It’s just after ten on a December morning on Capitol Hill, and Darrell Issa is doing the unthinkable: praising Henry Waxman, who’s wielding his gavel for the final time as chairman of the House oversight committee. Issa (pronounced ICE-uh), a Republican congressman representing San Diego, and Waxman, a Los Angeles Democrat, are holding a hearing on the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis. It’s a hearing Issa has sought for weeks, and one that Waxman successfully put off until after the November elections. The pair has been at loggerheads for two years, as Waxman bird-dogged the Bush administration and Issa in turn bird-dogged him. In the past, Issa has accused Waxman of doing “injustice to the long-term well-being of the committee.” Waxman has accused Issa of “being demagogic,” and once threatened to have him “physically removed” from a hearing. They’ve tested the limits of passive-aggressiveness and faux courtesy more than once. But this morning, Issa has kind words for his nemesis. “Although we have not always agreed—as a matter of fact, we’ve not often agreed—you truly have left this committee much stronger than when you found it. And for that, both sides of the aisle will always be grateful,” Issa says, cracking his extrawide, toothy smile.
As he launches into his real opening statement—a faithful iteration of the standard GOP story about how the government, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, caused the economic collapse—Issa slips his glasses back on. He has a habit, à la David Caruso’s character on CSI Miami, of taking them off to make a point. Right now, though, he needs them to read. Issa often relies on a prepared text, tending to stumble over his words when he’s ad-libbing. He also has a habit of saying things he might later regret when he’s off script. Last year, Issa was heavily criticized by fellow Republicans after he argued in a congressional hearing that New York had already received enough federal assistance to recover from 9/11, which he referred to as “a fire” that “simply was an aircraft” hitting the World Trade Center buildings. Issa has also dismissed concerns about torture, saying the United States “treated our hospital patients at times worse than Al Qaeda” detainees were treated at Guantanamo. Despite the bluster, Issa is generally well liked by both Democrats and Republicans. Former staffers recount tales of his generosity—one Christmas he offered to make a $1,000 donation to each staffer’s charity of choice. While another Republican oversight committee member, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), made a crass joke about “the hanging of Henry Waxman” at the chairman’s final hearing, Issa looked his rival straight in the eyes and offered genuine plaudits. “Dan Burton”—the former Republican chairman of the committee—”was a jackass,” says one former Waxman staffer. “But [Issa] is a very nice guy.”
He’s no pushover, though. “He’s a pretty committed ideologue,” the former Waxman staffer continues. “His only goal in life up there is to make trouble for the Obama administration and the Democrats.” As the ranking Republican on the oversight committee, he may have found the perfect platform. Just as Waxman embarrassed and attacked the Bush administration during his two-year reign as oversight chairman—hauling in everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Valerie Plame, Donald Rumsfeld to Roger Clemens—Issa’s got the potential to be the Republican Henry Waxman—on steroids.
At first glance, Waxman and Issa couldn’t seem more different. Waxman is short, bald, and mustachioed. Issa is tall, dark (his dad was Lebanese American), and handsome, with a military-close shave and a Cary Grant sheen of black hair. Issa’s a former tank commander and a self-made millionaire with a checkered past; Waxman, who opposed the Vietnam War and received a deferment, has worked in government for most of his career. Waxman is Jewish; Issa is a Christian whose last name means “Jesus” in Arabic. His 2008 American Conservative Union rating was 100. Waxman’s was 4.
