For more than two decades, the polite, mild-mannered 40-year husband and father has deployed considerable shrewdness, horsepower and influence to the point of placing himself among the most powerful men in Congress. In all public contexts, however, the glasses stay on.
Note: The story below appears in our Nov./Dec. 2014 issue. For more stories like this download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
Photo by David Hungate
IT'S A SUNNY FRIDAY, and 80 of the Roanoke Valley’s business and government leaders are sharing lunch with one of the most powerful members of Congress.
Yet the event is barely covered by local media. Only WSLS Channel 10 bothered to show up.
The fact that Virginia 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte is such a familiar face in Roanoke makes his regular appearances seem routine. Yet he serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee – a hugely powerful body that takes up legislation ranging from intellectual property and copyright law to immigration reform.
During a three-week stretch this summer, Goodlatte visited the Rio Grande section of the U.S.-Mexico border to obtain more information about the large number of children and teenagers, mostly from Central America, who have massed there. He appeared a few days later on Fox News to discuss the issue on “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” Soon after, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Goodlatte and that would permanently ban state taxes on broadband Internet access.
“Bob is one of the most serious and capable policymakers I have worked with,” says 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin. “He always puts the interests of hard-working Virginians first. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob has worked hard to protect our constitutional rights, to keep watch over the executive branch, and to fix our broken immigration laws. He wants to move Virginia forward, and I’m honored to serve with him.”
Newt Gingrich, who took over as Speaker of the House in 1995, just after Goodlatte had completed his first term, and held that position until 1999, echoes the “hard work” asessment of Goodlatte’s career.
“I think he works very hard,” Gingrich says. “He is very much a people person. He does his homework in a quiet methodical way. I believe he has a very substantial influence in the House on some key issues. People know he is a commonsense conservative who studies the facts, who knows everybody and whose basic approach is to try to bring everyone together to get to a solution.”
The fact that most Roanokers don’t know of Goodlatte’s massive influence on Capitol Hill is a testimony not just to his down-to-earth personality, friendliness and time spent in town, but also to his political shrewdness. Goodlatte has thrived in Virginia’s 6th Congressional District through a mix of smarts and elbow grease.
His constant presence in the Roanoke Valley and greater 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Roanoke through the Shenandoah Valley to Warren County, gives constituents plenty of chances for interaction.
“I believe you have to work hard to provide leadership to people, and that includes reaching out to people who may agree with you on some issues – or many issues – and communicating and working with them,” says Goodlatte.
AS ONE OF A HANDFUL of congressmen who can drive to Washington, D.C., in just a few hours, Goodlatte makes a habit of always turning one of the drives – either there or back – from a four-hour commute into a 10-hour marathon of meetings with constituents and groups up and down the 6th District.
“He’s always showing up for things,” says fellow Roanoke Valley Congressman Morgan Griffith, who represents the 9th District. Griffith says his wife Hillary pointed out Goodlatte’s omnipresence through this year’s coverage of the Juneteenth celebration in Washington Park.
“The front page picture in The Roanoke Times had two kids eating part of their lunch,” Griffith says. “Hillary said, ‘Take a look again.’ I did, and each one of the kids was wearing a Goodlatte sticker. He’s not facing what you’d consider a serious challenge this year, but he or one of his people was there.”
Despite his 22-year tenure in an increasingly partisan Congress, it’s hard to find someone, other than maybe those on the extreme left and the extreme right, who personally dislikes Goodlatte. Chalk that up to his general amiability and willingness to talk issues with anyone.
That doesn’t mean he’s a shrinking violet. Many a would-be challenger has learned firsthand the perils of underestimating Goodlatte over the years.
“They see Bob, they see the glasses, they think, ‘This is somebody we can push around.’ Once they start getting into the argument, they quickly find out they don’t have the horsepower to compete with him,” says David Suetterlein, chairman of the Roanoke County Republican Committee. “Some less-informed individuals decide they’re going to yell at him. He looks at them, nods his head, and when they finish, he just takes them down. It happens less now than it used to.”
GOODLATTE HAS BECOME such a Roanoke fixture that it’s a bit of a surprise to learn he was born and grew up in Massachusetts, though it explains his raging Red Sox fandom.
The year The Roanoker was founded, 1974, was pivotal for Goodlatte, too: He graduated from Bates College in Maine and married his wife Maryellen, who he had met in student government at Bates. Who was Goodlatte 40 years ago?
