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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Parting Shot

On Election Day last month, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon did something he had not done for 22 years. He didn’t cast a vote for himself. That is because the 76-year-old McKeon was not running for re-election as congressman from the 25th District, which includes the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. After two decades in office, the Republican was stepping away from national politics but not from public service. “I do not want to sit in a rocking chair,” McKeon said. “That is not my nature.” A San Fernando Valley native, McKeon was involved in growing his chain of Western wear stores with his brothers before becoming the first mayor of Santa Clarita and later a congressman. During his time in Washington, he served as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, and, for the last four years, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee responsible for funding all branches of the military. That chairmanship was appropriate considering that McKeon’s district includes aerospace contractors and sub-contractors, including Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. McKeon sat down with the Business Journal just hours after going to the polls on Nov. 4 to discuss his time in office, partisanship in Washington, his plans – and his choice of footwear at the Capitol. Question: What accomplishment are you most proud of during your 20 years in Congress? Answer: There isn’t a most proud but I think the one that probably was the most beneficial for the district was the bill I got passed to stop Elsmere Canyon (in Santa Clarita) from becoming a landfill. Why is that? It would have been the largest landfill in the world. In my second term I got a bill passed that precluded taking land from the national forest and using it for a landfill. About half of the planned Elsmere landfill was in national forest. That got rid of it forever. What surprised you most about serving in Congress? It was all a surprise to me. I had no idea what a congressman did; I had met only two of them before I became one. I lived in a small cocoon. I grew up in Tujunga and moved out here (to Santa Clarita) in 1964. I had a great life before I ever went to Congress. That was helpful for me. How was it helpful? Because sometimes people can get caught up in the plaudits of people. I already had a measure of success in lots of ways. It wasn’t like the first time I had someone say how wonderful I was. What was your experience in public office prior to Congress? I served nine years on the high school board of trustees. When they had the cityhood campaign (for Santa Clarita) a friend asked me to run. There were 25 people running and I got the most votes for the council. I served one term, just over four years, and then I ran for Congress. What made you want to do that? I wanted to get off the City Council. That was an honorable way to get off. (laughs). Pete Knight, who was mayor in Palmdale, called me and said we’re going to have our own congressional district. Before that, the 25th (district) had been cut up. It was represented by five people from all over the place. We did not have an identity like we do now. I had people pushing me to run for a second (city council) term and I didn’t want to do that. I ran (for Congress in 1992), and I won the first race by 700 votes. It was close. What were the challenges when you first started as congressman? Each member of Congress has their own organization. It is much like starting a business only you don’t have to worry about revenue. There wasn’t a congressional office out here. What I did was hire a chief of staff and build an organization. It was much like setting up a business. I had done that before. I had been involved in building our business (Howard & Phil’s Western Wear) from one store to over 50. But the chain quite prominently filed for bankruptcy in 1996 while you were in office. A few years after I came to Congress my brothers got hit with a perfect storm and it wiped out the business. They had the (Northridge) earthquake that wiped out several stores, had borrowed money for expansion and a recession hit and they had to use some of that money for working capital. It was one thing after another and they had to declare personal bankruptcy. I was right on the edge myself as I signed personal guarantees. I was able to pay some of those off. The final one I was able to finish last year. How did being part of a family business influence how you interacted with the business community as a congressman? I am very comfortable with the business community because that is what I’ve done all my life. My dad was in business with his brother. They had a grocery store. I swept floors and was box boy and ended up as a meat cutter. Were there politicians that you admired and whose example you tried to follow? There are lots of people I admire. I look at George Washington and what he did to get this nation started. Then I look at Abraham Lincoln and how he was able to hold the nation together during our most critical time. So, I’d say Washington, Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Ben Franklin is very important too. So overall, how would you rate your time in Congress? My career in Congress has been very successful because we had been in the minority for 40 years. At the start of my second term we won the majority and I became a sub-committee chairman over higher education. I did that for almost 12 years and then became chairman of the full committee. When I went to Congress and could pick what I would have liked to have been I am finishing where I would like to be. I’m term limited so I couldn’t continue as chairman of the Armed Services Committee but to me that is the ultimate. To some people it’s to be speaker, and I never had a desire for that. This gave me the ability to work with the nation’s military leaders. How have you helped with the large aerospace presence in your district? I established good relationships with management, and visited with the employees. I tried to keep abreast of what they needed. I have traveled a lot around the country to different military bases and to different companies in the aerospace industry. It is important to my district but I also tell people that we don’t have a defense industry to provide jobs; we have a defense industry to provide for the nation’s defense. It is fortunate that it has a spinoff of good jobs but that’s not the number one criteria. What specific programs have you helped out on? When I first ran they were building the B-2 (Spirit stealth bomber) out in Palmdale. I watched that B-2 production line go from full production when I was elected down to nothing. The building was