Al.com: Mo Brooks outspoken in Senate run, ‘I believe we need another Jeff Sessions’
To understand Congressman Mo Brooks, it’s helpful to understand the man he almost became.
In the early 1970s, Brooks was a student at Grissom High School in Huntsville, Ala. It was the final days of the Space Race and his father had moved the family from South Carolina to take an electrical engineering job on Redstone Arsenal.
“I was on track to be an engineer,” said Brooks. “All of my aptitude tests said math, science and engineering is where I should have gone.”
Shy and studious, Brooks concentrated on school and sports, playing basketball and baseball. He wasn’t particularly outspoken.
Then in tenth grade, everything changed.
“I discovered there was this thing called a draft,” he said. “And discovered that the government had tremendous power over you, and could forcibly seize you and make you fight a war in Vietnam that the government would not let our soldiers win.”
It was a watershed moment for Brooks, “like a lightbulb going off.”
“I decided that if the government has that kind of power, I want to have some kind of influence on that government.”
He joined the debate team and quit basketball after it conflicted with debate. For a kid who’d never given much thought to politics, he threw himself into studying public policy. His debate team went to the state championship twice.
Brooks abandoned engineering entirely, and majored in economics and political science at Duke University, graduating in three years with a dual degree and with highest honors in economics. He earned a law degree from the University of Alabama Law School.
The past 30+ years he’s spent in public office, currently serving a fourth term as U.S. Congressman for Alabama’s 5th Congressional District. Now he’s running in the GOP primary this summer in a bid to unseat the recently appointed Luther Strange in the U.S. Senate.
A hardline conservative, Brooks is best known outside his district for blunt, sometimes inflammatory rhetoric and taking unequivocal ideological stands.
“You never have to second-guess Mo,” said Dr. Jennie Robinson, Huntsville City Council president and a longtime friend of Brooks. “You may not always agree with him, but you know where he stands.”
Brooks is running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after Sessions was tapped to be the U.S. Attorney General. The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 15, followed by a Sept. 26 runoff if needed. The general election is Dec. 12.
Brooks is considered one of the top three GOP candidates, along with Sen. Strange, who was appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley to fill Sessions’ seat, and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.
Brooks is best known outside Alabama for speaking his mind in a way that has made him a favorite of conservative talk radio and cable TV news. Talking points that his supporters call politically incorrect, his detractors call deliberately inflammatory and, memorably, ‘idiotic.’
Brooks prefers to call it hyperbole.
“I often use hyperbole to get the media to focus on my subject matter,” he said. “But quite frankly, compared to Donald Trump, I look like a babe in the woods.”
At times he seems to delight in shocking the political left. In 2014 that he told a Huntsville radio station that Democrats are waging a “war on whites” by using what he considers divisive rhetoric to create racial division: “race is immaterial,” he told AL.com at the time. ‘War on whites’ is a phrase he’s used several times since, the most recent in January this year, when he blamed criticism of now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Democrats’ “war on whites.”
Last month he told CNN’s Jake Tapper that people who live ‘good lives’ shouldn’t have to pay as much for healthcare, and has said he supports any measure to force illegal immigrants out of the country, “short of shooting them.”
In 2011 he had to formally withdraw a comment where he called fellow members of Congress “socialists” because it violated the House rules of decorum, but he has since been unapologetic, frequently referring to Democrats as socialists to the media.
“I don’t know of many (Democratic Congressmen) that aren’t socialists,” he said.
He rarely, if ever, walks back his rhetoric and instead sees it as a political strength.
“That gets back to my natural disposition,” he said. “My dad’s an engineer, my two sons are engineers. Now I’m in a political world. I tend to be more candid than most political figures. I speak my mind.
“They can either agree with it or disagree with it, but I think that has been a huge strength, both in terms of my electability, but also in terms of what the public likes.”
Last week, he told regional economic developers that “the South is gonna rise again.” He later said he was speaking about the growing economies of the five states in the Tennessee Valley Corridor. When asked the next day about his use of the phrase “the South will rise again,” which originated as a show of support for the Confederacy, Brooks replied via text that its original meaning “never occurred to me.”
He blames the media for pulling his words out of context.
“People have not taken the time to truly examine what I have said, or they have only got bits and pieces, not the whole content,” he said.
Case in point, in Brooks’ mind, is his quote about how people who live ‘good lives’ should pay less for healthcare. It drew the ire of legislators and others in the public eye, including Chelsea Clinton. (Brooks blasted Clinton for that, saying she probably wanted to “run for public office and try to do better than her mommy did.“)
“That was pure fake news by the news media,” he said. “That is not at all what I said…One of the questions that precipitated all this was whether people who are sick ought to pay more for healthcare. And the fact is, they always have and they always will, short of a fully socialized system.
“People who are sick pay more for healthcare if for no other reason than that they have to pay deductibles. That’s just an academic fact. It’s not an opinion, it’s not a policy statement. That is a fact of how things work in a free enterprise system.
In Brooks’ mind, healthcare – like many of the major issues dividing the nation – is less of a moral imperative and more a question of numbers and practicalities. He can speak at length on thorny topics like healthcare reform, his conversation littered with terms like ‘economic realities,’ statistical analyses,’ and ‘actuarial tables.’
He calculates it all with an eye toward the most effective and efficient outcomes for the country as a whole. Anything else starts to look suspiciously like socialism.
“The left went ballistic (over his statement), as if somehow or another, they think that basic economic principles that you would get in Economics 101 somehow don’t apply in this universe anymore.”
‘The greatest threat’
Brooks believes the national debt “is the greatest threat facing our country.”
The specter of governmental collapse similar to what has happened in Venezuela is a probability, in Brooks’ mind, unless the United States makes major cuts to its spending.