But Waxman and Issa have more in common than you might think. They are, in a sense, each other’s fun-house-mirror image—archetypal members of their respective ideological teams. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Issa becomes Obama’s worst nightmare, as Waxman was Bush’s. Between 1997 and 2002, the Republican-led oversight committee spent $35 million issuing more than 1,000 subpoenas to investigate the Clinton administration and Democrats. Today’s House Republicans are even more conservative than their predecessors; should the GOP ever get back control of the House, it’ll be Issa—not some pantywaist Republican-in-Name-Only from Connecticut—who will be in charge of the oversight committee, ready to rain subpoenas down on the Obama administration. And Issa has indicated that he doesn’t plan to wait until Republicans have the majority to start investigating Democrats. At an event at the Washington headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce in June, Issa recalled the years when the GOP ran the House, noting that Waxman had often been able to “shame” Republicans into issuing subpoenas by getting press attention for his minority investigations. “He was not worried that he had no authority technically,” Issa said. “That works good as a model.” He employed that very model later that same day, issuing a press release aimed at getting the cooperation of Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the new oversight committee chairman, in subpoenaing documents related to Countrywide’s “Friends of Angelo” VIP loan program. “You have a changed dynamic with the Democrats controlling everything,” says Tom Davis, the moderate Republican who held the committee’s senior GOP slot before Issa and chaired it before the Democrats took over in 2006. “He feels rightly that there needs to be some check on that somewhere, and you’re not going to get it from the Democrats.”
For Issa, it’s been a long road to political power. He grew up working class in Cleveland, Ohio, where he dropped out of high school (he later got his GED), joined the Army, and then began a habit of getting into trouble with the law. After he left the Army in 1972, Issa was nabbed carrying a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol, 51 bullets, and a tear-gas gun and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. It remains a mystery what threat he was trying to deter. In 1972 and 1980, Issa and his brother William were also indicted on felony charges relating to car thefts. Both times, the charges were not pursued. But Issa has since repeatedly told reporters that the alleged crimes were his brother’s fault. “I was exonerated of all wrongdoing. My brother went on to have a long and sordid career,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I am not my brother. I am not my brother’s keeper,” noted the man who describes his religion (on his Facebook page) as “Christian eclectic.” (Issa’s Facebook page also notes that his mother was Mormon, his dad was Catholic, and he was “raised in a Jewish neighborhood.”)
After graduating from Siena Heights College, a Catholic school in Adrian, Michigan, in 1976, Issa went back into the Army, finally exiting as a captain in 1980. He went on to found Directed Electronics, Inc., relocating the firm from Ohio to the San Diego area in 1986. The company made the Viper car alarms that were so popular in the 1980s and early ’90s—a product inspired by his brother’s felonious past, Issa says. Remember “Please step away from the car”? That’s Issa’s voice.
Car alarms made Issa a very rich man—in 2008, the Center for Responsive Politics estimated his net worth at nearly $350 million, making him the second-wealthiest member of Congress, after Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). The fortune helped launch Issa’s political career. John Webster, a graphic designer who worked for Issa’s company in the mid-’90s and now draws satirical political cartoons of him in a San Diego paper, says that by 1996 it was clear that Issa wanted to be in politics. “Darrell had hired all these consultants and was spending a lot of money grooming himself to go after the senatorial seat.” Nor was there much question about motivation. “He’s a conservative out of conviction instead of a conservative because it’s good for politics,” says Jim Lacy, a longtime supporter who has done legal work for Issa.
In March 1997, Issa announced he would seek the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Like fellow millionaire Steve Forbes, Issa jumped into big-league politics without working his way through the ranks. He spent $12 million of his own money, only to lose the primary to state treasurer Matt Fong by more than five points.
The loss only seemed to make Issa more determined to hold elected office. In 2000, when longtime San Diego congressman Ron Packard retired, Issa saw the chance for a safe Republican seat. With name recognition built up from the Senate race, he won the primary and cruised to a lopsided victory in the general election.
The adjustment from CEO to congressional newbie wasn’t easy for Issa. “Darrell, when he first got here, ran into a brick wall,” fellow San Diego-area Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The difference between business and government…really was a bit of a culture shock for him.” Issa admitted to the paper that he had some “sophomoric times.” During one hearing, writes the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank, Issa could be heard “whispering and giggling” with one of his GOP colleagues “like a schoolboy.” Going out of his way to disrupt the proceedings, he at one point issued a “request to ‘summon’ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
It wasn’t always laughs for the new congressman. Shortly after he joined Congress, his politics put his life in danger.
