WASHINGTON – Ask enough people about Matt Salmon and eventually the same theme comes up: The Republican congressman from Mesa sticks to his principles, even when they are unpopular.
“The best way to sum up Matt is (he’s) a guy who will be best remembered because he’s a guy who didn’t toe the party line,” said Mike Noble, an Arizona political consultant. “He voted on principle, he has gone against party leadership, when it is based on principle and the right thing to do.”
That apparently resonated with voters in the 5th District, who re-elected Salmon with more than two-thirds of the vote in his last two elections. But Salmon announced this summer that he would not run for another term, and he will be replaced on Jan. 3 when Andy Biggs is sworn in to the 5th District seat in the 115th Congress.
It ends an on-again, off-again five-term career that began in 1994 when Bill Clinton was president and was interrupted when Salmon left Washington in 2000 to fulfill a term-limits pledge. Now, he’s leaving again, to go back to Arizona and spend more time with his wife, Nancy, their four children and seven grandchildren.
The transition away from the trappings of Congress has already begun.
Kicked out of his office in the Rayburn House Office Building earlier this month to make room for the incoming freshmen, Salmon tweeted a picture of himself in his new digs – two chairs next to a hallway vending machine.
In reality, Salmon can request access to temporary space in the House office complex. On a recent Wednesday, Salmon carried a backpack into a small, dimly lit conference room surrounded by Oriental trinkets and furniture to talk about his time in office and his hopes for his successor, who he thinks will bring the “backbone” that Congress desperately needs.
“There’s a lot of very smart people in Washington,” Salmon said. “What’s lacking here is backbone.”
A reliable conservative – Salmon gets a lifetime rating of 95.11 percent from the American Conservative Union and a score of 11 percent in the last Congress from the American Civil Liberties Union – he has had a special interest in China, where he did his mission as a young Mormon. Fluent in Mandarin, he served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and also served on the Committee on Education and the Workforce in this Congress.
When asked what he hopes his legacy will be, however, Salmon brings up that word again – principle.
“I’ve always seen myself not as higher than my constituents, but simply in a different position and a position to be their voice,” Salmon said in an interview in the Rayburn conference room.
“I’ve worked my heart out to not only hear what they say, but to go out and fight for what they say and I believe that I’ve done that,” he said. “I really hope that my legacy is that I truly fought for the people who I was elected to serve.”
But service for Salmon meant sometimes stepping on toes.
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“In the ’90s, he was one of the few who stood up to leadership at a critical time and demanded that they make good on the promises to balance the budget, to move forward with limited government,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who was elected to the House to fill the seat Salmon left in 2000.
“Matt was one that stood up when (then-House Speaker) Newt Gingrich was wobbling and that took a lot of guts and he did it,” Flake said.
That continued in his latest stint in Congress, when he joined other Republicans who bucked Speaker John Boehner in 2013 to vote against a continuing resolution that would have increased the government budget – also briefly shutting down the federal government in the process.
“I didn’t come to just be a congressman again,” Salmon said, according to published reports at the time. “I came to make change.”
Salmon spent 12 years away from Washington, narrowly losing a race for governor in 2002 to Democrat Janet Napolitano before successfully running for Congress again in 2012.
Biggs called Salmon a “mentor” who has been “giving me all kinds of advice, from where to eat to how to get policy through and work with people.” He said Salmon has “made some tremendous sacrifices” to represent his district in Congress.
“He’s done all that and he’s done it with a very dignified manner. You won’t find anyone who has a bad thing to say about Matt Salmon,” Biggs said. “He’s been very congenial and collegial and professional, while still getting some good things done for the nation.”
And constituents approved, said political consultant Jason Rose.
“Matt was very principled, he was a passionate conservative and stayed true to that throughout career,” Rose said. “The fat lady would’ve been singing if he announced his re-election, there would’ve been no competition for the seat. He could have stayed in his seat for rest of his career.”
But Adam DeGuire, Salmon’s former chief-of-staff, said there was another side to Salmon than the one who occasionally crossed party leaders or hammered agency officials with tough questions in hearings. Salmon could go from doing that one minute to joking around with his staff the next, even “in the most stressful times.”
“One thing I always loved about Matt was that he made work fun,” DeGuire said. “He loves jokes, he loves making people laugh. Anyone who has worked for him has a unique story, from what he wears to what he says, because he’s not afraid to speak out.”
While Salmon is leaving Washington, he’s not leaving Washington behind. Once back in Arizona, he will draw on his congressional history to become Arizona State University’s new vice president for governmental affairs, starting in January.
Flake said he understands Salmon’s desire to get back home, but the move comes with the cost of losing what he called one of the few principled conservatives left in Congress.
“His family is lucky to have him,” