A PUBLIC LIFE REVISITED
21 YEARS IN CONGRESS --
SHAYS IS STILL LOOKING BACK,
UNSURE WHERE HIS LOSS WILL
The Hartford Courant
December 14, 2008
WASHINGTON — Chris Shays sits in the
basement grill of the capital's Republican club. He's
receiving people here, with some papers and a
couple of cellphones on the table in front of him,
an inward look on his face.
People stop as they pass by. Sorry to see you go,
they tell him. That was a tough race. You did
everything you could. The congressman is hearing
the kind of tone usually reserved for funerals. He
shakes hands and thanks them. His face has a way
of bursting into a smile, but it can vanish just as
quickly, as it does now, when he thinks hard about
This is all the office he has, here in the private
sanctuary of his party, with easy-listening music
overhead. After 21 years in the House of
Representatives, Shays' last moments have come.
"We all knew you can lose an election," he says,
but it doesn't sound like he had believed it. "I told
people I thought we were going to win."
He's not ready to consider the next step, yet. He's
still stirring the brew of what happened Nov. 4. He
talks about His District and His Constituents as if
he's not about to hand them over to the man who
beat him, Jim Himes. Shays had made plans in his
head - plotting his coming months as ranking
Republican on the oversight committee. He had
plans for energy policy and health care and
Instead, he's trying to find jobs for his staff in a
town now filling with Democrats. His scheduler is
no longer on his staff. So, sticking near Capitol Hill
in recent days as Congress prolonged its session
long past its scheduled finish, he has missed some
appointments and failed to return some calls.
And, in a final sour note, the Shays campaign is
mired in a fraud investigation. The finance people
found irregularities in the books, and sources have
said campaign manager Michael Sohn is the focus
of the investigation. Shays won't say who was
involved or comment, except to call it a betrayal
and to say its outcome has huge importance to him.
Meanwhile, the constant traveler - from his Peace
Corps days to his recent trips to Iraq - jokes that
the biggest adjustment may come when he next
flies overseas and isn't met at the airport by an
official from the State Department who handles the
arrangements. In 21 years, he's traveled on a
private vacation just once, he said.
But the most significant travel of his life, the
steady back-and-forth flights between D.C. and
Connecticut, will no longer be necessary. He's
talking about consolidating his households, though
he said he and his wife, Betsi, haven't decided
Lately, Shays has been helping put together Ikea
furniture for his daughter, and he gave her a hand
returning books for her bar-exam studies. The
regular acts of a father.
Shays, 63, seems as engaged now in matters of
home as he is in the business of the House. There's
a trace of giddiness in his voice when he talks about
his coming weekends - no-strings days off.
"It'll be a much more normal life."
A HISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE
Shays' history in public life is that of an
individualist. In his youth, he was a conscientious
objector who entered the Peace Corps rather than
the Vietnam War (though he would later support
the war in Iraq). As a state legislator, he went to
jail briefly in 1985 when he refused to leave the
witness stand in a misconduct hearing against two
lawyers. Two years later, he was in Congress,
where his habits of speaking his mind and ignoring
his party's wishes meant an often contentious road
for one of the body's most moderate Republicans.
He pushed for ethics and campaign reform. He was
often the most popular Republican among
environmental and pro-choice groups. He fought
for animal-protection legislation.
And he was talking about the dangers of Islamist
extremism before 9/11. His beliefs led him to
relentlessly defend the war in Iraq - an issue for
which many constituents in the 4th District, in the
state's southwestern corner, couldn't forgive him.
"He was a very moderate, independent-minded
Republican," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, the
Connecticut independent who - even when he was
still a Democratic senator - shared a number of
positions with Shays. "Part of why we grew
friendly ... was that we actually did have a
generally similar approach to issues which managed
to put both of us in hot water with our respective
Lieberman, also a staunch supporter of the war,
said of Shays, "He has a lot to be proud of."
Shays may have been the last of the House
Republicans from New England, but he felt he
could be the exception in this year's mighty
electoral swing toward the Democrats. He was
confident in his record, saying, "We did a hell of a
lot." And he said he felt good about his contact
with people on the campaign trail. But on Nov. 4,
he won 47.6 percent of the vote to Himes' 51.3
Shays' election numbers in Norwalk and Stamford
were tough, but it was Bridgeport, where he won
fewer than one in four votes, that kicked the
veteran politician in the guts. Bridgeport was his
"top priority." He had moved there more than a
decade ago, and his adopted city surprised him.
"Bridgeport has a hard time knowing what's in its
"We thought we ran one of our best races," he said.
He thinks many people voted straight-ticket
Democratic. "I'm surprised I didn't see it coming."
His final bow on the blue carpet of the legislative
chamber was an uneasy vote against billions in loan
money for the U.S. auto industry. He cast the vote
well aware of the 21 years bearing down on him,
and this vote felt like none before it.
"When you are coming back, you're very much part
of a team that's moving in a certain direction. When
you're not coming back, the boat's leaving the dock
But in the traditions of the Hill, there's no gold
watch, just an urgent need to clear out the losing
incumbents to make room for the new.
"Basically, they toss you out of your office in
three weeks," recalls Nancy Johnson, the longtime
Republican congresswoman from Connecticut's 5th
District who similarly lost an election - to Chris
Murphy - two years ago.
For Shays, packing the office meant 700 boxes.
"All the old cases," he said, "all the old letters."
At a crossroads now, Shays is still looking back at
the road that got him here. A well-off friend
advised him to take a year off before he decides
what to do with the rest of his life. But Shays
pointed out he's been an elected official for 34
years - on a government payroll for a long time.
"That's not an option that's available to me."
So, what now? Shay's only plan: "I want my life to
be a blessing. I felt for 34 years I was doing things
Johnson said, "This is not a man who lacks interest
and knowledge. He just has to find his way." So,
she said, "he shouldn't rush it." It took her six
months to get her life reorganized. She spent some
time teaching at Harvard. Now, she works in the
last environment she would have expected: a D.C.
law firm. "I'm very happy. I'm challenged all the
time. I'm working hard. And I see my grandchildren
more. I see my husband more."
And on job fulfillment: Only now that Johnson is
away from Congress does she fully realize how
exhausting the pace could be and how frustrating to
work furiously but sometimes get little done. At
her firm, Baker Donelson, Johnson is a public-
policy adviser working a lot on health care issues.
"You can certainly have influence on important
matters from outside Congress," she said.
Shays said he'd like to be involved in rebuilding the
Republican Party, but he's not sure how. State
party Chairman Chris Healy said, "He still has, I
think, a lot to offer, whether it's in public service or
private life. ... I hope he does stay active in politics
in Connecticut. That's his decision." Healy said,
"We'll just have to stay tuned."
Shays had vowed on election night that he was
done with elected office. But he's not so sure now.
"I'm not running for Congress again," he says in his
makeshift work space. "I wouldn't rule out the
Senate or governor, but I think it's highly unlikely."
What about working in the Obama administration?
"Absolutely," he says, though he adds, "I'm not
sitting waiting for an opportunity in the
administration to happen."
In fact, he says, "what I'm dealing with is not
unique." He's now like tens of thousands in his
district - newly out of work.