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Eyes on the presidency

NICOLE MICHELS | Friday, September 27, 2013


Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series featuring Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s graduates serving as members of Congress. This series, titled “Trading Golden Dome for Capitol Dome,” will run on Fridays.

Not quite one year after the 2012 presidential election, pundits have started to speculate about the 2016 contest. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have been singled out as two prominent Republicans who are both interested in making a bid for the office and well positioned to earn the GOP nomination.  

Rep. Pete King (R-NY-2), who obtained his J.D. from Notre Dame Law School in 1968, has publicly said he might also contend for his party’s nomination. King said this decision is motivated by a chance to raise, at a national level, issues important to him.

“We’ll see who is raising the same basic issues as I am, what chance – if any – I have of winning, how much time it’s going to take,” King said. “Because I am a Congressman and I have real obligations to my district … that has to be my main emphasis.”

Because it is still very far from the 2016 election, King said he is currently testing the receptiveness of voters to his candidacy.

“This is an opportunity I’m getting, it gives me a forum,” King said. “I’m seeing if people are interested in someone like me running, it will be at least a year and a half before I make a decision.  I’m making a point of not looking for endorsements or raising money, once you do that then you’re in – I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity to get the lay of the land.”


‘I got into Notre Dame’

King graduated from St. Francis College, Brooklyn, in 1965 with a B.A. in history and worked at the West Manhattan freight yards throughout his last three years at the college, he said. Though he felt drawn to Notre Dame, King said he did not think he would be admitted to its law school.

“I grew up in a very Irish Catholic, working class neighborhood, my father was a New York City cop,” King said. “I had never been out of the New York City area in my entire life … growing up I was this Notre Dame fanatic. I know that doesn’t sound very intellectual, but in those days, Notre Dame was the school for Catholics. Notre Dame was like the White House, the Vatican.

 Notre Dame [Law School] didn’t charge an application fee, so I figured there’s no way in the world I was going to make it and I couldn’t afford to go anyway, but why not apply? If I make it I can carry around this letter in my wallet for the rest of my life and know … I got into Notre Dame.”

King said he opened his acceptance letter the Saturday after March 4 of that year. Thanks to the combination of his father’s savings, his own savings and a loan, King said he was able to afford the cost of attendance at Notre Dame. Still, he said he pursued his law degree because he “had no idea what else to do.”

“I had no great desire to study law,” King said. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, I had no math or science ability, and I figured I’d have a job as a lawyer.  … You had very narrow expectations [where I grew up]. … I didn’t know anyone who went to law school, the guy who sat in front of me in grammar school, his brother went to the electric chair. This was not a place where you had high aspirations. Everybody was working class from that area, everybody was Irish or Italian. Nobody’s parents had gone to a great amount of school.

“I just wanted to get a job. I never thought what that job could be, but I would have a law degree and would get a good job. But then, going to Notre Dame opened a whole new world to my eyes.”


A broader perspective

Studying law at Notre Dame helped him to determine how his moral principles would shape his approach to modern political issues, King said.

“In almost every class at Notre Dame … there was a moral dimension,” King said. “I don’t mean a sanctimonious dimension, but the sense that … you should show you’re on the right side and doing the right thing. … There is a moral dimension, and also the fact that there is something larger than what you’re going through at the moment, something more than just you – larger values that go beyond day-to-day life and immediate gratification.”

At Notre Dame, King said he first realized he might be able to translate his interest in politics into a career down the road.  

“I was a political junkie since the time I was about 15, 16 years old. I followed it, I read everything about it,” King said. “I never thought it was possible [to run for elected office myself], because I just didn’t know how you did these things. When I went to Notre Dame, that’s when I developed a larger view of the world and began to see what’s out there.”

In his second year of law school, King said he served as the president of a speaker’s forum at the law school called the Gray’s Inn. During his work as president, King said he met Roy Cohn, a lawyer famous for his work in the investigations into Communist activity headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn offered him his first job, he said. 

“This was a good start for me because it was very controversial, a lot of investigations, and it gave me almost two years of living on the fast track and seeing what goes on,” King said. 


