five terms, voters willing.

"I have to prove to the people who elected me that I deserve to come back," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Nugent orients to life as freshman congressman 11/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 8:14pm]

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