New Speaker John Boehner Rose From Humble Roots

9:06 AM, Jan 5, 2011   |    comments
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The Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI - Democrats intent on making John Boehner the Republican bogeyman might be stunned to learn that the tanned, chain-smoking and perpetually-golfing caricature they are attempting to create was once one of them.

Boehner's switch to the other side occurred shortly after graduating in 1977 with a business degree from Xavier University here. In that first year working as a salesman, he paid more in taxes than he had earned in gross income in previous years, he told a Xavier alumni newsletter in 2006.

The disaffection created by that experience pointed Boehner away from the Democratic Party and on a path that leads Wednesday to his becoming the Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Boehner declined to be interviewed for this article.

Americans, if they are aware of him at all, know Boehner, the House minority leader, for his deep tan, his dapper appearance reminiscent of Don Draper on AMC's "Mad Men," his cigarette smoking - the brand was Barclay, but is now said to be Camel Ultra Lights - or perhaps for the widely distributed images of his golf backswing.

Belying that hob-knobbing, jet-set image, however, is that Boehner is a native of working-class Reading, Ohio, one of 12 children from a Catholic family who grew up in a five-bedroom, one-bathroom home.

(One of his 11 siblings, younger brother John, lives in Central Georgia and runs restaurants in Gordon and Twiggs County.)

Long before he crusaded for tax cuts, he was a high school football player.

After a short stint in the U.S. Navy in 1969 - Boehner was discharged after less than three months because of a bad back - he worked odd jobs, including as a bartender, roofer and a janitor before attending Xavier, where he almost quit until a respected accounting professor intervened.

Cleaning floors and windows

Born Nov. 17, 1949, Boehner is the second oldest of nine boys and three girls of homemaker Mary Ann Boehner, who died in 1998, and refrigerator-repairman-turned-tavern-owner Earl H. Boehner, who died in 1990, 21 days before Boehner was first sworn in as representative for the U.S. 8th Congressional District.

In a family so large, responsibility was passed down to whoever was oldest, said Boehner's elder brother Robert.

"Once we got to be teenagers, it was almost understood you had to take care of the younger ones," said Robert, who had his own political life in Reading City politics.
Significantly blue collar then as now, Reading families instilled in their children hard work and frugality. The Boehners grew fruits and vegetables.

Earl Boehner and his father Andrew, from whom Boehner draws his middle name, butchered cows near the home for meat.

Boehner's father put his children through Catholic school with income from the family pub, Andy's Cafe in Carthage. But nothing was free in the Boehner world.

"From the time you were 10, 11 years old, you worked there every Saturday," Robert said. "We used to clean the floors, wash the windows, sort the bottles."

Earl Boehner, a Pacific theater World War II Army veteran, taught his children by example, whether it was work or his volunteerism helping children in the juvenile court system, with St. Vincent de Paul and as a lifelong member of St. Patrick's Knights of Columbus.

Old-fashioned discipline also applied.

"You got your butt whacked if you were out of line," Robert said. "We didn't want to get whacked."

His brother suspects Boehner got a penchant for sometimes boisterously speaking his mind from their mother, described as an independent woman and a strong disciplinarian.

The ever-present tan that Boehner is repetitively forced to explain as he becomes better known nationally comes from his mother as well, Robert said. Indeed, a Safety Club photograph in a high school yearbook shows Boehner in the top row, second from left, conspicuously darker than his fellow students.

After Boehner's discharge from the U.S. Navy, Boehner worked for several years, eventually as a janitor at Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (now Patheon) in Reading. There in the early 1970s he met Deborah Gunlack, who worked in the accounting department.

Smitten with Gunlack, Boehner decided he should improve his standing in life to help win her affections, his brother said, so he went to Xavier. The pair married in 1973 and had two daughters, Lindsay and Tricia.

Graduating from Xavier, Boehner worked as a salesman at Nucite Sales, a marketing firm for packaging and plastics manufacturers. He bought the company and became president, a job he held until he joined Congress and House ethics rules forced him to resign.

