Texas Rep. Conaway ready to spend time with family after 16 years in Congress

Published: Nov. 12, 2020 at 11:50 AM EST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Congressman Mike Conaway is retiring after 8 terms in Congress representing the 11th district in Texas, including Midland, Odessa and San Angelo. Conaway sits on multiple committees, including the Committee on Agriculture. Before representing Texans in Congress, Conaway was an accountant and served in the U.S. Army reserve.

Read the extended interview below:

JILLIAN: What has it been like for you to be in your final months of a 16 year career?

Well, thanks for having me on. Bittersweet would be one way to describe it. I’ve had a wonderful experience these 16 years. I still love the job, love getting up, getting to go to work every single day and doing what I’m doing. I get to work with some incredibly great people, dedicated patriots and just wonderful human beings in it of themselves, given that it’s bitter. The sweet part though is that I’ll be spending time with my family. This 16 years of my grandkids lives in effect, because of not being able to be closer to them during their formative years. So I’ll be doing catching up there, and my wife is excited for me to come home. At least that’s what she says right now, we’ll see about that next January, but it’s bittersweet.

JILLIAN: During your announcement, you were visibly emotional about the retirement. Why were you so emotional?

Because I love the job. I love the responsibility. I like the guy you’re gonna get to work for that was in August of, ’19 when I made that announcement and I’ve been emotional ever since. In the trend, we’ve talked about it, about giving it up, hanging it up, particularly when I’m talking to folks that I’ve represented for a long time and who rely on me to do a good job, put their faith in me to represent them appropriately and properly and show a shot, but yeah my emotions are kind of on the edge a lot when when I’m talking about how much I love this job and how much I’ve enjoyed it. What a privilege and honor, it’s been to represent the good people of District 11 to be able to do the things that I’ve done, have gone places I’ve gone, just an amazing, you know, Capstone on my career in the sense that this is the highlight of my professional career these last 16 years. I’ve had a good career before that so it’s not like this is a real pinnacle for me.

JILLIAN: Tell me about some of your accomplishments that you’d like to highlight. I know a lot of that is through the agricultural committee there.

Well, of course the signature piece of legislation that was championed would be the 2018 Farm Bill. That bill would have finally passed the House, garnered more votes than any other farm bill ever, by almost 50 votes greater, it had a record vote in the Senate, and I had a lot of help on getting that accomplished. I get a lot of pats on the back and hugs, but the truth of the matter is, I had the most incredible team, staff wise, and another member wise, that, that I take a lot of credit for what he got done but that would be the signature piece. I also led the Russia investigation - investigation of what Russia did during the 2016 election that was unexpected. It came about as a result of my colleague, Devin Nunes having to stand aside for a while because of an ethics complaint, turned out to be unfounded. But nevertheless, I got the responsibility to do that and lead that investigation. You know just lots of other accomplishments on the ag side we got cotton back under Title One, we got cotton cost gin share. Cotton ginning cost share program established to help cotton farmers out because of the way they were treated on the ’14 Farm Bill. Just really hadn’t worked and getting them to function represent you know back home, getting them back in the system that has worked in the past was also an accomplishment. So, that legislatively would be the Farm Bill. And then I’ve had other things you know along the way. This may sound a little bit trite, but Odessa Texas is one of the few towns in America that had two Medal of Honor winners, recipients from Vietnam, one young guy that was a cop was a High School buddy of mine, classmate, Rex Young, who was killed in Vietnam and then the other high school, Odessa high school, had a kid named Freddie Mac Wilson that threw himself in a grenade to protect other people, both of them are awarded the Medal of Honor, and I was able to get legislation done that, named each two post offices in town. Got each one of those names, after Rex Young and Freddie Mac Wilson, we also got the downtown courtroom, named after George H.W. and George W. Bush. And so those are things that you know they’re not world changing advance, but it certainly made those folks who love Rex and Freddie Mac and the Bushes, you know, happy that I was able to get those things done. The courthouse team, a courtroom, took did a lot more work than it probably should have but we did get that done. I chaired the ethics committee for a tournament and also chaired on the House Committee and Agriculture. And I’ve served on the Armed Services committee for all 16 years as well and so there’s great experiences across the board.