In December 2001, federal agents arrested members of a domestic terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League, for a plot to set off pipe bombs in Issa’s office. Initially, Issa said he had no idea why he would be targeted, but he and his aides soon told the press that they feared that columns by Debbie Schlussel, a conservative political commentator, had put him on the JDL’s target list. Schlussel, who refers to Issa as “Jihad Darrell,” claimed he had spoken sympathetically about Hezbollah to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and told the Beirut Daily Star that he had “a great deal of sympathy for the work that Hezbollah tries to do.” (Issa insists this is untrue, pointing out that Western news organizations reported that Issa had in fact said Hezbollah had to renounce terrorism.)
In any case, Issa’s political career survived Schlussel’s accusations: He was reelected in 2002 with more than 77 percent of the vote. But he hadn’t shaken his yen for statewide office. In January 2003, outgoing California Republican Party chairman Shawn Steel visited Issa in Washington to discuss another run against Boxer. On his way out, Steel mentioned the nascent effort to recall embattled California governor Gray Davis. Three weeks later, Issa was feeling out the GOP political establishment and hoping his money could buy him Davis’ job.
There was one large, well-muscled, Austrian-accented obstacle to Issa’s plan: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who let Issa finance the recall and take the hits in the press. Issa didn’t fully brief his adviser, longtime GOP aide Ken Khachigian, on the criminal allegations in his past, leaving his campaign team ill prepared to deal with the feeding frenzy once they came to light. Schwarzenegger’s team was happy to sit on the sidelines. “Issa is taking all the punishment right now while Arnold builds important momentum and excitement,” one Schwarzenegger aide wrote in a memo that June. (Khachigian’s assistant says he “doesn’t do interviews on Darrell Issa,” but ex-Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews, author of a book on the recall, says Khachigian was immensely frustrated.)
Issa’s candidacy was effectively over, but he stayed in. He even got as far as the county clerk’s office, intending to file to run against Schwarzenegger. Apparently, he couldn’t do it. He came back out and tearfully told waiting reporters he wasn’t running.
Issa’s abortive campaign for governor may have soured him on the press. Like many politicians, he prefers channels he has direct control over. He is a prolific twitterer and makes frequent live television appearances (where his remarks can’t be edited). He refused, through a spokesman, to be interviewed for this story.
After the gubernatorial humiliation, Issa went on to clobber two more Democrats in reelection bids in 2004 and 2006 before developing a new political hankering. This time he was after a congressional leadership post, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. The heated campaign climaxed with claims from Issa’s office that his opponent, Michigan’s Thaddeus McCotter, was inflating his predicted vote count with “fuzzy math” and “imaginary friends.” But it was Issa’s support that was illusory. In a secret vote to choose the fifth-ranking Republican in the House, McCotter beat Issa by more than 2-to-1.
So assuming Issa still hasn’t shaken his ambition, what’s a Republican go-getter to do in a Democratic town? Issa could run for Senate or governor again, but as the former Waxman aide points out, “It’s hard to see that the position he’s in is going to give him any platform for broader ambitions in California.” Waxman had a safe seat, terrific fundraising prowess, and a lot of patience; he waited for the right moment, and in 2008, after two successful years at the helm of the oversight committee, engineered a bit of a coup, seizing the chairmanship of the powerful energy and commerce committee from John Dingell (D-Mich.). Waxman, who was the point man on landmark climate change legislation, never needed to run for Senate or governor to put himself in a position of great power. So maybe, says Lacy, there’s a lesson for Issa. “Politics is cyclical,” he says. “And when the Republicans take control of Congress again at some point in the future, he’ll have a very formal leadership position, just like Waxman has today.” If that comes to pass, and Issa can cause even half as much trouble as Waxman did, then Democrats are in for quite a ride.