Mr. Collins goes to Washington

Georgia’s newest member of Congress sleeps on a cot and showers in the gym, but he finds the hardest part is being away from home.

Doug Collins’ days here typically begin before dawn, when he arises from the cot in his office for a morning workout at the members’ gym.

The meetings and votes and hearings that follow clog his schedule to the point where meals and bathroom breaks are a struggle.

The day ends long after dark, as Collins catches up on briefing papers and thinks of his wife and three children back home in Gainesville.

In the four months since Collins joined 83 other freshmen representatives in the U.S. House, he has developed a new favorite smell: the fumes on a southbound Delta jet, carrying him back to “reality.”

The Republican is still learning how to balance his two worlds, bringing a little bit of northeast Georgia to Washington, and vice versa. It hasn’t been easy.

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A history buff, he has barely taken a moment to explore the nation’s capital. His Washington existence, Collins said, consists of a triangle between two House office buildings and the Capitol, with occasional trips across the street to the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hangout. His quest for good barbecued ribs in Washington has thus far been unsuccessful.

When the House is in session, Collins spends four days a week in Washington and weekends at home, where he works his district and spends time with his family — only Sundays are off limits to overzealous schedulers. At home, the trash still needs to be taken out and his family will needle him with lines like, “You’re not in D.C., now, Congressman.”

Still, Washington takes Collins away from home much more than he would like. So far, he has missed two children’s birthdays, and he will be away for his 25th wedding anniversary.

At 46, Collins is actually on his second stint in the nation’s capital. In 1987 when he was still in college, he served as an intern for former Georgia Rep. Ed Jenkins, a Democrat. Collins had just started dating his future wife, Lisa, and he would call her long distance — back when that was a big deal — from Jenkins’ office, reflecting on the whirlwind of D.C., and daydreaming of one day holding office.

Said Collins, “I had no idea.”

Miles from home
The son of a Georgia state trooper, Collins is 6-foot-4 and lanky. He wears glasses and eschews podiums to work a room of constituents. He has a goofball sense of humor and is prone to breaking out into falsetto song lyrics with his staff.

He is serious, too, and religious. Collins spent 10 years as a Baptist preacher at a church in Gainesville and serves in the Air Force Reserves as a chaplain. In 2008, he did a tour in Iraq where he ministered to young men and women recovering from injuries and coping with the horrors of war.

Tough living conditions in Iraq mean he has few complaints about sleeping on a cot in his office. The showers in the House gym are crowded by 6 a.m. with members who do the same.

Collins also had a personal reason for opting to live in his office. He had trouble finding an affordable apartment that included wheelchair accessibility for his daughter, Jordan.

In early 1992, Doug and Lisa Collins were dealt a shock with the results of an ultrasound. Their unborn daughter had an “open spine” or myelomeningocele, a severe form of spina bifida.

The couple spent the following weeks reading about the disease and preparing for a cesarean section birth followed immediately by surgery.

One day Lisa, an elementary school teacher, was approached by a co-worker who told her: “You have a choice” about whether to keep Jordan.

“There is no choice,” replied Lisa, a Baptist who met Doug at church. “God gave me this child and what this child becomes. If God didn’t want me to keep this child, God would take care of it, and that was His choice.”

The night Jordan was born, Dr. Saul Adler told Collins that Jordan’s oxygen levels would probably “crash” — a word that haunted Collins with its bluntness.

“If she comes back up, she should be fine,” Adler said.

“What if she doesn’t?” Collins asked.

“Well, she may not make it ’til the morning,” Adler replied.

The Collinses later learned that Jordan had rebounded on the fourth dose of the drug Exosurf to lubricate her tiny lungs. She would not have been given a fifth.

Now 21, Jordan has had 25-to-30 surgeries, her parents estimate. She gets around in a wheelchair, which she used to set records at North Hall High School in the 200-meter and 800-meter wheelchair races.

She works part time at Lisa’s elementary school as a lunchroom monitor. At home, she helps keep her younger brothers in line, and she was a fixture on the campaign trail with her father. She would roll in parades with her dad, a Collins sign affixed to the back of her chair.

After the campaign was over, Collins went for a walk one day and found Jordan rolling alongside of him.

“I’m staffing you; nobody else is around,” she said.

The time away from family is the most difficult for Collins, who also has two sons, Cameron, 14, and Copelan, 17.

Last month, Collins spoke to the Georgia Association of College Republicans in Atlanta and then hopped in the car with Jordan to head to Savannah, perhaps slightly exceeding posted speed limits. Copelan was competing in the hurdles at a track meet, and Collins was determined not to miss it.

They arrived in the parking lot with a few minutes to spare, but the meet was ahead of schedule.

Copelan had already run.

Political tightrope
In the moments before the presidential inauguration last January, Collins struck up a quick friendship with a scion of Camelot.

Collins and Joe Kennedy were just a couple of weeks into their new jobs representing distinctly different swaths of America. Though the mountains of Pickens County bear little resemblance to Boston suburbs, the men began to discuss how they face mirror image pressures at home from Massachusetts liberals and Georgia conservatives.

As they walked out of the Capitol toward the stage, Kennedy quipped that it would be bad politics to be photographed together. “He didn’t know which one this would hurt worse, me or him,” Collins later recalled with a laugh.

Collins, who served three terms in the Georgia House, represents the third most Republican district in the country; only a couple of districts in Texas are redder. This piece of trivia was greeted with applause from the silver-haired denizens of Big Canoe when Collins mentioned the Ninth Congressional District’s prominence at a recent meeting with constituents there.

“I would love for Georgia-9 to be what the rest of the country looked like,” said Collins, who happened to be holstering a concealed handgun, as he sometimes does in his district. “But the reality of it is, we’re not. And, you know, so dealing with that makes it difficult.”

