Ricky-boy's rebirth 


'It's loud as hell," Ric Keller says of the heater in his Washington, D.C., apartment. The place has one bedroom, no central air, no dishwasher and just a radiator to keep him warm during the capital's frigid winters.

"Do I want the noise, or do I want to freeze?" he laughs, sitting in his Orlando office and effortlessly signing papers as he talks. "It's a game-day decision." His $852 a month apartment may be no-frills, but it is a prime piece of real estate, just behind the Supreme Court building and within walking distance of the Capitol. And, he found out just after he moved in, it's rent-controlled.

The irony of that -- a laissez-faire conservative benefiting from government interference in the free market -- isn't lost on him. "It turned me around on that issue," Keller says with an ear-to-ear grin.

As a politician, Keller has matured in the two years since he entered the crowded, eventually brutal GOP primary as a little-known attorney with no backers in his own party's leadership. He surprised the pundits once by beating former state legislator Bill Sublette, then shocked them again by knocking out former Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin.

They were both moderates with better name recognition and stronger stump speeches; he was a brash conservative with tons of special-interest dollars. To say he ran a negative campaign is an understatement. Local GOP officials were almost embarrassed by him.

Like many a first-term congressman, Keller's seat is more important to his party than he is. But Keller has turned around many of his doubters. "I was not a supporter of his in the past," local Republican executive committee chairman Lew Oliver says. "I am now, damn sure. Of course, I'd support any incumbent Republican, but I wouldn't be as enthusiastic. Ric Keller has pleasantly surprised me."

Though not particularly well spoken or photogenic, Keller has mastered the subtle art of the sound bite, mouthing those cheesy, dry comments that the local and national media absorb. He also has perfected his congressman-next-door image. Keller goes to lengths to separate himself from his wealthier counterparts. Though his campaign literature highlighted the words "conservative Republican" on nearly every page, he speaks admirably of Bill Clinton's charm and Hillary Rodham Clinton's sense of humor -- and even does a dead-on impression of the former president his party loves to hate.

Although Keller says, "I'm in a tough district," he has every reason to be comfortable: Seven months before the election, he has a war chest approaching $1 million and a new, mostly white and conservative district carved by Florida's Republican-dominated legislature. The district stretches from Orlando northwest into conservative areas of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, where voters are more likely to approve of his agenda. Keller had even hired a lobbyist to make sure the district drawn for him in Tallahassee was to his liking.

For the most part, Keller has continued to dance with the groups that brought him, collecting donations from across the conservative spectrum, including the National Rifle Association, business groups and anti-abortion leaders. He staunchly has opposed campaign-finance reform: His first run, after all, was heavily financed by the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, a group dedicated to making the GOP even more conservative.

But even as Keller publicly returned money donated to him by Enron, he has not returned $6,500 given him by the political-action committee for the federally indicted Arthur Andersen accounting firm. (According to a Keller spokesperson, the Andersen donations came from friends of Ric who just happened to work there.)

To boost his public image, Keller has spent nearly every weekend in Orlando attending camera-ready events; he also has received a good deal of face time with President Bush and the House leadership. The prez even has a nickname for him, he boasts: "Ricky-boy."

Though he'll face a tough opponent in Eddie Diaz, a former Orlando cop who was shot and nearly killed in the line of duty, Keller's office sees him as nearly invincible. And he may be.

Nonetheless, the congressman has struggled to distinguish himself in a crowd of lowly freshman seeking national attention. His relentless campaigning, which includes taxpayer-paid mail-outs touting his votes on education and Medicare-funding increases, has some detractors wondering whether he has done anything at all to warrant reelection -- other than self-promotion.

"He's chasing legislation, not pushing legislation," says local labor leader Debra Booth. "`We` want somebody to bring home something to the state -- economic development, a higher standard of living, a better education system. We just have not seen it."

Keller, of course, paints another picture. Most freshman try to change the world and do nothing, he says. That

wasn't for him: "I made the decision that I would try to make order out of chaos and focus on two or three things."

