Kingston celebrates his record while also defending it

Jack Kingston

Age: 59

Residence: Savannah

Profession: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Experience: U.S. House, 1993-present. Georgia state House, 1985-1992.

Education: Bachelor's degree from University of Georgia, 1978.

Political strengths: A lengthy record of building up political chits in Washington and Georgia with a mostly conservative record, combined with his affable demeanor.

Political liabilities: That record includes votes that at times stray from the conservative line, especially on spending issues in the 2000s. An FBI investigation into possible illegal straw donations to Kingston's campaign from Palestinian felon Khalid Satary has brought an air of scandal, though Kingston returned the money and he is not under investigation.

Notable endorsements: Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta, U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, tea party leader Debbie Dooley, former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker.

Key issues: He vows to cut spending, repeal the Affordable Care Act and keep a robust military.

Family: Wife, Libby Kingston; four children.

Best line: "In the primary, my biggest margin of support came from the people I know best, the people in my district. They know I am a tested, consistent conservative who has not joined the club" in Washington. (from July 13 debate)

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston’s answer to one of the crucial questions facing his party is deceptively simple.

When asked about representing a district with a high minority population by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky or others concerned about broadening the Republican Party’s mostly white base, Kingston says it’s about showing up.

“I often hear people talk about outreach as if they’re going to go talk to a different type of person on a different type of planet, even,” Kingston said.

“And I often think that’s not it. You need to talk about jobs. You need to talk about opportunities. Talk about your beliefs, but show up. And I think that’s a lot of it, is just being there.”

Kingston, 59, is running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate and faces businessman David Perdue in a closely contested, contentious runoff election Tuesday. His coastal constituents helped get him there, backing him by overwhelming margins in the May primary and helping Kingston squeak by former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Kingston’s deep political ties in Washington and Georgia have made him the best-funded candidate in the race and helped him wrap up institutional support, but that record and a fundraising embarrassment have also provided ammunition for Perdue, who’s campaigning as an outsider and political newcomer.

At a time when Congress has a 16 percent approval rating, Kingston is running against the tide, celebrating his lengthy record and accomplishments. Yet Kingston, for all his political experience, looks less like a politician, with his glasses and reedy voice.

A ‘personable dude’

But over three decades in public life, Kingston — known here simply as “Jack” — has proved to be an affable pol who knows the value of showing up and delivering federal money and services to his constituents.

Kingston can launch a nasty attack that stretches the truth (for example, accusing Perdue of supporting tax increases based on a misinterpreted quote) with a goofy grin.

And while his voting record is not conservative enough for some in the tea party movement, it does not square at all with many of his liberal constituents.

But they appreciate that he is always willing to explain his views.

“We’ve had varying — sometimes vastly differing — views on issues of policy, but he’s been very responsive to my needs and the needs of my constituents,” said Savannah City Councilman Van Johnson, a black Democrat. “He’s a really personable dude.”

That goes for the press, too. Kingston often holds court for reporters outside the House floor, commenting on the news of the day or giving updates on the yearly spending process.

He will mix it up on liberal MSNBC or with HBO’s Bill Maher, which Kingston said sometimes bothers him not because of Maher’s outspoken liberalism but because “they always use” crude language.

Kingston was also the first of many members of Congress to go on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report." Kingston managed to emerge without too much embarrassment, and he encouraged Georgia colleagues such as U.S. Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Phil Gingrey to go on for more painful performances that were not quickly forgotten.

Kingston, though, later invited Colbert to be his guest at the State of the Union. Colbert declined, but Kingston said he got the host’s wife a ticket to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The signature line from Kingston’s 2005 Colbert appearance came after Colbert mentioned that Kingston spent part of his youth in Ethiopia: “In a very real way, you are an African-American.”

Kingston was the son of a college professor and grew up mostly in Athens. He attended the University of Georgia, where he met his future wife, Libby, through the College Republicans.

After graduation in 1978 he moved to Savannah, and after a sweaty summer pouring concrete for a new county courthouse, he got a job at an insurance firm. Chip Compton, his one-time roommate and longtime friend, said Kingston was not terribly outspoken about politics. But when Kingston decided to challenge incumbent Democratic state Rep. Bobby Phillips in 1984, Compton helped knock on doors around Savannah.

“Jack, quite frankly, just outworked him,” Compton said.