“He’s really the same guy I’m married to now,” says Maryellen Goodlatte, principal at the law firm of Glenn Feldmann Darby & Goodlatte. “His integrity was hugely appealing to me. He’s also funny – you don’t see that as much in the public persona.”
After graduation Goodlatte worked over the summer in a Friendly’s restaurant franchise that sat next to the corporate headquarters. The executives who came over for lunch tried to lure him into a restaurant management career, but Goodlatte already had made a life-defining decision to attend law school at Washington & Lee University in Lexington. Maryellen went with him, and the two were married in Lee Chapel that fall.
After obtaining his law degree Bob Goodlatte spent two years working with then-Congressman Caldwell Butler before opening his Roanoke law practice in 1979. He joined Bird, Kinder and Huffman as a partner two years later. He stuck with politics, though, working in the grassroots and serving as local and district unit chairman.
In late 1991, Goodlatte anticipated then-Congressman Jim Olin’s retirement announcement and seized the moment.
“Goodlatte got out ahead and said he thought Olin was going to retire. He was right,” says Dwayne Yancey, Roanoke Times editorial page editor and the reporter who covered Goodlatte’s first campaign.
Goodlatte followed his prediction with something that’s become a hallmark of his career: Old-fashioned hard work.
“I immediately set to work with the help of a fellow who became my campaign manager, Tim Phillips, to contact Republicans all across the 6th district I had met with working for Caldwell Butler as his 6th district director or through my work as 6th district chairman,” Goodlatte says. “I told them I wanted to run for Congress and wanted their support.”
By the time he formally announced his candidacy, Goodlatte already had secured the support of Republicans in the Roanoke Valley, which then as now carried the weight of the district. He appealed to GOP voters across the ideological board.
“Goodlatte was well connected because of his work with the party,” Yancey says. “At the time, he was a good bridge between different wings of the party. He worked for Caldwell Butler, who symbolized the moderate wing of the party, and he was in the same law firm as Don Huffman, who symbolized the more right wing part of the party. He was someone everyone could agree on.”
WHAT NOW APPEARS to be a foregone conclusion was then very much in doubt, but Goodlatte’s legwork – working the phones, meeting with key party leaders and building a coalition of support – paid off. Numerous candidates were mentioned in late 1991, including George Allen, who contemplated a move into the 6th before ultimately deciding to run for governor. But by the 1992 Republican nominating convention, Goodlatte faced only one other GOP challenger. He easily defeated her and then dispatched Democrat Steve Musselwhite in the general election by winning 60 percent of the vote, establishing a running pattern in his campaigns.
Goodlatte has never won less than 60 percent of the vote, whether his opponent is Roanoke Mayor David Bowers (1998) or current state House Del. Sam Rasoul (2008). Many years Goodlatte doesn’t even face a Democratic challenger. However, he doesn’t rest on his laurels.
“He always gets that the next election is never more than two years away, so he’s always trying to expand the coalition and find new people to support him,” Suetterlein says. “Most of these guys who get defeated, they get comfortable, or they think that they don’t need new people to support them.”
One of the most common criticisms of Goodlatte is that, unlike Olin before him, he didn’t stick to his 1992 pledge to step down after six terms in Congress. Goodlatte has responded to that charge by saying that he supports systemic term limits, but they don’t work unless they’re applied to everyone.
“In office, I’ve strongly supported term limits – voting for these limits each time they have come before the House of Representatives,” Goodlatte said in an emailed statement. “However, term limits are only effective and fair if they apply to all Members of Congress. Of course elected officials will always serve at the will of the people. Ultimately, the voters have been entrusted with judging the performance of their representatives and determining whether to limit the number of terms those officeholders may serve.”
IN 2012, WHEN Tea Party and libertarian activists were elected to leadership roles in many of the local Republican units, Goodlatte was booed by some delegates at the 6th District Republican convention. He faced his first-ever primary challenger, whom he easily defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. For the next two years he was peppered with embarrassing resolutions passed by the 6th District Committee, such as one that urged him to vote against John Boehner for Speaker of the House. (Goodlatte supported Boehner anyway.)
This year, Goodlatte’s supporters struck back with a vengeance. In local election after local election, anti-Goodlatte activists who were elected in 2012 were defeated. Goodlatte has floated above the fray, but his campaign’s fingerprints are all over this pro-incumbent shift.
“It shows his organizational skills,” says Fred Anderson, who chaired the 6th District Republican Committee from 2000 through 2010. “Even though he was not personally involved, his friends were personally involved because they recognized what they had with a good congressman and they didn’t want to lose him, so they were willing to get out there and really work hard to make things happen.”