His first day in Congress, he filed a bill to increase Pell grants -- money given to poor college students -- from $3,750 to $4,000 a year. (Of course, Keller himself had used a Pell grant to get through college.) Eventually, it was folded into Bush's education package, which Keller cheer-led on the House Education and the Workforce committee. When Bush signed it into law, Keller was behind him. One of the many pens Bush used to sign the legislation hangs in Keller's Washington office.

It was Keller's proudest moment, yet the education measure caught flack from both sides. Liberals blasted its nationalized testing standards while conservatives lamented its failure to include vouchers.

And Keller hasn't exactly endeared himself to teachers. Of the six votes the National Education Association tallied for its congressional scorecard, Keller voted against the NEA four times. He voted twice for vouchers. He supported block grants without any requirements that school districts fund better technology, safer schools or improved teacher quality. And he voted to allow religious groups access to federal education dollars. But Keller did support increases in funding for special education and teacher quality.

Keller doesn't often stray from the GOP line, especially on social issues. He voted to prohibit Washington, D.C., from extending benefits to "domestic partners" and has yet to sign a pledge offered by the Human Rights Campaign not to discriminate against gay people in his office hiring. Keller also refused to cosponsor a bill that would expand protection against hate crimes. And, he helped reinstate the "Mexico City policy," which bars the U.S. from giving money to overseas groups that perform or promote abortions.

Though he supported increasing Pell grants, he also stumped on national TV for a Bush policy to deny them to students with even minor drug convictions. The Bush policy expanded an existing one: Before, students didn't have to answer a question on the grant application that asked about past drug convictions. Now, a no-answer equals a "yes."

"We expect you to crack the books, not sell crack cocaine on the street corner," Keller told Fox News.

None of that falls far from the Ronald Reagan mold that Keller touted during his campaign. Predictably, groups such as the AFL-CIO deride him for being too friendly to big business, while the National Taxpayers' Union praises his support for tax cuts. He has stayed in the center of his party, joining neither the ultraconservative Republican Study Committee nor the moderate Republican Leadership Council.

Keller does highlight the times he has broken away, however. He points to the Pell grants and his vote against drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. His independent streak "sometimes puts me at odds with the more conservative members (of the party)," he says. But it

doesn't happen that often. Every Florida representative except John Mica, including 14 Republicans and eight Democrats, voted against drilling in the Gulf.

It was a classic not-in-my-backyard battle, pitting Gov. Jeb Bush against his president-brother. Florida is defined by its beaches, and locals didn't want tourists deterred by offshore rigs or the potential for an environmental calamity. Drilling elsewhere was OK, however, as Keller and nearly every other Florida Republican voted to drill for oil in the Alaska wilderness, in parklands surrounding federal monuments and in the Great Lakes.

Besides Mica, Keller has the state delegation's worst environmental voting record, according to the League of Conservation Voters. The LCV's scorecard notes that he voted to weaken arsenic-in-water standards and against more regulation of the hardrock mining industry, which produces nearly half of the country's toxic pollution.

He also supports completing the controversial Western Beltway, an on-again, off-again road designed to complete a loop around I-4 -- and run right through the environmentally sensitive Wekiva River Protection Area. Keller had made the road a plank in his campaign, and he delivered by securing money for a study of the road's best route. The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority is currently conducting the study.

Keller's position on the environment is "out of step with a large majority of Floridians," notes LCV spokesman Jay Liles.

But Keller doesn't think he's such a bad guy on ecological concerns. "I've always tried to strike a balance `between business and the environment`. The folks at the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, they don't want a reasonably moderate guy." The scorecard didn't include his push for more Everglades funding and against sugar subsidies, he points out.

But as for being a tree-hugger: "I don't pretend to be that guy."

On Nov. 2, with the local economy reeling in the wake of the terrorist attacks and thousands of service-industry workers finding themselves laid off, a group of labor activists gathered outside of Keller's office to lobby for an extension of unemployment benefits. They didn't get what they wanted.

"We asked to work with him," says labor leader Booth. "I never heard back. It's a shame because he does not want to reach out to us at all. He's there for business, that's the fact of the matter."

