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Freshman Concord congressman navigates path between conservatism, moderation

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@mcclatchydc.com

WASHINGTON U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson admits he was “naive” last fall to think he and other Republicans could pin down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and force Democrats to scale back Obamacare in order to avert a government shutdown.

The Democrats didn’t cave. The government closed for an embarrassing three weeks in a disastrous showing of Washington dysfunction. Republicans took most of the blame.

“I was wrong,” Hudson said during a candid moment in his office this month. “He got away with it and we were the ones who looked bad.”

The fight against President Barack Obama’s health care law was the most aggressive stance the Concord freshman took in an otherwise quiet first year in office. It was also a bold signal that he was aligning himself with the conservative wing of the party – a tack that may have warded off a primary challenge and could ease his way to re-election against a lesser known Democrat in the conservative 8th District.

Depending on whom you ask, Hudson, 42, might be described as a either a diehard conservative with tea coursing through his veins or a creature of Washington and the ultimate insider, intent on maintaining the status quo.

Hudson has one of the most conservative voting records in the House. Democrats say that record shows he can’t work across party lines. But Hudson also has critics on the right who claim he works too much with Democrats, noting, for example, his vote on the controversial bipartisan budget deal struck by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

Hudson has more than a decade of Washington experience, having climbed his way up the staff congressional ranks as an aide and then chief of staff before making the leap to become a member of Congress.

It’s a move that’s taken some getting used to – for him, and for friends who find it odd calling him congressman. But it’s the experience and the connections he made during a decade working behind the scenes that has allowed the former UNC Charlotte student body president to make his way toward the party’s inner circle.

“He has one of the brightest futures in Congress,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy said he sought Hudson’s guidance when Hudson was still a chief of staff. McCarthy called him a “rock star.”

Hoping to start a family

On a recent Thursday morning in his Capitol Hill office, Hudson sat in his favorite leather chair with a can of Cheerwine in his hand. He allowed a reporter to follow him for several hours that day. He carried a detailed schedule printed on index cards with a congressional seal. Broken into 15- and 30-minute increments, his day included two hearings, two votes and several back-to-back meetings with party leaders, state officials and business executives. He also met and took photos on the Capitol steps with history students from A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

He started the day at 8 a.m. in the basement of the Capitol with his head bowed. He has weekly Bible study with other members, Democrats and Republicans. He prayed for wisdom, he said. And he prayed for patience on a personal matter he and his wife, Renee, share. They’re trying to start a family.

“It’s an ongoing effort. It’s tough when you want to have kids and you can’t,” he said. “But we have to trust that God has a plan. And in time it’ll work.”

Joining an exclusive club

His knowledge of the system has helped him gain some plum assignments. He’s one of the few freshmen to chair his own subcommittee, which is on transportation security. He was picked for the whip team that helps leadership manage legislative programs. His freshman class elected him to the steering committee that determines committee assignments.

He was just one of two freshmen invited to join the secretive Chowder and Marching society, one of Capitol Hill’s oldest and most exclusive GOP political fraternities. The group has produced future presidents, vice presidents, senators and governors.

Hudson has operated as if he was in the anti-establishment camp, said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. It’s an interesting shift considering Hudson was the establishment pick in the 2012 race.

“Hudson was challenged by a tea party candidate when he first ran so he has done his best to preempt that type of challenge on the conservative extreme,” Heberlig said.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has identified Hudson as a “skeptic” of House leadership. He was named the 12th most conservative House member last year, according to National Journal ratings.

Shutdown made a point

Polls show that the public primarily blamed Republicans for the shutdown. But Hudson doesn’t regret supporting the Republican strategy that ended up in a stalemate with Democrats.

“One thing the shutdown proved is this was the Democrats’ baby and there is not confusion with the American people,” he said of the Affordable Care Act.

For Democrats, Hudson’s strategy showed he is operating on the fringe.

“The truth of the matter, on the politics, is Richard Hudson is with the extreme tea party wing of that Congress,” said Ben Ray, spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party.

The conservative powerhouse Club for Growth disagrees. Spokesman Barney Keller called Hudson a “go-along, get-along Republican” picked by the establishment to maintain the status quo. The Club, which raises money for candidates, gave Hudson a 78 percent score for his first year in office. That’s the same score given Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who is ranked among the most moderate Republicans in the House by the National Journal.

“If there is an award for voting with their party, then Richard Hudson would probably get it,” Keller said. “But that’s part of the problem with Washington. Republicans have worked with Democrats to grow the size of the government for decades. We need people who are going to make a course correction.”

Hudson was criticized for, among other things, voting for the Murray-Ryan budget, which the Club for Growth and others said increases spending in the short run with the false promises of spending cuts a decade later.

Hudson admits the budget deal is not perfect. And he’s careful not to criticize Club for Growth. But he argues the budget deal does lock in needed spending cuts and tackles the deficit.

“It’s just a question of are you going to try to get a few first downs and march down the field or are you going to throw a Hail Mary every play,” Hudson said. “And I think there are times to throw a Hail Mary. But let’s get some first downs.”

Twitter: @francoordonez
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