JILLIAN: You’ve said in the past that if the leadership position opened up, you would have kept serving, and then a leadership position just wasn’t available. Talk to me about the inside baseball of what was going on then.

Well Republicans restrict the leadership of community committees to three terms and I’m coming to at the end of my third term. Being a Republican lead, the chairman and now ranking member on the ag. committee. I’m competitive for the Armed Services Committee, but in order to do that I would need to commit to the system for three more terms on top of the one I’m currently serving. And I really can’t ask my family to do that. And that’s, you know, that breaking the action so to speak is a great time for me to come home and let someone else take up the responsibility to which represent District 11 and I’m really blessed in the district is blessed, we’re going to have a terrific member come in, in January and the guy August Pfluger, I got high expectations for the workload so I’m, I’m comfortable I’m handing off the responsibility so you’re really capable and energetic, based on the original young fella [about] to take my place but there really is a right break and a good break for me to come home.

JILLIAN: Is a little bittersweet that your last couple years in Congress has been so tumultuous from COVID to the Russia investigation that you mentioned to the you know the split between Congress and the President of the House leadership. It just seems very divisive right now, lots of partisanship. How does that feel leaving that at this time?

Well, I would prefer to my last two years on the Ag committee to be chair, as opposed to ranking member, because that’s been the biggest change once you’ve had the gavel, and you understand what you can and can’t do what you can accomplish is hard to give that up knowing that there’s really nothing you can do when you’re not the majority to set the agenda to move the agenda along anything like that is so that was, I was already going to be up close we lost the house in the elections of 18 it was already going to be an ugly two years in a sense, because of the, just the impact of not being sure, and then you’re laying on COVID, which everybody’s having to cope with that one. You know, these last six months from April to now, We’ve been in DC very little, we’ve done very little committee work, we’ve got very little, frankly, in response to agriculture in particular. And so that’s been disappointing that [this was] the last fiscal year. Excuse me calendar year, could not have been more productive from a legislative standpoint, with respect to this of this right down the middle of Abraham Lincoln book. You know that was a divisive time, our country was at war with each other. There 600,000 Americans lost their lives on both sides of that fight. And so we were splitting, divisive then the partisanship rancor which was not a lot different than now that it was then the differences now our tools are spreading nonsense and communicating is far superior to whatever they were doing in the 1860s. We’re just better at it. And that comes with responsibility that I don’t believe we’re currently living up to. Our social media, everything, all the tools we have right now that we use to denigrate each other and misinform each other and yes inform each other every once in a while, are so much better than they’ve ever been. And we’re not doing a good job in my view of winnowing out the chaff ignoring their name, whether we should get caught up in it, and misinformation. Two days later, it turns out to not be the case. We’ve invested all this emotional energy into something that turned out to not be correct. Journalism in itself is caught up in that as well. They don’t have the kind of time that they used to, did we get it first or do we get it right. Well, today is to get first and then if we get it wrong. Nobody cares because there’s no accountability on the journalism side for folks who get the story wrong. They just want to get it first and that drive is up, and other stuff is up there yeah competitive nature about that, but it seemed that back when there were editors that had their kind of hands on the reporters to say I got your sources have you confirmed this, I know that somebody else might get it at first but we need to be right all those kinds of things. And I was a journalist and I’m basing it on what I think needs to happen in the quote unquote good old days. But there is none of that today. There may be some of the newspapers and others as an editor involved but the vast majority of contributions to the, to the social media and to the internet are unfiltered. It’s just whatever goes on between these folks ears runs through their fingertips on a keyboard out there to zillions of people, and what we hear about did a good job of filtering was correct and incorrect, who are our sources that we pay attention to we not everybody gets an opinion. Just not everybody’s opinion should be shared, as widely as our social media allows to be shared.