It's an established trend: As an attorney, Keller defended corporations in product-liability claims. Business political-action committees gave Keller $370,894 last election and have given him $276,390 so far this cycle. He has paid them back by consistently voting against any business regulation. Recently, that included a vote against the Shays-Meehan campaign-finance reform bill, which bans soft-money donations to national political parties. Keller supports another Republican-sponsored bill that emphasizes "paycheck protection," a favorite GOP euphemism for gutting union fund raising.

"He's a hood ornament for the Club for Growth," Democratic leader Doug Head asserts. It's not a bad analogy. The Washington, D.C.-based group kept Keller alive during the 2000 election with $600,000 in hard and soft money, much of which went to vicious attack ads against Sublette and Chapin. Keller was the club's top priority two years ago, and it claimed responsibility for his win.

Oddly, the Club for Growth's president, Stephen Moore, agrees with Head's description. "Every time Ric has been on TV, it's a big boost to the Club for Growth's prestige. It fires up our members."

And would-be Republican politicians, too. "In Florida, everyone who's running for office is seeking our support," Moore brags. "They see us as kingmakers."

Keller hasn't disappointed his club. His ardent support of Bush's tax cuts and his votes against a congressional pay raise and campaign-finance reform have won him laurels. So too has his push to remove Clinton-era ergonomics restrictions, which made businesses responsible for preventing repetitive-stress injuries in the workplace. Republicans said the restrictions were too expensive, and Keller took the lead, declaring that it's "time to give businesses a break."

Then there's the telling quote: "I'd like to make OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) another small town in Wisconsin." Congressional leaders invited him to speak on the issue on the House floor and in a Capitol news conference -- not bad for a guy then two months into his first term. (Keller's view won on a party-line vote.)

His "No Frills Prison Act," a follow-through on a campaign pledge to stop coddling criminals, strips federal prisons of cable TV. It passed as part of a spending bill -- which means it has to be approved annually -- over the objections of prison operators who complained that cable was a vital tool in managing inmates.

Of the 10 bills Keller has sponsored, four have been folded into spending bills and passed. Another became part of the USA Patriot Act, Congress' reaction to the September terrorist attacks. That bill -- which Keller alone christened as "the Keller Amendment" (in an op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel) -- gives airlines access to lists of suspected terrorists. He describes it as a no-brainer that he was amazed to find didn't exist.

Keller's plan to force plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits to disclose their fees has been added to the Class Action Fairness Act, which recently cleared the House and is now in a Senate committee. Essentially, the bill makes it tougher for groups of consumers to win joint suits against big corporations.

After the September attacks, Keller killed three of his proposals aimed at restricting immigration, saying it was better to defer to Bush on immigration issues. Another recent proposal -- to increase mentoring by granting tax breaks to businesses that allow employees one paid hour a week to volunteer -- hasn't cleared its committee.

The 121 bills Keller has cosponsored run the gamut from recognitions of Reagan's 90th and 91st birthdays and a resolution encouraging flag-flying to tax cuts and banning spam from the Internet.

According to his office, Keller has brought home $25 million in big-ticket pork. About $7 million of that went to STRICOM Simulation and Modeling, an arm of the Army -- stationed within the University of Central Florida's Research Park -- that studies disaster preparedness. Four million more dollars will help complete the new federal courthouse, and $800,000 will go to the Orange County Public Schools' Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.

Keller also secured $2.4 million for the long-awaited Lynx Regional Intermodal Center -- which eventually may serve as a hub for both buses and rail lines -- and $3 million to give the Orlando International Airport a new landing system.

"I don't see myself as a big pork guy," Keller says -- though he does argue that Florida sends many more gas tax dollars to Washington than it ever gets back. Should he win a second term, he promises that bringing more transportation dollars home will be his top priority.

Last April, NBC's "The Tonight Show" sent a "roving reporter" to Keller's office for his take on the U.S. airmen then being held by China. "You came to the right place," he said. "I have a plan. We simply negotiate. If the Chinese give us back the plane, they get Hillary Clinton."

Though NBC never aired the clip, the story was carried by the Sentinel and other Florida dailies. For his part, Keller thinks the senator would have blown off the remark. Since then, though, he has mostly avoided the kind of controversial statements that might further incite the Democrats who have him in their sights.

