In Brooksville, he is "Rich.'' As in Nugent, the popular guy who served as Hernando County sheriff for a decade. Nobody addressed him as "Congressman'' over the course of an hour Thursday morning, though that is his title now. Actually, he is the U.S. Representative for the 5th Congressional District, the sprawling seat that includes all of Hernando and most of Pasco counties.
In Congress, the other members call him "Sheriff.''
"Even the Democrats,'' Nugent volunteers. A reference, he suspects, that reflects both the respect accorded law enforcement officials and the near universal public scorn aimed at Washington in general and Congress in particular.
No kidding. Later in the day, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that in the wake of the debt-ceiling negotiations, 82 percent of the public disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
So Nugent spent three days this week meeting the disapproval head-on in a series of six town hall meetings in Pasco and Hernando counties. The sessions, which continue Monday in Wildwood and the Villages, come on the heels of his vote supporting the compromise plan to raise the nation's debt ceiling while cutting spending by $2.4 trillion. It avoids a government default, adds no immediate revenue, leaves much of the heavy lifting on spending cuts to a future committee and requires the House and Senate to vote on a balanced-budget amendment.
It was a vote that turned "Rich'' into "traitor'' as tea-party enthusiasts tossed the label around people like U.S. Rep. Allen West whose vote matched Nugent's, but contradicted the stance of nationally known tea party favorites U.S. Reps. Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul. On the flip side came the commentary that likened the conservative right wing to terrorists.
Thursday morning, nearly 80 people, not counting journalists or Nugent's staff, crowded Brooksville City Hall's council chamber — a room outfitted with less than 60 chairs and inadequate air conditioning — to hear his explanations and offer their own observations.
At the outset, Nugent asked, how many people think America is on the right track? Nobody raised a hand. How could they? High unemployment, continued foreclosures, stagnate wages, a jittery stock market, wallet-emptying gasoline prices and an economy still in the doldrums weigh heavily on everyone.
Criticism — delivered respectfully — came from both sides. One said the Republican Party had lost its convictions and Nugent's vote was an unnecessary compromise. Another, a retired school teacher, worried about her own quality of life and feared a shrinking middle class will absorb most of the pain from future budget cuts.
People wondered about the effectiveness of a balanced budget amendment, reduced foreign aid, moving to the so-called fair tax on consumption rather than income, redistricting, Fox News, Grover Norquist's tax reform pledge, fraud in HUD programs, the Federal Reserve, employment, cutting small business regulations and energy policies.
Nugent, the ex-cop, at times, talked like an ex-coach. The required spending cuts in the debt-ceiling deal are akin to moving the ball down the field. The balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a game-changer.
The game-changer, it turns out, that persuaded him to team up with a congressional majority and end the stalemate over the national debt limit. Between now and the end of the year, he predicted, political pressure from district constituents will sway a two-thirds majority of House members to support the balanced-budget amendment. Certainly, though, there are no guarantees, particularly in the U.S. Senate, where only a third of the members face voters in 2012. And an affirmative vote in Congress still must be ratified by the states.
Later, Nugent, talking to reporters, characterized the debt-ceiling vote as the hardest of his first seven months.
"The easy vote for me would have been a 'no' vote,'' he said, then repeated the game-changer description of the balanced-budget amendment. In doing so, he also revealed some of his own skepticism toward the lawmaking process.
"I don't trust Congress now or in the future to do the right thing.''
No wonder nobody thinks the country is headed in the right direction.