JILLIAN: Well I can assure you at Gray we have painstaking detail in terms of our sources and everything about that, and it’s never about who’s first for us it’s always about getting it right. So, there’s at least one place where I can assure you that that is happening. Tell me anecdotally, any memories of the last 16 years that you can share about meeting with your constituents or working with people or working with your Republican colleagues or your Democratic colleagues, anything anecdotally, you can really draw on.

Well, I didn’t actually observe this but the district staff and the constituent service staff that every member has, should have, is really vital to their re-election because, day in and day out, they help somebody’s life just a little bit better, a little less difficult. Up here to get legislation passed so I’ve got to find 217 friends for house what I need to do as speaker, got to find 60 friends of the Senate, and then the President signs it. So it’s a pretty heavy lift in order to get something done. But back home I’ve put in place the right people across the district in all six district offices and every day, they go about helping people make their lives better. I get credit for all that, not to do it, but I get credit for. So the story I tell is my mother was at a department store one day buying something, and she handed the clerk her credit card. He looked at and said hey, do you know Mike Conaway, and she said well yes I’m his mom. Well he launched into a narrative about how terrible his life had been the IRS was beating him up and they were just agendas wishing he had attorneys involved and couldn’t get it resolved, like bank accounts closed on everything else in recent weeks in, and he got so desperate he actually called his member of Congress, and set the stage there are people lined up behind my mother wanted to check out, they’re not interested in the story but she is going to shut him up, because she likes hearing good things said about her baby son. And so, there’s conversations going on. As it turns out, he calls my office, we go on our team and go to work on asap. A few days later, it was fixed, and he could not be happier. Well, that’s somebody who’s been telling their story and is going to vote for me. It’s so good just those stories are legion across all six district offices because of the good work that people did there. again, I’ve not done that work. I’ve got good people in place to do it. They do the work and I get the credit which you know every member of Congress is kinda in that boat, that’s the, that’s probably the big takeaway is just the wonderful things people have done over the years to, to make constituents lives just cleaner less difficult, you had a big, big splash there when the passports were required, and nobody had one because if you go to Mexico or the Caribbean without it and you know a bunch of folks had plans and in our team went to work and obviously department and revenue that scale and one person ended the land trip my day. I’ve been through all that process. So those are just a couple examples of good work in the district. One of my most poignant times, a fellow in Fort Hood, Major Hasan, murdered 13 people. And I went to Fort Hood for the dignified transfer of the victim’s remains. And so you’re standing at attention at the behind this C-17 airplane, and a single hearse would drive up the military would go march across they would they would take the casket attic flag over it and marched into the belly of the plane set it down and 13 times, and the time it took them to do the first one was exact amount of time they took to do the 13th one, they never got into hurry. They really gave each one the respect it deserves as if it were the only one. And then once they had him situated down I got to go up into the aircraft and stand among those 13 caskets. Flag draped 14 lines, 13 families. You know, they get up that morning of the event, went to work, had things to go but it’s nice to do that they should do that night. Clearly not expecting that that would be the last day on earth. And it was, typically guys they wear uniforms, I forgot. So, that, you know, there’s certain things that you just, are very indelibly etched in your mind.

JILLIAN: Tell me, what’s next for you then, you said family time pretty much, correct?

Well, I did. COVID experiences have allowed me to be home a lot more than I normally have been over the last 15 plus years. My wife has made it abundantly clear that she married me for life, not lunch, and that I’ve been screwing up her routine. She has a routine she goes through every day and it’s pretty good, pretty set. It does not include me supervising, whatever that routine is. It’s also given me a good taste of what it’s like for her to come up with things we can do. So I don’t know what I’ll do next year but it will be something. She told me I’ve got to be out of the house about nine o’clock every day. Welcome back about four. I can go to the park and feed pigeons, go to Walmart and shake hands but I’m gonna go do something. But, no, I hope to be involved in policy wise, I’ve got 16 years invested in policy development, Ag, armed services, Intel. So I think I’ve got something to contribute there, you know, moving forward. I’ve not talked to anybody about that other than just in my own mind about, you know, somehow being involved policy wise to, to help you know, whatever that might look like. So, I will be doing something. I’m clearly motivated, after having the last six months under the COVID protocols of staying home a lot.