He's also actively pursuing two of their key groups: Hispanics and Jews. Most members of both groups voted against him last time. To appease Jewish constituents, he has backed sending $3 billion in military aid to Israel.

His focus on Hispanics is more pragmatic. First, they represent a fast-growing segment of Central Florida's population. Second, and perhaps even more important in his mind, his opponent's last name is Diaz. Keller's proposed mentoring law might give poorer schools in Hispanic neighborhoods more resources, he says. He recently had breakfast with Hispanic leaders and obtained one conservative group's endorsement.

In fact, Keller says he thinks he'll win the Hispanic vote in November.

He doesn't have to. Keller's newly delineated District Eight is 70 percent white -- and only 17 percent Hispanic.

"I love it," Keller says of the redistricting. He should. Nearly 53 percent of his new electorate voted for President Bush. Sixty-two percent voted for Gov. Jeb Bush.

Still, the national party sees the district as "ground zero," in Keller chief of staff Jason Miller's words. It's a swing district in the swing state.

By placing him on the intellectual property rights subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Republicans ensured that their man would be funded to the gills. That subcommittee reviews laws related to the entertainment industry, meaning all the big movie studios have business before it.

Not surprisingly, Keller's biggest campaign contributor this election cycle has been Disney, which has given him more than $11,000. An additional $6,500 has come from other entertainment groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Last campaign, 41 percent of Keller's $635,004 in PAC money came from ideological groups such as the Conservative Victory Fund, the National Rifle Association and Florida Right to Life. This time, gifts from those groups make up only 22 percent of the total -- perhaps an indication that they don't think Keller's seat is in danger.

If they're right, expect Keller to begin ascending his party's ranks. "Should `Keller` win this year comfortably," says one Congressional reporter, "you might see him step out and do his own things." Until now, the reporter says, Keller has been more a pragmatist than a rabble-rouser.

Another freshman, Jeff Flake of Arizona, has done the opposite. He ran on a similar platform of fiscal restraint.

"`Flake has` railed against spending. He's gonna go all out and get out," the source says, referring to Flake's commitment (like Keller) to leave after eight years. "That's something Flake can do because of his district. Keller has to be a bit more careful. If `he` did enough things to piss off `House leaders`, beating him would not be an impossibility."

Instead, the GOP's Oliver says, "He's done the things the leadership asked him to do. Ã? It's very clear to me that Ric Keller is going to be a leader in Congress. He's actually being groomed for that."

Keller says he's not interested in any leadership role; he just wants to be reelected.

But Diaz is far from ceding the election, saying his odds are no worse than Keller's were in 2000. His main advantage, it seems, is that he's something of a folk hero: A Gulf War veteran and ex-cop who battled City Hall over disability-access while recovering from seven gun-shot wounds makes a much tougher target for attack ads then Chapin was.

"We're gonna debate the issues," Keller spokesman Bryan Malenius insists. "Ric has a strong record of supporting President Bush in the war on terror, and Ric is the only Floridian on the House Education Committee, which oversaw the biggest increase in education spending in history. What about that does Eddie Diaz disagree with?"

Not much. Like Keller, Diaz promises increased education funding and support for the war. Their platforms aren't starkly different: Diaz -- a former Republican who recently switched his party affiliation -- just thinks he can do it better.

Keller's schedule is hectic, to say the least. His staff shuttles him around on a to-the-minute schedule, and on a recent Monday he's in his Orlando office for exactly 40 minutes. Later that night, he'll hop a flight back to Washington and spend the next three days at the Capitol. Wednesday he'll ring the bell to open NASDAQ trading, and then on Thursday he'll be back on a flight to Orlando.

Still, he enjoys it, and can't believe how far he has come. As he himself says, if you had predicted two years ago that Trent Dilfer would lead his team to the Super Bowl and Ric Keller would be flying on the president's plane, people would have thought you were nuts.

That reality struck him during his first flight on Air Force One, which Keller describes as a highlight of his first year in Congress. "I was sitting in the office `on the plane` with Mel `Martinez`, and I thought, what a surreal experience."

How about this? "Congressman Keller" is a name that Central Florida just may be hearing for a long, long time.

That's surreal.


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