He returns to hyperbole to get his point across.
“The United States is going to go through a debilitating insolvency and bankruptcy that is going to be one of the worst one or two periods in American history in loss of life, in economic destruction,” he said. “The only period in time that might be worse than a central government insolvency and bankruptcy would be the Civil War. That’s a maybe.”
In Brooks’ calculation, the potential economic harm to Americans from slashing government spending on healthcare and public assistance would be far overshadowed by the devastation to the country and to the world that would result from impending economic collapse.
“What’s going to happen to people on food stamps when there’s no money for food stamps?” he said. “What’s going to happen to loss of life around the world and the United States of America when we cannot afford a national defense? How many people are going to die under those circumstances?”
Don’t call it Ping-Pong
Brooks can’t find anyone on Capitol Hill who will play him in table tennis anymore. He’s been playing the game since grade school – “we didn’t have computer games and cell phones and very little in the way of movies on cable TV” – and once, after he broke his arm in baseball at age 9, he learned to play left-handed.
“Ping-Pong is what you play in the garage with a soda pop or a beer in your hand,” said Brooks, whose basement in his Huntsville home is dedicated to table tennis. “Competitive table tennis is where you’re dead serious about winning the match.”
He still plays with his chief of staff when he can, and with other congressmen in the House gym in D.C. when he can find someone who’ll play him.
“One of the Congressmen form Green Bay was a former champion for Wisconsin,” he said. “After playing 30 or 40 games, he’d won two or three and he quit playing me, too.”
Brooks said he’s drawn to the athleticism and strategy of the game.
“You have to discern what your opponent’s weakness is,” he said. “You have to discern where your opponent is most likely to hit the next ball, and what kind of spin, and adjust accordingly.”
Faith and family
Brooks met his wife Martha while they were students at Duke. They were married in 1976. Martha Brooks was a longtime public school teacher before retiring. The Brooks have four children and eight grandchildren, all of whom live near them in South Huntsville.
“Martha is his strength,” said Robinson. “She is a genuine person, and with her he has a really clear sense of values and he doesn’t give on them.”
His wife is a devout Mormon, and Brooks converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the early 1980s, in part out of respect for the church’s family values. He has since said he developed doctrinal differences and stepped away from the church, saying he now considers himself “just a plain old Christian” but does attend the Mormon church with his wife.
Brooks rode the GOP Tea Party wave into office in 2010. His challenger at the time, Democrat Steve Raby, shied away from the kind of partisan rhetoric that was Brooks’ bread and butter.
But Brooks seemed to understand that the 2010 election was a referendum on national party politics. He won handily in that election, becoming the first Republican elected to represent Alabama’s 5th Congressional District in 140 years. In 2014, he cruised to victory again, winning reelection with 75 percent of the vote over an Independent challenger.
This time around, he’s taking nothing for granted. The political winds have changed since the election of Donald Trump. Republicans are guaranteed nothing in this race or the 2018 midterm elections, Brooks said. The Democratic base has been energized by Trump, and “it’s going to be a tough fight in November.”
He has been the target of protests by members of progressive groups like Indivisible and the Resist movement, who want him to hold public town hall meetings. So far he has demurred, and doesn’t plan on holding one anytime soon.
“They have no desire to have public policy debate or discourse,” he said. “What they want to do is get on national news by shouting down elected officials so that everybody looks bad, including that elected official.
“I used to do a lot of town halls. But you can’t have a town hall if people are not polite and courteous to each other.”
Instead, he said, he meets with constituents individually or in small groups at his Huntsville office.
“The idea that I’m not interacting with citizens and doing my job as a representative and as a leader in Congress is hooey,” he said. “I have met with every person in the 5th Congressional District who has asked me to meet with them, 100 percent.”
Another Jeff Sessions
According to Federal Election Commission filings, Brooks has a war chest – about $1.2 million as of early June – almost as large as Strange’s. But the PACs backing Strange are treating him as the incumbent and have indicated they are willing to spend millions to support him.
Strange has the financial backing of the Senate Leadership Fund PAC, which has already come out against Brooks, calling him “a Washington insider” who has failed “to get a single bill signed into law in four terms in the House.”
Brooks, for his part, has decried the Washington establishment backing Strange as “swamp critters.”
“The question is going to be whether the people of Alabama…will be able to discern that while Donald Trump went to Washington and drained the swamp, the swamp does fight back.”
Brooks supports Trump and his agenda, though he backed Ted Cruz before the GOP nomination went to Trump. He told MSNBC in early 2016 that he wouldn’t back Trump because he is a “serial adulterer.” He now says he approves Trump’s stance on border security, and agrees with Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney.
He warns against interference from Strange’s backers.
“I don’t think the people of Alabama like the heavy-handed tactics and the dictation of Washington, D.C. trying to tell us who can and cannot run for the United States Senate,” said Brooks. “Quite clearly the special interest groups want to magnify their influence by pouring millions of dollars into deceiving the people of Alabama into making choices.”
Brooks is a known quantity in North Alabama – he claims his name recognition is in the 97th percentile among likely Republican voters – but he’ll need support from elsewhere in the state to win.
“I am quite confident that if people in South Alabama come to know me as the people in North Alabama do, then we will do quite well,” he said.
If he were elected, how would he see his role in the Senate?
“I think that Alabama’s had a good tandem,” he said. “Sen. Richard Shelby did not often take leadership roles on issues of national substance but he was very good at bringing home the bacon. Jeff Sessions was not known for bringing home the bacon, but he was an excellent leader on issues that most impacted America.
“I believe we need another Jeff Sessions. That would be the tag team, where you’ve got two different types of senators who work hand in glove, where one’s strength covers the other’s weakness.”