built specially for the B-2; all ultra-modern, it was a top-notch facility. It was built to build 130 B-2s, which was the plan. Before I went to Congress they had cut that down to 20, and I helped lead the fight and we got one more plane. We crashed that (in 2008 in Guam) so we’re back to 20. Was the B-2 important to the district? Now we’ve got companies working on prototypes to build another long range bomber. We found we need 100 long range penetrative bombers. If we had built the 130 (B-2s) as originally planned it would have been cheaper than what we will eventually end up with and had them all this time. We would not be in design to come up with another one. What’s the biggest challenge to the military? Right now, during the time I’ve been chairman of the committee, we’ve had a problem with lack of money and huge cuts in defense. We’ve cut over $1trillion the last few years in budgeting out for the next eight, 10 years. How have you tried to address that problem? I understand we have serious financial problems in the country. To this point, even though defense accounts for 16 percent, 17 percent of the overall budget, half of the savings we have derived have come out of defense. It is disproportionate. I tell people if we eliminated the discretionary budget because of the mandatory (spending) we have not been able to fix – Social Security, Medicare, Pell grants – we would still be running a deficit. We have not had the courage or ability to fix what the real problem is. Hopefully after the election they will be able to make another attempt at it. What’s the holdup there? The problem is the guy in the White House. He is very difficult to work with. Does partisanship in Congress play into that as well? It is not so much partisanship. He does not have leadership skills. Bill Clinton we were able to work with and get things done. (Republicans) had the house and the Senate, he had the White House but we were able to work with him and get things done. With Obama it has been a nightmare. I don’t know why anybody is surprised. We knew he had no basic training for the job. And that has been a weakness? LBJ was able to get a lot of things done because he had many, many years’ experience. Reagan was able to get things done. Clinton had been a governor and knew how to work with people. I was in a meeting with Obama and thought we had a deal and went back to the Hill to work out the details and never heard any more from him. A couple of days later the speaker calls and says we’ve changed our mind, we’re doing something else. That has been the speaker’s dilemma now for a few years. How would you describe Barack Obama from your dealing with him? He comes across like a law professor. He’s always lecturing instead of rolling up his sleeves and saying how do we work this out. People in business learn to do that. Our union leaders learn to do that. How does the area benefit from your colleague Kevin McCarthy being the new majority leader in the House? The majority leader is our number two guy. He’s very well thought of in Congress. The majority leader can bring home more than anyone but the speaker. So that’s helpful. There are ways he can help. We work closely on things that are important to the area. What are your plans now? I don’t have many. I’ve still got a lot I want to do. We got our (defense authorization) bill passed in May and the Senate passed theirs out of committee but never got it to the floor. If we don’t get a bill done you get to a point like in January where things come to a stop. It ends up costing a lot of money. I am pushing to get it done this year. Will you stay involved in politics after leaving office? I voted (today) and will continue to do that. If people want me to do something, I am happy to help anyway I can. I’ve told people I’m leaving Congress, I’m not leaving the fight. More than politics I’d like to be involved in the defense industry. We need to get rid of sequestration; we need to build our defense back up. I meet with leaders all over the world and they are concerned about where America is and where we’re heading. So you haven’t made any firm plans yet? I’ve had a couple people who have talked with me about some potential opportunities. Once I get the defense bill done, I will start talking with people. I need to do something. When I went to Congress I was fairly well off. Now I’m poor. (laughs) Someone did an article on members of Congress and wealth and I was fourth from the bottom. When I went to Congress I was better off financially. What are your interests or hobbies? Golf. I like basketball but I cannot do that anymore really. Did you play? I played when younger but was never very good. I was much smaller. Golf I enjoy. I’ve gotten past getting mad at myself to the extremes that I used to. I realize I am not going to play on the (pro) tour and I just do it for enjoyment. I’d like to do more fishing. Genealogy. I am the patriarch of our family and need to plan some family reunions. What are you going to miss about Washington? The biggest thing is the relationships with people. I have never developed a lot of close friends; it’s always been my family. When you go to the floor to vote there are certain people you gravitated to and you do things with. It is not a close friendship but it is those relationships I will miss. The meetings with the Armed Services people and the staff, those are the things that I will miss. The griping and the politics and some of the nastiness, I won’t miss at all. When you started as a congressman you were known for wearing cowboy boots at the Capitol. Do you still wear them? When I went to Washington I didn’t have any shoes. I only had boots and that’s all I wore. After Sept. 11 when you had to take your shoes off (at airport security) it started becoming a real problem. So I bought some shoes and have been wearing them most of the time since. And the boots? I still wear boots on occasion. I’ll never have to buy a pair of boots in my life. They last a long time. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons. Howard “Buck” McKeon Position: Representative, 25th Congressional District of California Born: Sept. 9, 1938; Los Angeles Education: Verdugo Hills High School, Tujunga; Brigham Young University, B.S., animal husbandry; Strayer University, honorary doctorate of humane letters. Career Turning Points: Working in family business; starting Valencia National Bank; running for elected office; serving as Armed Services Committee chairman Most Influential Persons: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Franklin Personal: Lives in Santa Clarita with wife Patricia McKeon; six children, 31 grandchildren and one great grandchild. Interests: Golf

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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