Rise of a ‘straight-shooter’

King said after two years in Cohn’s law firm and a year and a half at another law firm, he moved to Long Island and began to get involved in Republican politics. King served in various capacities in local government, where he said he used his intellectual training at Notre Dame to survive what he called “a number of political life and death struggles.”

“I basically developed a reputation as a straight-shooter,” King said. “I was on the way out several times, but I survived it, [partly] on account of the training I got and also because I knew I was right. I don’t mean that in a self-righteous way, because I’m not that self-righteous, but then in Catholic education you learned a lot about original sin so you didn’t think too highly of yourself. I wasn’t shocked by the stuff I was seeing [in local politics].

“I was straight with people even if they weren’t being straight with me, and if tough things had to be done they were done.”

In 1992, the 3rd district of New York elected King to the House of Representatives, though recent redistricting means he now represents New York’s 2nd district.  


Taking a stand

Throughout his eleven terms in the House, King said his time at Notre Dame helped him to balance his duty to fight for his constituents with the need to take an unpopular stance if it becomes morally necessary.

His votes during the impeachment proceedings of former President Bill Clinton exemplified this willingness to vote with his conscience, King said.

“Even though it’s hard to say I made a moral decision with Clinton’s impeachment because it violated traditional morality … I just voted with the Constitution: you don’t impeach somebody over something that is essentially personal,” King said. “If you’re going to apply this test that when a persoa has an affair he’s going to be thrown out of office, that undermines a democracy. 

“I was one of only one or two Republicans in Congress who voted against every article of impeachment. I was persona non grata for a while, both within the Republican Party [and within my district], because in those days my district was more Republican than it was now.  I didn’t know what was going to happen after that, it was a tough fight but it was the right thing to do.”

Known in his earlier years in office for his high degree of involvement in the conflicts in Northern Ireland, King said the events of Sept. 11, 2001 irrevocably shifted his focus to national security and counterterrorism efforts. 

In Congress, King has been a key figure in the shaping of national security policy, serving as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in 2005-06 and 2011-12. He now is a member of the Committee and chairman of the Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and sits on both the Financial Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.


Provoking a discussion

King said his desire to contribute to debate on security issues partly motivates his possible presidential run. Building a strong national defense is one of his top security priorities, he said.

“Now we have people in the [Republican] Party who are well intentioned, but who I think are isolationist, much more willing to withdraw,” King said. “And for the next year and a half, I’m talking about Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, … they’re going to be the face of the national Party. Because Christie’s not going to be out there, Jeb Bush is going to wait a while, and so when people look at Republican foreign policy they’re going to be hearing these guys.

“I think that’s very damaging to the Party, very damaging to the country.”

During the recent debate in the Senate to pass legislation that would keep the government funded past Sept. 30, Cruz chose to speak for 21 hours in an attempt to filibuster the motion. Cruz cited opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law as the reason for his opposition. King received national media attention for his vocal opposition to Cruz’s actions. 

King said he called Cruz a “fraud” because he believes the senator’s actions constitute “governmental terrorism”.

“First of all, we should make every effort to keep the government open,” King said. “If we are to negotiate, negotiate on legitimate spending issues … where there are areas of negotiation. You know the president is not going to defund Obamacare. … If we’re going to repeal it, it should be done the way it was passed. … The idea of defunding a bill – I’m not aware of this ever happening before. That, to me, is a form of governmental terrorism.”

Cruz misled voters by implying that the House vote could defund Obamacare, King said. Cruz’s filibuster, less than a week before the possible government shutdown, was an irresponsible “stunt,” King said. 

“He was selling a bill of goods that he knew to be false, he knew would not succeed,” King said. “And yet he made a national crusade out of it, and the government is coming close to a shutdown. I don’t know how we let this guy get this kind of power.” 

During the debt ceiling debate next week, King said he hopes members of Congress come to the table willing to negotiate.

“There are always items that can be negotiated in a budget this size, in a government this large,” King said. 

His time at Notre Dame strengthened his willingness to be a strong voice in the federal government, King said. 

“The main thing for Notre Dame … [is that] you have to survive and make a living, but that … you have to add a certain moral dimension to what you’re doing, and also to be willing to fall on your sword for an issue,” King said. 

Contact Nicole Michels at