Congressman Rush Holt Jr. comes from a family that can trace its roots back to the 1660s in colonial Virginia and has left a liberal sprinkling of politicians in West Virginia. None of his more recent forebears were mainstream politicians and neither is he. “My grandfather was a small-town doctor who was elected mayor of his town and became friends with one of the most important people of the day, William Jennings Bryan,” says Holt. “He relished controversy and was unconventional.”
His grandfather, Dr. Matthew Holt, certainly was controversial. He was an atheist, socialist and, during World War I, an ardent isolationist. His friend Bryan was an avowed enemy of the powers of the day — banks and railroads — and a three-time loser as the Democratic presidential candidate.
Dr. Holt’s son, Rush Holt Sr., began his career as a history teacher before a meteoric rise in politics in West Virginia. At age 29, Holt Sr. became the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
“The Constitution calls for a Senator to be at least 30 so my father had to wait until his birthday in June to take office,” says his son and namesake. “My father became known for his support for workers and attacking public utilities, some of which were accused of abuse.”
The Congressman’s father later turned against President Franklin Roosevelt and was voted out of office after one term. He eventually returned to the West Virginia House of Delegates, where he entered politics, only to die of cancer the following year.
Congressman Holt’s mother, Helen Holt, completed her husband’s term. She was later the first woman appointed as secretary of state in West Virginia. She had earned an advanced degree in biological zoology from Northwestern University and began her career as a science teacher. “I never knew my grandfather and barely knew my father,” says Congressman Holt, who was 6 when his father died. Nevertheless, he could not escape their shadow.
“I wasn’t influenced by their individual positions,” Holt says. “But I was influenced by their commitment to public service and that it can help people. To this day I run into strangers who tell me what my father meant to them. It is a humbling experience. Not long ago, I ran into someone in Washington who was looking for me. His middle name was Rush — he was named after my father. His father was a coal miner who said to his dying day that no one had a better friend than my father. I learned how government can actually help people.”
“Government could not — and should not — do everything,” Holt says. “But we have government because we realized we can do some things better collectively than separately.”
Growing up, Holt felt the pull of politics from his father and of science from his mother. “From my earliest memories, I wondered how people balanced their competing interests, and that’s politics. And I wondered how the world works, and that’s science,” he recalls. “As a fifth-grader, I had one subscription to The Washington Post and another to Scientific American.”
Science won the first round as Holt went to Carleton College in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, and then to New York University, where he received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics. He then taught physics, as well as public policy and religion, at Swarthmore College for eight years.
Holt began to edge into politics during the 1980s by working as a Congressional Science Fellow for U.S. Representative Bob Edgar, D-Pennsylvania. From 1987 to 1989, Holt headed the Nuclear Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces at the U.S. State Department. In this role, he monitored the nuclear programs for such countries as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and some of the former Soviet Union.
In 1989 Holt left Swarthmore to become assistant director for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University, the school’s largest research facility and the biggest center for energy research in New Jersey.
Holt married Margaret Lancefield, a physician and medical director of the charity clinic of the University Medical Center at Princeton. They have three grown children from Lancefield’s previous marriage and seven grandchildren.
Holt decided to run for Congress in 1996 and lost. Two years later, he won. During his six terms, he has earned a reputation as being extremely liberal. The conservative National Journal rated him as one of the eight most liberal members of Congress. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO and the Americans for Democratic Action were among several liberal organizations to award Holt the top score of 100.
Holt has cast 98 percent of his votes with his party — which has drawn criticism from his opponent for not being more independent. Holt doesn’t shy away from his party-line voting record.
“The major issues of the day have become very partisan,” he explains. “All or almost all the Republicans vote on one side — they have remarkable party discipline. They voted nearly as a block against health-care reform, for tax breaks for American companies that send jobs overseas and against sending teachers back to work. Ninety-seven percent of Republicans just voted against financial reform.”
The economy. Holt defends an active federal government. “There is a role for government to prevent the kinds of excesses that drove our economy into the ditch,” he says. “Government can help people who, through no fault of their own, are now jobless or lost their health care. It can help small businesses and send people to college.”
The election for representing the 12th District, Holt says, rides on the overall question of, “To whom does the American Dream belong?” Holt acknowledges that he and Sipprelle offer a sharp contrast for voters.
“I am strong on consumer protection, workers rights, civil liberties, women’s rights and educational opportunity,” he says. “I supported the Consumer Protection Act — which created the first and only government agency with the sole responsibility of looking after the interests of the consumer. I think there is a place for financial reform. I guess that makes me partisan because only three Republicans voted for it.”
Healthcare Reform. Holt defends the new health-care plan, which Sipprelle vows to repeal.
“The government needs to crack down on insurance companies that cut people off just when they most need health insurance. I want to help small businesses by giving them tax credits to insure their employees. I think that’s good. Every Republican in Congress voted against healthcare reform and then complained that it wasn’t bipartisan.”
That straight-line vote roils Holt. “The health-care plan contains bi-partisan pieces put together over decades,” Holt says, and includes ideas from President Richard Nixon, Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Bill Frist, and other Republican leaders.
President Obama’s healthcare reform, Holt says, “goes a long way toward improving the quality of health care by making it more affordable and accessible. It will prevent some of the most egregious abuses of the healthcare insurance industry, such as lifetime caps. It will mean less needless duplicate testing.”
The nation’s healthcare plan might not reach everyone, Holt concedes. “Maybe it will include only 95 percent but it changes perception. Until now, you’ve been on your own for healthcare unless you worked for an employer with your interests at heart, or you were over 65 and covered by Medicare or poor and covered by Medicaid.”
