Formerly Homeless, He Now Bunks With 434 House-mates The Elections Changed Many Lives. Texan Steve Stockman Was Awestruck.

Posted: January 10, 1995

WASHINGTON — When freshman Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas first saw his three-room suite in the Cannon Building, he exclaimed over the private bathroom.

"Does everyone get one of these?" he wondered.

The Republican first-termer's surprise was genuine. His ride to the corridors of power has been a bumpy one.

Fourteen years ago, Stockman was homeless, eating from garbage cans and sleeping rough in a downtown park in Fort Worth.

November's election didn't just propel the Republicans to power; it turned lives around.

Whether it's the gain of a subcommittee chair for a second-term congressman like Michigan's Peter Hoekstra or the loss of a chauffered car for former Senate Majority Whip Wendell H. Ford (D., Ky.), the election has dramatically altered the personal stature of many members.

It has changed life for no members more drastically than for Stockman or Ohio Democrat Tom Sawyer, who lost not only his chairmanship but an entire committee.

As Eleanor Holmes Norton (D., D.C.) can testify, it's often quicker going down.

Two years ago, she and delegates from four U.S. territories won the right to vote on the House floor. In 1994, she helped force a (losing) vote on statehood. After the GOP maelstrom of last week, she lost her vote in the House. The District of Columbia has no voice in the Senate.

But for losing real clout, her predicament doesn't compare to that of Rep. Charlie Rose (D., N.C), former chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Members once came like supplicants to Rose's capacious office in the Rayburn Building, where they stood under a magnificent chandelier worthy of Versailles and pleaded for computers and telephones.

His power palace gone, Rose has a modest first-floor suite in Cannon, and he comforts himself with a relatively short walk to the Capitol.

If Rose is down, he's got company. Friends say Rep. John D. Dingell (D., Mich.) is depressed. A giant, physically and politically, he lost his chairmanship of the House Commerce Commitee (formerly Energy and Commerce) and, as dean of the House, had to swear in new Speaker Newt Gingrich.

A GOP staffer for the Commerce panel said that, under Dingell, there were 115 full-time majority staffers - 26 for the minority. Under GOP-engineered cutbacks, the majority will shrink to 69 and the minority to 21.

The cuts, ironically, are far deeper for the ruling Republicans.

That's small consolation for Sawyer. He was the nation's top "counter" as head of the census subcommittee. Last week, the committee he operated under, Post Office and Civil Service, was one of three voted out of existence.

"He's still struggling with the loss," Sawyer's chief of staff, TerriAnn Lowenthal, said yesterday. "In a transition like this, you lose years of in- depth work and expertise."

Steve Stockman, just 14 years ago, would have been counted by Sawyer's committee as homeless.

In November, the pudgy 38-year-old accountant from East Texas laid low cigar-smoking Democrat Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who was in Congress longer than Stockman has been alive.

Dropping out of college in his native Michigan in 1979, Stockman had drifted to an older brother's house in Wisconsin. Soon they quarreled over Stockman's non-employment and Stockman got on a bus to Texas, where his grandparents lived.

Unable to find work by mid-1980, Stockman took up residence in the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which then, as now, played host to vagrants.

"When you don't have work and you don't have a fixed address, you become . . . homeless," said Stockman during an interview in his Cannon office.

He took up a street name. "I called myself 'Max,' " he said, "because I figured this was the maximum I could go down."

Worried for his safety at night - "The homeless preyed on each other," he said - Stockman slept atop a concrete pillar that formed part of the park's ornamental infrastructure.

"I was ashamed, embarrased about it," he said. "I thought I was intelligent enough not to be in this situation."

He didn't know how to get out of it. After a few months, fate intervened. During one of his periodic phone calls to his father in Michigan, Stockman learned that his grandmother in nearby DeLeon had died. An uncle would pick him up and take him to her funeral.

Stockman decided that he would be leaving for good.

The biggest wrench for him was leaving the only friend he'd made, a big, helpless man who reminded Stockman of the sweet, simple-minded Lennie in John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice and Men.

"I had to sever things with him, and I felt terrible," said Stockman. "I hated to leave him to the elements."

Clad in his funeral suit, Stockman found work in a steel mill and in 1985 had raised enough money through various jobs to enter San Jacinto College, where he studied accounting.

In 1990, Stockman decided to run for Congress, but lost in the primary. On his third try, Stockman beat Brooks, who suffered for his support of the crime bill, including its controversial ban on assault weapons.

Now Stockman sat in his office and reminisced with his wife, Patti, who works at the Johnson Space Center in his district.

"Maybe I'm the epitome," said the Texan. "I can go from rock bottom to Congress in 14 years."

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