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11.28.10

The New King of Congress

Steve King once called illegal immigration a “slow-motion terrorist attack” and likened illegals to livestock. Now, he could be in charge of immigration law in the House. He talks to Bryan Curtis about his wildest statements—and what shaped his views.

Steve King still remembers his first illegal immigrant. Back in the 1950s, the future Republican congressman was one of the 250 documented residents of Goodell, Iowa, where King's father was the mayor. When Emmett King came home at night, he liked to regale the family with tales of small-town criminality— Mayberry R.F.D. stuff. But one night, Emmett told the Kings an illegal Mexican immigrant had been apprehended in Goodell. What Steve King recalls about the immigrant now is not that he committed a local crime, or participated in what King later called, with characteristic acidity, America's "slow-motion terrorist attack." No, what King recalls is the efficiency with which Goodell, Iowa, removed the intruder.

"They just picked him up, processed him, and sent him on the shuttle run back to his home country," King says. "It never occurred to them to say, 'Oh, well, I'm sorry, I'm just a little-town cop and a little-town mayor.'"

Thus ended Goodell's immigrant invasion. "Probably the only one that ever came through there," King says with a laugh. Then the punchline: "But that would be 100 percent enforcement if that was the case!"

If the GOP votes as expected this month, Steve King will be in charge of immigration legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. For proof that a meteor hit D.C. on November 2, listen to the ideas running through the head of the likely next chair of the immigration subcommittee. King has called for an electrified fence along the border. He wants to interpret the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship for immigrants who have children here. He has dubbed illegal immigration not just a “slow-motion terrorist attack” but a “slow-motion holocaust.” “The line of scrimmage has moved closer to our goal line,” King tells me, “and you’ve got a different team calling the plays.” What gives liberals tremors is not just that Barack Obama’s immigration agenda is dead. It’s that King’s swaggering personality will dominate the debate for years.

When Republicans gavel the new House to order, the rightward flank of the party will be filled by two distinct species. There will be those Republicans that came in with the Tea Party. And there will be those that have been rehearsing for the Tea Party for years. King is the second kind of Republican. He was born in Storm Lake, Iowa, in 1949. He founded a successful construction company—with "one bulldozer," he likes to brag. King was elected to the Iowa state Senate in 1996 and showed a knack for being a savvy media operator. "He got a lot of press but he didn't necessarily have a talent for getting things done," says Bob Dvorsky, a Democratic state senator.

When King came to Washington in 2003, he fell under the wing of Tom Tancredo, the éminence grise of immigration hardliners. (King was touched when Tancredo ceded some floor time to him one night when King had happened into the chamber.) There was something almost eerie about Tancredo and King, friends say. They didn't just spout the same views. They looked like they'd been separated at birth: the same build, the same part in their hair, the same penetrating eyes. Once, after a State of the Union speech, King was gabbing with Tancredo in the Capitol building. King's wife Marilyn approached the two from behind and accidentally threw her arms around the wrong immigration hawk.

He once brought a replica of a border fence to the House floor. Along the top: a wire he said would be filled with electrical current. "We do that with livestock all the time," he said.

Tancredo left the House last year, and King bonded with a new soul mate: Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is likely to chair the House Judiciary Committee. But for the next two years, immigration legislation will be at a standstill. Any bill calling for an electric fence will be stopped by the Senate, and any bill with a pathway to citizenship will be stopped by the House. So it's King's gonzo personality—his Tancredoian id—that will mark the debate. The first thing to know about King's personality is that it isn't a put-on for Fox News. "He's exactly the same," says Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman from Utah. "That's what scares me about him. It's not show time and off time with Steve. He has a coffeemaker on his desk. And he uses it."

King's specialty is the outrageous ad-lib. "A lot of that stuff happens spontaneously," he explains. In 2008, King predicted terrorists would be " dancing in the streets" if Obama were elected president. He dismissed the torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison as mere " hazing." In 2006, he appeared in the House carrying a miniature replica of a border fence—it looked like King's entry in the science fair. Running along the top of King's mini-fence was a wire he said would be filled with electrical current. "We do that with livestock all the time," King explained.

These are not gaffes; to believe in gaffes, King would have to believe in spin. No, King has honed a kind of empathy-free immigration rhetoric. He defers to the law at all junctures, just as Emmett King used to when he read to his family from the Iowa code books. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who is surrendering her immigration subcommittee chair, recalls a 2007 bill that allowed more Afghan and Iraqi translators to obtain special visas to enter the U.S. "When we took it to the floor," Lofgren says, "Steve King—and I thought it was irrational—called it 'amnesty.'"

A 2008 bill that would have helped U.S. soldiers and their family members gain legal status was named after Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, one of the first Americans to die in combat in the Iraq War. "Mr. King," Lofgren recalls, "wanted to know how the dead soldier had entered the United States."

"I could go on and on but I won't," Lofgren adds. When I ask if she was ever tempted to lash out at King during a hearing, she musters up all her restraint and says, "It has been tempting."

I ask King about two of his most controversial statements: calling illegal immigration a "slow-motion terrorist attack" and a "slow-motion holocaust." Of the holocaust comment, King says he later huddled with Jewish groups—the Anti-Defamation League had objected loudly—and saw how the remark could cause offense. He now offers a rephrase: "I don't mean the Shoah, I mean the multiple deaths of Americans that are going on in a tragic way." Was he sticking with the image of immigration as a terrorist attack? "Mm-hmm."

"I've been a little bit astonished that I've come into Congress and had to argue why we should enforce the law," King says. "The answer to that question is, obviously, because it is the law."

He continues, “When I came to this Congress, I looked around and saw the C-SPAN cameras go blue-screen way too often. Republicans were in the majority… How much did we believe in what we were doing?”

"Now, there's a website that's reported I have more words in the Congressional Record than anybody else."

Democrats hope those words will put an anti-Latino stamp on the GOP before the 2012 elections. (A Latino group called Somos Republicans fears as much.) But King has a different plan for his bully pulpit: He wants to bring the GOP closer to him. He knows Republican presidential contenders are already peddling their wares in Iowa, especially western Iowa, King's home and site of the state's GOP power base. King plans to be waiting there as a hawkish enforcer. "That's going to put some early pressure on all the presidential candidates," Rep. Chaffetz says, adding, "You're not going to get away with a few sound bites." Romney, Palin, and company had better make the right noises, or else King will fire up the coffeemaker.

I keep thinking about that lone immigrant who happened through Goodell, Iowa, a half-century ago and who had the peculiar destiny to inspire the House's fiercest immigration hawk. So I call the current Hancock County sheriff, Scott Dodd. It turns out a handful of illegal immigrants have returned. "In the last few years, we've had a few incidents of people coming here and working in our area," Dodd says. "We have a few chicken-raising facilities and hog-raising facilities." In the business of Hancock County, it is a minor intrusion. During Steve King's rhetorical reign in the House, there will be no such thing.

Bryan Curtis is a national correspondent at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.