Somewhere in between Big Canoe and Blue Ridge, Collins was asked if it’s easy to represent a place so overwhelmingly Republican.

“It makes it harder in some ways,” he said. “You have very conservative voters and extremely conservative voters. You have to balance between the two and what can be viewed as extremely conservative in Washington could be viewed in the district as not conservative enough.”

Every vote Collins takes is scrutinized by conservative activist groups that could one day seek to unseat him. So far they give him good reviews.

The trick for Collins is balancing those wishes with a desire to be a productive legislator in a divided government. He has sided with conservatives against House GOP leadership on raising the debt ceiling and he has stuck with leadership on temporarily funding the government through September, while three Georgia House Republicans who are running for Senate and trying to out-conservative each other voted “no.”

Being seen with Kennedy is a liability for Collins, but so is getting too chummy with House Speaker John Boehner.

He takes pains to divine which way the winds are blowing at home. Those who listen to his telephone town halls are polled on hot issues. Postcard responses to his mail are meticulously recorded. He and his staff keep regular contact with a “Liberty Council” group of tea party leaders, civic leaders and business owners.

Jack Smith of Ellijay, chairman of the North Georgia Tea Party Alliance, said Collins “has proven he is a principled constitutionalist and a conservative who represents his constituency.”

At a recent meeting, Smith and his Liberty Council brethren repeatedly pressed Collins staffers on the importance of impeaching President Barack Obama for numerous sins against the Constitution. When a recap was provided to Collins that night over dinner, he sighed.

“Sometimes they’re like children,” he said. “They get hold of one thing and won’t let go.”

The same general election in which Collins cruised to a 52 percentage point victory — his fight was in a contentious primary with radio host Martha Zoller — saw national Republicans lose ground and forced a round of soul-searching on how to win more elections. House Republicans, most of whom are drawn into districts like Collins’ where the only peril is to their right, have hotly debated the appropriate course.

One of Collins’ first votes was against increasing flood insurance claims to Hurricane Sandy victims if they were not offset with spending cuts elsewhere. Then came the debt ceiling, with House Republican leaders opting to put off reckoning with the nation’s borrowing limit to fight more Republican-friendly spending battles first.

“This is a tough one,” he said the night before the January vote. “I support the leadership and what they’re trying to do, but I don’t like it.”

Asked if it was a political gimmick to punt the debt ceiling for several months without attaching a dollar amount to it, Collins replied: “What around here isn’t a gimmick?”

The next day on the House floor, a leadership liaison approached him and explained the strategy behind re-ordering the spending fights. Collins said he understood but could not support it. He was one of 33 Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceiling.

There was no serious arm-twisting, he recalled. House Republicans’ affable whip, Kevin McCarthy, bears little resemblance to the menacing character played by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” The show is one of the few Inside the Beltway fascinations Collins will cop to embracing.

Forging a path
Collins is still finding his legislative niche. He introduced his first bill in April, a measure that seeks to limit the practice known as "sue and settle" in which lawsuits and settlements can accelerate  government regulatory actions — to the detriment of business, the bill's sponsors argue.

It’s a narrow issue, picked up from a departed House member, that Collins hopes to advance this summer. He will never forget his first bill in Atlanta to allow pages at the Legislature to treat their service like a field trip for school record-keeping purposes, thus keeping kids’ perfect attendance records intact. Collins said he still gets thank-yous for that.

From those humble legislative beginnings, Collins went on to become Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leader and guide a controversial restructuring of the HOPE scholarship.

His path in the U.S. House so far has been defined by his committees. The Judiciary Committee offers a piece of the day’s big issues. He has already assumed the second-ranking GOP spot on a key Foreign Affairs subcommittee, where he draws on his Iraq experience.

He takes his turns presiding over action on the floor and giving “one minute” speeches, but he keeps a fairly low profile. The best-known freshmen tend to be the ones who say the most outlandish things. That’s not Doug Collins.

He’s quietly assembling cash to defend his seat, raising $130,000 in the first quarter, the endless work made easier with an infusion of incumbent-friendly political action committee money. Zoller has said she will not run in 2014, but Collins expects a primary from somewhere within the crimson red confines of Georgia-9.

“So far he’s been ultra conservative,” said Nancy Davis of Jasper, a member of the Pickens County GOP and the local tea party. “However, we follow how he votes.”

The competing pressures and stresses beg the question: Does he like his job?

“I do enjoy it (to) the extent that it’s just an honor to serve,” Collins said. “It’s an interesting place. It’s a historic place and to think that you have the opportunity to serve makes it enjoyable. And I find something good about it, and I see the people, and I love to learn and read.”

Collins hopes this summer will be easier, especially on his family. He told the boys they can spend one work week in Washington with him. And the entire family plans to enjoy the  July Fourth celebration on the Mall. Perhaps then he can do some overdue sightseeing.

The AJC is lucky to have a sharp reporter and writer in Washington to cover Georgia's delegation to Congress. It's a tough, demanding job and Daniel Malloy spends long hours combing the corridors of the nation's Capitol looking for interesting stories. When Rep. Doug Collins went to Congress earlier this year as Georgia's newest member, Malloy knew there was a good story in how the young family man adapted to power and politics in Washington. Malloy watched Collins being sworn in, and tagged along with him as he learned the ropes. The result is today's fascinating Personal Journey about the minting of a new congressman.

Ken Foskett
Assistant Managing Editor

About the reporter

Daniel Malloy is a native of Alexandria, Va., and graduate of the University of North Carolina. He joined the AJC as the paper's Washington, D.C., correspondent in 2011. He previously  worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh and Washington.