Kingston spent eight years in the state House, still selling insurance, before he launched a bid for Congress in an open seat in 1992. Kingston won with 57 percent of the vote. In his next 10 races, he never won less than 63 percent.

A point man on spending

When he first got to Washington, he slept in his office, but Kingston eventually bought a house in Alexandria, Va., and commutes by bike to the Capitol. He moved up the ranks on the money-disbursing Appropriations Committee, becoming the point Republican for the Georgia delegation on requests for congressionally directed “earmark” spending.

From 2008 to 2010, before earmarks were banned, Kingston brought home $211 million, according to a database by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Perdue accuses Kingston of gorging on home-state pork, but Kingston points out that he was an early public advocate among appropriators for banning earmarks.

Still, the projects brought him dollops of goodwill throughout his coastal district. The big ones are the Port of Savannah expansion, which could finally break ground by year’s end, and aid for his district’s four military bases.

Kingston also helped steer money to Armstrong State University’s Cyber Security Institute to train forensic examiners, among other priorities.

The grant had “tremendous implications, certainly for the institution, but it has benefits for the broader community,” Armstrong State President Linda Bleicken said.

Kingston established himself as one who had a conservative voting record but could get along with Democrats when it mattered, and in recent years he helped strike bipartisan deals to cut spending.

Perdue and others have pointed to the earmarks and Kingston’s approval of spending increases when Congress and the White House were all under Republican control.

He also fought to deliver little things for the people at home: expedited passports, meetings with school trips to the nation’s capital and showing up in the district. Kingston marches each year at the historically black Savannah State University homecoming parade.

Whites are now the minority in Chatham County, where Kingston lives. And Kingston notes with pride that in 2012 he won 52.7 percent in Chatham, even as Obama won 55.5 percent.

“Savannah has tempered my politics,” he said. “Coming through an area like this has turned out to be a real blessing because to me this is what the state really looks like, or this is what a general election looks like.”

A rough campaign

He’s not universally beloved here. Jeanne Seaver of the Savannah Tea Party said Kingston has been in Washington too long and has not embraced the tea party enough.

“I ask people that are supporting Jack: Please just give me one piece of legislation that Jack led on, one piece of leadership that he has shown for the past 22 years,” Seaver said.

“No one can give me anything. An elected official said Georgia Ports Authority. You think Jack’s going to take all that credit? … He’s a nice guy, but he’s lost his way and people aren’t doing the research.”

Still, Atlanta Tea Party Patriots co-founder Debbie Dooley has endorsed Kingston. In the runoff he has vacuumed up support from many elected officials and two of his former primary rivals, Handel and Gingrey.

He’s proved to be a resilient candidate, so far overcoming the criticism that comes with a long Washington career and a lack of familiarity in vote-rich metro Atlanta.

“A lot of us didn’t want him to run,” longtime friend and supporter Mary Ann Gephart said. “Because we thought he’d lose and we’d lose him.”

It has not been easy. Kingston has been critiqued as moving further right than in past years, such as when he was the only member of the Appropriations Committee to vote against a yearly spending bill.

He drew ridicule for saying poor schoolchildren should “sweep the floor” to earn their free lunches, but he refused to back down, saying all children should learn the value of a day’s work.

A more nettlesome problem has been an alleged scheme by Palestinian felon Khalid Satary to funnel $80,000 in illegal straw donations to the Kingston campaign. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he initially ignored warnings to return the money from a GOP attorney.

Perdue said in a recent debate that the scandal shows, “If you have money and you want to buy a favor or influence, Jack Kingston is open for business.”

Kingston points out that the FBI is investigating Satary, not him, and he returned the money after the AJC started asking about it.

The scandal was the subject of an ad by a Perdue-aligned Super PAC.

Kingston spends much less time in his hometown now, as his campaign headquarters is in Duluth to maximize his presence in metro Atlanta.

He arrived at the Savannah airport on a recent Friday after a week of votes in Washington and did a quick news conference in the concourse, explaining to the TV cameras how a freshly passed spending bill nudged the port project along.

“It’s great to be back in coastal Georgia,” he said reflexively when asked about the campaign.

He was there, he said, for a family wedding. His daughter ribbed him for missing so many in the past year.

But come Saturday, Kingston was on the road again. The wedding was trumped by the Spalding County GOP’s lowcountry boil, where both candidates spoke. Kingston won the straw poll.