Boehner continues to hold a non-compensated position in Nucite, the Associated Press reported. Boehner's personal fortune is worth at least $1.7 million, Politico estimates.

'A tough debater'

His political career began modestly, as president of a homeowners association, then as a Union Township trustee in 1981.

Carlos Todd was elected along with Boehner and now is a neighbor of the congressman.
"He was about like he is today," Todd said. "John was always a very kind, considerate individual. Very aggressive, very conservative," but willing to compromise.

Boehner was rapidly honing what those close to him say is an innate ability to talk to and relate to anybody, like his barkeep father and grandfather before him. In 1984, he was elected to Ohio's 57th House District and in January 1985 went to Columbus.

Richard Finan, a Republican General Assembly member from 1973 to 2002, was then representing the state's Seventh Senate District in Southwest Ohio.

It was a difficult time in the capital for Republicans, Finan said. Democrats ruled the halls of Ohio's capitol in the mid-1980s. Still, relations between Democrats and Republicans were collegial.

"You've got to learn to work with the majority," said Finan, now 76.

In fact, it is difficult to find Boehner detractors when it comes to his time in Ohio before his election to the House. Even Democrats who worked with him speak almost reverentially of him.

"John was a tough debater," said Jerry Leubbers, a Delhi Township Democrat who served in the General Assembly from 1979 to 2000.

"He took the lead on a lot of issues when the Republican caucus felt the need to challenge a particular bill," Leubbers said.

"There were times when there were disagreements on issues. But John did it respectfully and John did it with intelligence and knowledge of the issues."

Scandal opened door

At age 40, Boehner challenged incumbent U.S. 8th Congressional District representative, Republican Donald E. "Buz" Lukens, who was tainted by a scandal involving a teenage prostitute. Lukens was convicted on a misdemeanor charge and became a pariah to party leaders, opening the door for Boehner, who beat three others.

A long journey from Reading, Ohio to the U.S. Capitol was nearly complete.

Democrat Greg Jolivette was the only obstacle keeping Boehner from Washington.
"He had plenty of money," Jolivette recalled. "I can remember specifically going door to door in Troy. Spending all day going door to door."

During dinner that evening, Jolivette looked at a television, and there was Boehner, spending some of the $592,670 his campaign would use during the race. Jolivette spent $112,792.

"I said to myself, 'Oh God, I spent all day knocking on doors and he reached more people than I did in a single minute than I did all day.'"

The candidates agreed on many issues. The central issue in the race was a medical waste incinerator awaiting a permit to begin operations in Butler County, one of five counties in the 8th District. On this Boehner and Jolivette also agreed; each campaigned against the incinerator's permit. The incinerator eventually obtained a permit and operated briefly before closing in 1995.

The money proved decisive, though Jolivette came closer to beating Boehner than any candidate since, earning 63,584 votes to Boehner's 99,955.

Jolivette converted to a Republican as a result of the race, saying he realized that he held the same values as his recent opponent. But Jolivette needed Boehner's blessing to fill a local Republican vacancy.

"To John's credit, he could have put the kibosh on my political future then. He didn't," Jolivette said.

At least in Ohio, before he went to Washington, that sums up John Boehner: a smooth talker, ready to share a drink at the end of a tough discussion and even a man open to compromise.

He is also a man, friends and colleagues in state say, who hasn't changed much since his Reading days, at least in private.

High school friend and teammate Jerry Vanden Eynden said he is bothered by the portrayal of Boehner as a rich elitist.

"If we needed a dollar for gas, our dads didn't give it to us," he said. "We had to go work for it. ... People don't realize that about him."

Referring to Boehner's corporate-sponsored travel and seemingly constant fund raising, Vanden Eynden said, "It's that way in both parties. The people in John's spot, that's what he's supposed to do."

In a 1990 profile in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Boehner identified his favorite pasttime as golf and cited as his role model former football player, former HUD Secretary, and future vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

His favorite meal? "A double-decker sandwich and a beer at the family tavern, Andy's Cafe in Reading, Ohio."

His brother said Boehner still comes home for Christmas and doesn't forget his roots or the people who helped him.

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