Tom Cole may be a newcomer to the House of Representatives, but that doesn’t mean he can’t school some of his more veteran colleagues. Cole, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, headed up a political consulting firm and had a brief teaching stint at GW before being elected to the House in 2002.
His experiences, he said in an interview earlier this month, have given him a leg up on other House novices. “It’s certainly not natural ability,” said Cole, looking relaxed in a sweater and slacks while sipping a Diet Coke in his wood-paneled office. “Politics is preeminently a relationship business.”
“I’m very lucky,” he added. “I have a lot of clients already here, a lot of clients already in Congress.”
It’s that kind of sober assessment of politics that made Cole an asset to his clients and students. In Congress, his connections landed him the job of deputy majority whip only a few years into his tenure. The position requires him to line up his Republican colleagues to take the party’s positions on bills at a time when President Bush’s approval rating is falling and the GOP has become divided on several major issues.
Cole said Republicans should refrain from criticizing Bush and the indicted Texas Rep. Tom Delay, formerly the House majority leader. “If Republicans don’t succeed collectively, they won’t succeed individually,” Cole said, referring to next year’s congressional election.
He likely offered similar advice to the GW students who took his Graduate School of Political Management class, which was appropriately titled “Political Parties and Politics.” Cole, who seems an unlikely person to hold a Ph.D. in British history from the University of Oklahoma, taught the class alongside Don Fowler, former head of the Democratic National Committee.
While the students didn’t teach him much about politics – Cole wryly remarked they were wrong nine times out of 10 – they reaffirmed his faith in the political process. “It’s pretty easy to get cynical in this business, and one of the best ways to counter that it is to be with young people,” he said.
After class, he would take his students out for “beer and burger sessions.” Michael Shutley, who took Cole’s class and graduated from GW in 2003, characterized Cole’s class as practical and useful for real political situations. “They always stuck around after class, and it was really easy to get a hold of them if there was a problem,” said Shutley, who works for Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) and married Cole’s press secretary.
Cole wasn’t always a political operator. Something of an academic with a master’s degree and Ph.D., he fell into politics while managing the campaigns of his mother, whom he described as a hard-scrabble woman who rose to become a state representative and state senator in Oklahoma. Both Cole and his mother are members of the Chickasaw Nation, an American Indian tribe.
“I just fell in love with campaigns,” said Cole, who in the early days would manage campaigns for free just for the experience. Engrossed in politics, he climbed his way up the Oklahoma Republican Party ladder at a time when Democrats dominated the state. Cole served as a state senator and secretary of state. He broke into the national scene as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and later as the chief of staff in the Republican National Committee during the 2000 election.
After a hard-fought primary and general election, Cole assumed in 2002 the House seat vacated by J.C. Watts, a black Republican who is revered by his party. With big shoes to fill, Cole has not strayed far from the GOP leadership, showing he is loyal to Bush at a time when the president is coming under heavy criticism for the Iraq war and post-Hurricane Katrina relief effort. During the 2004 election, Cole likened a win by Democrat challenger John Kerry to a win by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Cole, ever the political analyst, suggested that because of the drop in Bush’s popularity and events such as Katrina, the number of House seats in play in the 2006 election would be double than in elections past.
“The environment is about as favorable from a Democratic standpoint as it can be,” he said, noting that Republicans can’t be complacent about their majorities in the House and Senate.
“This is the time to prepare for a tough election,” he added. “If the Democrats can’t do it this year, when can they?”
While Cole, 56, is just getting comfortable in the House, his “ultimate fantasy” would be to eventually return to the classroom.
“I did the GW thing because I wanted to get back in the classroom,” said Cole, who has also been a history instructor. “I didn’t do it for the money, cause GW doesn’t pay that much money.”
“You learn a lot when you can meet Bill Clinton at 25, or Karl Rove at 25,” he added.