Goodlatte was booed neither at the 6th District Republican convention nor at the statewide convention, which took place in Roanoke. He faced no primary opponent, nor a Democratic opponent in November.
Contrast that with what happened in the 7th District, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor saw his handpicked man defeated for committee chairman before Cantor himself suffered a shock primary defeat to Tea Party-backed challenger David Brat.
Goodlatte, meanwhile, has managed to further shore up what already looked like a secure seat. The fact he doesn’t have to worry so much about elections – one never knows what’s around the corner in politics, but it’s easy to imagine that Goodlatte, like his predecessors Olin and Butler, ultimately will decide when to step down – has allowed him to focus his energy on matters of policy.
Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, who was elected the same year as Goodlatte (the two will be the most senior members of Virginia’s delegation once Jim Moran and Frank Wolf retire at the end of this term) praised Goodlatte’s civil approaching to running the Judiciary Committee.
“One thing that helps him is the fact he’s really a perfect gentleman,” Scott says. “The Judiciary Committee has some of the most contentious, confrontational foolishness going on. It’s a breath of fresh air to have someone who can conduct himself with dignity, as Bob does. You can agree or disagree with him. There won’t be the rambunctious foolishness we have in Congress today.”
THEN THERE'S GOODLATTE'S intellectual rigor, which combined with a passion for policy and detail work made him a natural committee chairman in Congress.
“He’s willing to spend the time to get involved in policy matters that are complex and have little political payback but are extremely important,” Scott says.
Goodlatte’s first committee chairmanship came a decade into his career with the House Committee on Agriculture, where he oversaw important but complex legislation such as the Farm Bill. He served as chairman for four years before Democrats took control of the House in 2006 and Goodlatte became ranking member (a designation for the committee leadership in the minority party).
When Republicans reclaimed the House majority in 2010, Goodlatte could no longer chair the committee due to the party’s self-imposed term limits. However, he was handed chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet, which worked on a controversial bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Instead of breaking down along party lines, the debate pitted the entertainment industry against the tech sector – Hollywood versus Silicon Valley. After Google and Wikipedia spearheaded an Internet protest, the bill died.
The fact Goodlatte championed the entertainment industry shouldn’t surprise. He’s always been interested in copyright issues, and Rosetta Stone, one of Harrisonburg’s biggest employers, has complained about piracy of its language-learning software.
There’s also his family connection: One of Goodlatte’s sisters worked on costumes in Hollywood, and he was exposed to show business from a young age. His family took in young actors and actresses when he was growing up, including a not-yet-famous Goldie Hawn.
In 2013, Goodlatte was named as chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, which handles courts and law enforcement issues. Griffith, who has made a habit of talking to his Roanoke Valley colleague on the House floor, has noticed the change in the number of other congressmen who want to speak to Goodlatte.
“We’ll be sitting there chit-chatting on the floor, and on most days a line of people start forming,” Griffith says. “‘Mr. Chairman, can I talk to you about this?’ It happened before, because people wanted his opinion, and now it’s tripled or quadrupled since he became chairman.”
MARYELLEN GOODLATTE has noticed a similar uptick in her husband’s work load.
“It used to be in the past he’d come home with one great big box of work,” she says. “Now it’s three great big boxes. In addition to all the meetings, it’s just a ton of reading. On the weekends I’ll drive around so he can work and we can take advantage of that time in the car.”
Goodlatte received a bit of the national spotlight previously, when his balanced budget amendment was guaranteed a vote in 2012 as part of the same deal to raise the debt ceiling that created the “Fiscal Cliff,” but his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee ensured he’s not just a familiar face to 6th District residents but on cable news too.
In some ways, that puts Goodlatte in a tough spot. Any legislation on the touchy subject of immigration reform will go through his committee. It’s also ground zero for helping define and restrict the limits of power for the current and future presidents. Those issues, while sticky, also present Goodlatte the opportunity to make his mark on topics at the forefront of the national conversation.
“As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he has a lot of influence because he really does run the committee,” Gingrich says. “In Bob’s case there’s no question he is in charge. The speaker [of the house] and the leadership respect him and look to him for advice and guidance on issues from immigration to constitutional amendments to tort reform. He has a big plate full of things they can focus on.”
Goodlatte’s firm hold on his district gives him room to maneuver. The committee assignment and his general influence within the party’s leadership, meanwhile, gives the Roanoke Valley more influence within the halls of Congress.