Deficit Spending. Holt recognizes the deficit is a problem but has a different take than Sipprelle on how to approach it.
“Some people are saying, we can’t run a deeper and deeper into debt, and should cut spending,” he says. “I’d say we also need adequate revenues. President Bush and his tax-cut proponents said lower taxes would create jobs by unlocking the economy. At the time, we had a budget surplus because of the fiscal management and good luck of President Clinton.”
The budget surplus “vanished” during the first years of the Bush administration, Holt says. “Bush promised new jobs — but we lost 8 million jobs instead, went into an economic tailspin, and are facing a huge federal deficit.”
Tax Cuts. Republicans have succeeded at painting Democrats as “tax and spend” liberals, Holt says. However, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, “with nary a Republican vote, passed the largest middle class tax cut — for 95 percent of Americans — in U.S. history.”
Holt favors restoring the Bush tax cuts that are to expire at year end — but not for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Raising their taxes would provide needed revenue to reduce the deficit, he says.
Holt does not buy the argument of Republicans, including Sipprelle, who say that much of that 2 percent includes people who aren’t wealthy but are simply small business people. “That’s the Republicans’ usual line. The richest 2 percent may be ordinary church-going folk but they are privileged. They don’t need the government to help them at every turn.”
Ultimately, Holt says, “our economic salvation is growth. But will we growth by giving tax cuts to the wealthy and shrinking our government until, as one Republican said, it is small enough to drown in the bathtub? I believe efficient government will help people get ahead.” He helped defeat President Bush’s original bank-bailout proposal because it was offered with no strings attached. Holt then helped pass the second, stronger Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and notes that the banks have already repaid the federal government more than half their loans.
Holt also helped pass President Obama’s stimulus plan. “The stimulus staved off a downturn of Great Depression scale,” he says. “The economy is still fragile and unemployment is still very high, which suggests the stimulus should have been larger.” And Holt hailed the success of the General Motors bailout, which, “at least for the moment, turned GM into a functional company.”
Defense Issues. Holt has been a consistent opponent of what he calls “the misguided war in Iraq.” In 2002 he voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war. Bush, he argued, failed to prove that Saddam Hussein’s regime was an immediate threat to American security — and failed to “explain to the American people what would be the costs and what would be our responsibilities in a post-Saddam Iraq.”
Since then Holt has opposed efforts to allow the U.S. engagement in Iraq to continue indefinitely. He says he understands that America still needs to help Iraq rebuild, but he believes that a secure and sustainable democracy will only be achieved by the Iraqis themselves.
Holt believes the United States should wind down its combat operations in Afghanistan and focus the nation’s security priorities closer to home. “Because the previous administration did not put enough troops on the ground, Osama bin Laden escaped, and nearly nine years later, the whereabouts of he and his key lieutenants remain a mystery to the intelligence community,” Holt says. “In other words, the original rationale for going to Afghanistan is gone.”
Climate Change. As one of the few scientists in Congress, Holt understands the threat of climate change: “It is increasingly clear that we are changing our climate in ways that are deadly.”
He admits the proposed Cap and Trade legislation, now stalled in Congress, is not the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions — but he finds it acceptable.
“I call this a ‘no regret strategy,’” he says. “We have to move to a more reliable and less costly energy source. We will be pleased even if we are over-predicting climate change” because the nation would no longer be dependent on foreign nations for oil. The threat of climate change helped induce Holt to join the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is exploring the enormous potential of nuclear fusion energy.
Energy Policies. Petroleum is unsustainable as the nation’s chief source of energy, he says. “The United States spends $1 trillion a year on energy,” Holt explains. “We are investing less than 1 percent of that spending in researching for energy alternatives.”
The answer may be in fusion energy, and Holt supports continued federal grants for the laboratory’s research even though a breakthrough may be years, if not decades, away.
“The United States invented this line of research but has since fallen behind other nations,” Holt says. “Europe, China, South Korea and Japan are spending more on fusion. They believe there is a future there.”
Abortion. On abortion, Holt is solidly pro-choice. He voted against several measures to limit abortion rights, including one to prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions in the new healthcare plan.
Gay Rights. He supports gay marriage rights. “If we care about strengthening the institution of marriage, how would a gay couple in Hoboken damage the marriage of heterosexual couple in Hopewell? The logic escapes me.”
Gays and lesbians should be allowed to freely serve in the military, too, he says. “We had to fire I don’t know how many translators in Iraq — and we didn’t have many to begin with — because they were gay,” Holt says. “This is damaging to our national security. Why should we deny the skills, bravery, and talents of gays and lesbians who want to defend our nation? This is silly. We are shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The Mosque. Holt doesn’t hesitate to defend the rights of Muslims who want to build a cultural center two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan. “The laws and Constitutional principles are not to be observed in general — they must be applied in particular,” he says. “I want to see more houses of worship and institutions that promote good deeds and humanity all over this country, including in downtown Manhattan. We have developed a tradition of defending freedom of religion in this country, even when it’s unpopular.”
Issues aside, Holt says one of the most important parts of his job — and one he thoroughly enjoys — is helping constituents and local officials with their problems.
“Someone came to me asking why his disability claim was denied,” he says. “When I asked the Social Security Administration to investigate it further, it turns out he deserved it — going back a year.” Many World War II veterans have come to Holt asking for help replacing their long-lost medals for heroism. “They want to present their medals to their grandchildren,” says Holt, once again reminded of the public role his own father and grandfather played.