WASHINGTON — As U.S. House Republicans were involved in one of their most notable faceoffs of the summer, something felt amiss to U.S. Rep. Pete Olson.
During the July House committee hearing, Attorney General Loretta Lynch faced the wrath of Republicans over the Justice Department’s decision to not prosecute Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton amid her email scandal.
Olson, R-Sugar Land, noticed that one key Republican voice was missing: fellow Texan Ted Poe.
“Attorney General Lynch has come before this committee and the whole scandal with Mrs. Clinton not being indicted,” Olson said of his thinking at the time. “This is his bread and butter. He was a judge. You’d think he’d be here. If he’s not here, something bad’s happened."
Olson’s instincts were right. A day later, Poe, R-Humble, announced he was fighting leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
“When I found out he had cancer, that hit me in my heart,” Olson said.
When Poe announced his diagnosis, he said had every intention of defeating cancer and continuing to serve in Congress. And after a summer of treatment, Poe is back in Washington for the September round of legislating.
“I feel real good," Poe said on Wednesday, in his most extensive interview since his diagnosis. "I do. The treatments are going well. Everything is right where it’s supposed to be.”
While his hair is thinner from chemotherapy these days, his spirits are high. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, he sported the tie color of leukemia awareness — orange — and talked about his battle and the support system he has enjoyed over the last couple of months.
After Poe was diagnosed with leukemia, his Washington physicians promptly directed him to return to Texas and the world’s most renowned cancer treatment center.
“The doctors, of course, said, ‘You need to go back to the best place in the world,'" he recounted. "It’s Houston, Texas, MD Anderson."
Oncologists treated him with inpatient chemotherapy intravenously, and he’s currently taking the treatment in the form of a pill.
“I take a chemo pill everyday,” he said. “I will forever.”
But Poe’s focus is not just on his own personal battle. He talks about how that it’s possible to find a cure for cancer, and that access to centers like MD Anderson is key.
"I do think we can do it,” he said “[MD Anderson is] determined to cure cancer. What members of Congress can do is be supportive, especially [with] research. It’s all about research.”
“Your attitude is as important as the treatment,” he added, quoting his oncologists.
Eventually, Poe said, he will take aim at the disease legislatively.
“I will get to that when I figure out what the right angle is,” he said.
Not every member of Congress opts to fight cancer so publicly. Many choose to tell the world only after he or she is in remission, like Poe’s Houston colleague, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a breast cancer survivor.
But Poe did go public, and the man from Humble said the reaction from colleagues was, well, humbling.
“I mean really. I was overwhelmed. Shocked," he said. "And humbled by it all because so many people reached out.”
It was a bipartisan onslaught of support. Gov. Greg Abbott, former President George W. Bush, U.S House Speaker Paul Ryan, GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, Olson, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., all reached out, among many other officials.
Jackson Lee put in her call early one morning.
“She was just hilarious on the phone, and we had a good time,” Poe said.
The pair shares more than just battling cancer: Jackson Lee is an MD Anderson alumna.
“I just wanted to hear his voice, make sure he knows he has many friends,” she said of her call. "If you’ve experienced chemo, it’s a certain brotherhood and sisterhood, and you need to know you’re going to get through it.”
Asked about how the toxic partisan divide of Washington is set aside when cancer comes into play, Jackson Lee responded: “We are human. ... As a family from Texas, meaning the members of Congress, I would hope that we could count on each other if we needed each other in times like these."
Olson spent much of his summer taking photos of landmarks in Poe’s Houston-area district, and in Europe with supportive signs and an orange “#TeamPoe” wristband.
In an interview Wednesday off the House chamber floor, Olson brandished his bracelet and an orange leukemia pin he wore just below his member pin.
Poe's staff created the hashtag and the wristbands. Soon, members of Congress, state politicians, Texas Capitol Hill staffers and constituents of the Texas 2nd Congressional District posted photos on social media with the wristbands.
As for Poe, even amid chemotherapy, he's mostly back to business.
Recently, he presided over the House from the speaker’s chair, and he’s back to delivering early morning speeches on the House floor and declaring, “That’s just the way it is.”
And cancer is not keeping him away from his favorite issue: victims’ rights.
During his career as a judge, Poe doled out what was known as “Poetic Justice,” unorthodox punishments intended to shame predators.
Just before Congress returned to Washington, Poe was his old self. He took to Twitter to savage Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who served three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
“Martha Stewart served 5 mo.for lying to Fed investigators about a stock sale. Brock Turner served 3 #StanfordRapist,” Poe wrote, among many other tweets.
Asked about the tweets, he laughed.
“We’re not done with him yet, and that judge, too.”
Disclosure: M.D. Anderson has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
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