Collins sworn in as Georgia’s new member of Congress

Doug Collins has arrived at a tense, fractious moment for the United States Congress, a fact apparent from his first official duty: voting for speaker of the House.

Collins, a Republican from Gainesville, voted for John Boehner, unlike several of his conservative colleagues who openly defied the speaker and made him sweat out a typically routine first-ballot victory. Boehner drew flak from the right most recently by pushing through a deal on the “fiscal cliff” that relied on Democratic votes. The budgetary tension will continue Friday with a scheduled vote on aid to states affected by Hurricane Sandy.

“When you get tired, one of the things is you’re going to express your frustration, and that’s what I think is happening right now,” said Collins, who said he backed Boehner because he was the only viable GOP option. “But as Republicans we’re going to come together and express a plan for the future of the country.”

Though the partisan balance in the House did not shift much, Collins was one of several dozen new members sworn in Thursday, their families in tow as they tried to navigate the labyrinthine Capitol complex. But as a three-term veteran of the Georgia House who served as Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leader, Collins is a skilled navigator of the legislative process.

Collins, 46, represents the newly created 9th Congressional District, a heavily conservative swath of North Georgia hills. He arrives in bickering Washington with a vow to work with colleagues on issues from reducing federal spending to water plans for Lake Lanier.

He already knows how to be a legislator, a fact that Collins and his allies say gives him a leg up on some of his fellow newcomers.

“The questions have come up about committee work — going into committees, understanding how other people have an amendment, meeting lobbyists who have an interest in legislation. (The state House experience) has prepared me,” Collins said.

Collins’ election continues something of a Gold Dome to U.S. Capitol pipeline for the state’s Republicans: U.S. Reps. Austin Scott, Tom Graves, Tom Price, Lynn Westmoreland, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston all are former state legislators, as is U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

As Deal’s floor leader, Collins’ signature achievement was moving a controversial effort to pare back the HOPE scholarship when the lottery-funded program was under financial pressure.

“We worked on it for two and a half months before we even got to the legislation that we brought to floor,” Collins said. “We brought in different perspectives. We didn’t compromise on core beliefs, but we had to change it to make it viable.”

The product ended up earning bipartisan support, including that of House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

“We didn’t have to really coach him very much at all,” Deal said. “He knew the issue and knew the subject matter, and I just felt like he handled it masterfully.”

Collins’ ties with Deal go back to when he went to North Hall High School with Deal’s son. From there Collins went on to North Georgia College.

Longtime friend Trevor Hooper, who attended high school and college with Collins, said his friend had always talked about going to law school, but he chose the cloth instead. Collins became a Baptist pastor in Gainesville and started a family with his wife, Lisa, a schoolteacher.

But his career changed course at 38, when Collins enrolled at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, commuting from Gainesville. According to spokeswoman Loree Ann Thompson, Collins “believed that was where God needed (him) to be at the time.”

Collins had been in the Navy Reserve as a newlywed, but left when he and his wife started having children. In the early 2000s he joined the Air Force Reserve, where he continues to serve as a chaplain.

In 2006 Collins won his first bid for the Georgia House. He earned his law degree in 2008 and opened a law firm in 2010, specializing in criminal and domestic law. Meanwhile, his Air Force service took him to Iraq for a four-month stint spanning the end of 2008. As a chaplain, Collins counsels soldiers dealing with everything from relationship trouble to post-traumatic stress disorder. He recently spent a week on base and plans to keep up the service while in Congress.

He said the work with the reserves provides another perspective to inform his thinking in Washington. Collins knows the challenges faced by returning veterans and said his time in Iraq convinced him further of America’s role as a world leader.

“I think we’re still the last great hope of the world,” Collins said. “We’re still the shining light on the hill. I truly believe that. And if you go around the world, America is looked on as a place of freedom, a place of diversity.”

Collins will have a venue for those views on the Foreign Affairs Committee. His other two committee slots are the Judiciary panel, and Oversight and Government Reform. Committee assignments often dictate a legislator’s path, Deal said, but there is one thing every lawmaker is keyed on right now.

“Like anybody who’s a first-timer in Washington, the magnitude and the size of the budget is something that is somewhat daunting and overwhelming to start with,” said Deal, who spent 17 years in Congress and represented parts of Collins’ new district. “I feel sure he is going to put time into understanding” it.

In 2011 Deal and the Legislature drew a new empty seat in redistricting with a power base in Deal’s home of Hall County. Collins announced his intent to run almost immediately, and Deal recorded an automated phone call on Collins’ behalf near the end of the race.

Collins’ heated primary race turned into a test of the tea-party-driven outsider — radio host Martha Zoller — versus the seasoned legislator. On the issues they offered similar views, but Zoller cast Collins as too willing to make deals on things such as the T-SPLOST and Medicaid bed tax, while Collins painted Zoller as a loose cannon with no legislative experience.

The campaign got so intense that Hooper said he had to remind his old buddy to eat — Collins was dropping weight.

Collins won the August Republican runoff by nearly 10 points after most observers predicted a tossup. In November he defeated Democrat Jody Cooley by 76 percent to 24 percent.

In a mid-December conversation, Collins was still wrapping his head around the whole thing. “Just having an office in D.C. is pretty overwhelming to me,” he said.

He’ll spend plenty of time there: Collins plans to sleep in his office to avoid Washington’s pricey rents and commute home on weekends.

Collins said he is leaning on his Georgia delegation colleagues for advice. Westmoreland told Collins to be assertive with his staff about overscheduling and take the time for a child’s birthday or his anniversary.

“You don’t want to lose your family over being up here,” Westmoreland said.

Collins’ children are 20, 16 and 14, and the oldest has special needs. In talking about the importance of his family, Collins appeared to have gotten Westmoreland’s message.

“Dad and husband, that’s the biggest job I have,” he said.

His two sons joined him on the House floor Thursday as he took the oath of office. Minutes earlier he gathered with friends and family — including Georgia House Speaker David Ralston — who had traveled to Washington to wish him well. He attempted a light joke before the moment overcame him.

“Without wanting to smear my makeup, I’ll be as …” he said, trailing off and choking up. Collins could only add, “I love you guys.”