When MSNBC launched a series a few years ago about obscure politicians who propel themselves into headline-grabbing controversies, the producers did not struggle to find their first subject. They picked U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.
Over the years, Gohmert has compared homosexuality to bestiality, endorsed a column likening Barack Obama’s presidency to Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship and warned anyone who will listen that evil-doers are making “terror babies” who — like human time bombs — will be trained abroad only to return some day to wreak havoc in America.
He has been called both a “deather” and a “birther” — the former a reference to his view that, under Democrat-inspired health care policies, frail senior citizens would be sentenced to death; the latter stemming from his role as a co-sponsor of a bill that critics of Obama used to question his U.S. citizenship.
Gohmert’s stances make him a favorite target of liberal commentators, comics and cable TV shows. But in his district, he is seen as a devoted advocate for his constituents’ values.
“In Tyler, Texas, he fits right in,” said Jim Arnold, 81, a Gohmert friend and supporter who is retired from the oil and gas business. “I don’t look at him at him as being controversial. I look at some of these other people as being brain-dead. I wish we had more people like Louie.”
Gohmert and his district office staff declined to comment for this article.
Gohmert has a knack for provoking public outrage.
Recently, he stirred up a fuss after blaming the Aurora, Colo., shootings in part on attempts to remove religion from the public square, and he theorized that the rampage could have been avoided if more people were carrying guns inside movie theaters. The next day Gohmert issued an apology for his comments, saying he was sorry “if my comments caused heartache to anyone in Colorado.”
Gohmert was not so contrite after he and four other members of Congress were publicly rebuked for co-signing a letter that questioned whether Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was part of an evil conspiracy by Muslim extremists.
The letter, written in June, warned that the Muslim Brotherhood was attempting to infiltrate the highest levels of American government and called for a federal inquiry.
Democrats said the attacks smacked of modern-day McCarthyism. Sen. John McCain reprimanded the letter-writers on the Senate floor, calling the accusations baseless and “sinister.”
Gohmert was unbowed. Responding directly to McCain’s criticism on the Dennis Miller Show radio program, Gohmert suggested McCain had gone soft on the Muslim Brotherhood. And he called McCain and others who questioned his motives a bunch of “numbnuts.”
Gohmert, who is seeking a fifth term, has never faced a close general election in his heavily Republican district that encompasses 12 mostly rural counties in the piney woods of northeast Texas.
In the previous two elections, Democrats did not even field a candidate against Gohmert. In 2004 and 2006, he won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
This year, Gohmert has drawn a Democratic opponent — Shirley McKellar, an Iraqi war veteran, who acknowledges she has an uphill battle. McKellar said national Democrats called Gohmert an “embarrassment” and encouraged her to run against him, but they have not done much to support her.
“A lot of people think and feel the way he feels,” McKellar said of residents in the district. “That’s why they love him.”
Despite Gohmert’s popularity in his district, he is not immune from criticism there.
“He makes Todd Akin look rational,” said Otis Carroll, a Tyler lawyer, referring to the Missouri congressman and U.S. Senate candidate, who sparked an uproar by suggesting that victims of “legitimate rape” have a natural response that prevents pregnancy.
Gohmert is an East Texas native who grew up in Mount Pleasant, graduated from Texas A&M University and Baylor Law School. His constitutional law professor, David Guinn, said Gohmert often tied his legal views to early American history and remembered the Congressman as one of his most conservative students.
“He was about 32 degrees to the right of Attila the Hun, and he hasn’t changed much,” Guinn said. “He took a very narrow construction of the Constitution, we’ll say it that way. He was not in favor of big government.”
A former captain in the U.S. Army, Gohmert was elected state district judge in Smith County in 1992. His first brush with national notoriety came in 1996, after imposing an unusual probation requirement on an auto thief. He ordered that the man, who was HIV positive, seek written consent — on a form the judge provided — from any future sexual partners.
Gohmert said he was trying to protect the community from a perpetrator whose own family said he was having unprotected sex for money with unknowing partners. The ruling drew jeers from leaders in the gay community and civil libertarians, but it was the first of many controversies that have endeared him to conservatives back home.
Marcia Daughtrey, the former chairwoman of the Smith County Republican Party, said East Texas Republicans see Gohmert as their advocate in the nation’s capital, someone who does not mind calling it the way he sees it. She highlighted in particular his stand against Muslim extremists who might again attempt to attack the United States.
“Why am I going through security at the airport, a blond-haired old lady, and I’m getting X-rayed, the whole nine yards, and yet they’re not allowed to profile a person with a turban and a black beard?” Daughtrey said. “I appreciate someone speaking up on our behalf, and Louie Gohmert is just the person to do it.”
While Gohmert maintains a ubiquitous presence on conservative radio programs and national cable news shows, and he does not have a prolific bill-passing record. A routine review of his record in Congress did not identify any standalone bills sponsored by Gohmert that have became law.
He came close in 2006 with a bill designed to enhance security for the federal judiciary and allow judges to keep secret certain information required on financial disclosure forms, but it died after getting amended in the Senate.
Another Gohmert initiative, calling for the study of the feasibility of a memorial commemorating the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, was incorporated into a separate Senate bill passed with the help of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Gohmert did have one clear legislative triumph in 2010: Passage of a resolution “congratulating the United States Men’s National Soccer Team for its inspiring performance in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.” Records show that after 40 minutes of debate, it passed unanimously by voice vote.
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