Migrant families desperate to flee gang violence and an administration determined to stop illegal immigration are adding up to a crisis on the border
WASHINGTON-Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., showed up to his second day as a congressman carrying a yellow toy dump truck and a suitcase. His son Athan, 9, trundled behind dragging another suitcase, on hand to help his dad move into his D.C. office. The phone was ringing but not at the receptionist's desk, where it was supposed to, but at a line in the back room-Capitol maintenance crews needed to rewire that. The walls and tables were bare but for one framed photo of the Huelskamp family: Tim, his wife, Angela, and their four adopted children, Natasha, 15, Rebecca, 14, Athan, and Alex, 4.
Athan is short for Athanasius, named for the early African church father who stood up to many of the leading religious leaders of his day: He famously confronted another church leader, Arius, who was teaching that Jesus Christ was not fully divine. Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria, Egypt, throughout his life for his beliefs and his epitaph reads, "Athanasius contra mundum" or "Athanasius against the world."
Tim Huelskamp, 42, wants his son to stand up to the world, as he himself aspires to do. Huelskamp, a Roman Catholic, often stood up to his own party in his past 14 years as a Kansas state senator, running more conservative on spending and family policies than other Republican colleagues.
Huelskamp succeeded Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who just became Kansas' junior senator, and represents a vast, rural, Republican district. In the crowded primary for the seat, he defeated a candidate who had Washington Republicans' support-Rob Wasinger, former chief of staff to Sen. Sam Brownback, who was just sworn in as governor of Kansas.
While he was in the state Senate, moderate Republicans accused Huelskamp of recruiting conservative Republicans to run against them in primaries, which he didn't deny. Legislatively Huelskamp sought to strip Planned Parenthood of its state funding, a measure that finally passed the legislature in 2009 but that the Democratic governor vetoed. He wrote the amendment to the state Constitution in 2006 that voters passed overwhelmingly, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but gay marriage isn't his only target.
He talks about restoring a "culture of marriage," so he's gone after divorce too. He worked on a measure to promote "covenant marriages," which would limit the grounds for divorce and encourage marital counseling. Under covenant marriages, the couple would have to be separated for two years before the divorce could be final. He has a beef with the whole welfare system too because he believes it discourages marriage. And he points out that single parenthood, often a result of people "enjoying the fruits of marriage outside of marriage," is correlated to poverty.
Family is what it all boils down to, in Huelskamp's view, even as he feels the urgency of the nation's fiscal crisis. The two are connected. "Fundamentally it's about what you value," he said. "We've lost our ways on a lot of fronts. You just can't spend enough to replace the family."
That's one reason why he's not sold on Republicans in Congress. He was "worried" in his first days on the Hill when he didn't hear any discussion of social issues among top Republicans. "Looking at the numbers here, certainly the numbers in the caucus are very strong," he said. "When it comes down to it, I saw it in Topeka again and again, you can say where you're at, but until you cast those votes, until you go stand behind closed doors, you talk, you're really not sure where people are at. It's so easily faked up front."
So he has appointed himself the watchdog of the class. "I'm not afraid to do that," he told me. "This is not about having fun. This is about saving our country. I would prefer to be elsewhere."
Like back on his farm. The extended Huelskamp family has about 5,000 acres of farmland, where they grow corn, wheat, soybeans, and milo. The farm was a wedding present to Huelskamp's grandparents in 1926. It is a dry piece of land. Huelskamp grew up working there, back when the family had thousands of head of cattle, which they don't anymore. The Kansas farm boy, after going through college and then some time in seminary in New Mexico, moved to Washington, D.C., to undertake doctoral work at American University.
He met Angela then, they married, and together they worked at a crisis pregnancy center in the District while he completed his Ph.D. in political science, with a specialization in Congress. ("Makes me a great farmer.") He hadn't planned to move back to Kansas, but the hired hand who was running the farm quit near harvest time. Huelskamp said he and his wife went for a walk and two hours later they decided to move back to the farm. Soon after, he ran for the Kansas state Senate and won, serving there for the next 14 years before joining the U.S. Congress.
Huelskamp's chief of staff, Jim Pfaff, said he has talked to the congressman a number of times while he was sitting in a combine, but political work limits his time on the farm. His parents still live on the family homestead and his brother works the land. Athan, too, grew up working on the land. "He was the only kid in Meade County who had to quit work to go to kindergarten," Huelskamp said. "Got paid," Athan added, kicking his cowboy boots under his chair.
The Huelskamps couldn't have children naturally, so they turned to adoption. "It was the hands of God all over that," Huelskamp said. Natasha and Rebecca came to the Huelskamps as toddlers, orphans from Haiti. When the girls are "mature" enough to see Haiti as it is now, Huelskamp says he will take them back to visit. The family adopted Athan and Alex domestically. Huelskamp believes he and his wife were among the first in their small German-heritage town of Fowler, Kan., to adopt black children, though other families followed. At the time Huelskamp's 100-year-old grandmother was shocked, he said, but she also cherished the children. She loved the feel of Athan's curly hair, and would rub his head when she saw him. "You remember that, Athan?" Huelskamp asked. "Oh yeah," his son replied.
When Huelskamp encounters abortion-minded women, he said, he shows them his family as "an alternative to abortion." Leaving his family in Kansas for the three weeks a month when he'll be working in Washington will be "the toughest part of the job," he said. He has counted that they'll have 10 days together a month, at least. Of course, congressional schedules change at the drop of a hat, and he lives a long way from Washington, but he's been through this before as a state senator in Topeka, Kan.
Huelskamp is a rare breed in this freshman class: someone with political experience. He's worried for those new to politics because he said it's easy to get caught up in the "minutiae" of governing. He tells his colleagues to "wade through all that stuff" and "plant your flag on your principles. Keep an eye on that. This is a place that's meant to break individuals and break families and break principles."