JILLIAN: Anything specific you’re going to miss most about walking the halls of Congress, any colleagues, you’re going to miss I mean, the Texas delegation is strong, I’ve seen that we have nine stations, we have a lot of lawmakers, Texas delegation is strong, any Texas colleagues or colleagues from other states, you don’t have to limit to Texas that you’re going to miss most.

Yes there will be those, I can’t...I’d rather not list names in case I leave somebody off the list and they’ll be mad...their feelings are more important. But I will miss them. You know, we’re a pre select fraternity. It’s a two year membership, it rotates, so you’ve got your two years of new gas can ever show guys go out. It’s so weird you’re in that fraternity, you’ve got the pen you’ve got the voting card you’ve got some responsibilities you got the pressure. Everything else is going about, and you get a shared camaraderie of the experiences that we’re going through to make that happen. I will miss them. I’ll miss that group, even when I’m out and I come back, watch other former members come in, you’re just you’re never part of that group, because it’s only the current crowd that gets to really you know sense and be a part of what’s going on. They’re cordial and friendly, but you know you’re as one of my colleagues used to say there’s nothing more than a former member of Congress. So I will miss the people on this team here in DC and the team back home. I can’t replicate that experience, I can’t join a group that is as important as the mission as representatives, this institution is a shrine to our Constitution, and to be a part of that for 16 years has just been incredibly fulfilling. And there’s no way I could replace that I can’t replace that. You know the 16 or so folks that have been on my team at the personal law office, a great group of people I’ve got to get the ag committee. As mentioned earlier, just all of the Patriots are dedicated to this country, they love the structure, they love what they do. They love it, they serve, so I will miss people, more than anything else.

JILLIAN: Well, I really appreciate your time. Is there anything I didn’t cover about your career. I know you had mentioned or I’ve heard that you were a CPA. Before this, what are you hoping to go back to CPA work?

That’s the one thing I know I’m not going to do. I was a tax guy, the most dangerous tax return preparer on the face of the earth because I do one a year. And that makes me really dangerous you would never go to a surgeon who does one replacement a year and say okay next day I want to be your one patient for the year. I will not be allowed to go back into CPA world although I may help them with policy. I will be actually practicing again.

JILLIAN: Is there anything I’ve forgotten or missed, I mean we covered your accomplishments we covered. Is there anything that you wish you could have gotten achieved through the last 16 years that just didn’t get done.

Well I guess the one thing that does haunt me, is that when I got here, there was this national debt on a certain level, and today it is much much higher. Now there are lots of reasons for that, a lot of excuses, a lot of rationalization about what is going on but the harsh fact is that was X when I got here, it is X plus a bazillion when I’m leaving. That’s debt to our grandchildren that will haunt me because it’s part of what I’ve done. One thing I didn’t talk about was I had a portrait unveiling last week for my chairman’s portrait. And in my portrait is a smaller picture. My wife Suzanne are actually Suzanne, I’m her husband, but her pictures in there as well I’m really proud of the fact that she’s on that wall she will be on that wall with me because I could not have done anything I’ve done I couldn’t, I probably wouldn’t even be here for enough for her steadfast support and prayers and quite frankly sacrifices that she’s made over 16 years, incredible number of nights by herself that you know about doing something and she’s not, she’s by herself. One quick example--2018, I was working on the farm bill and going at 90 miles an hour and, in July of that year, she said, Hey, did you know that 180 days, and between January 1 and June 30, I said sure, that’s a bit sarcastic but anyway. She said did you know that we spent 48 nights together in that 180 is because I’ve lost track how much I was gone, how much I was away from her and all this kind of stuff so she’s just been an incredible champion, put up with just an amazing amount of of anxieties and things that are going on every time I took a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, she thought I had a uniform on it was totally tote and gun. I was never in any harm’s way but as far as she was concerned I was so just the fact that it’s been a shared experience and to be able to share that, that portrait had her in it with me, is really special.

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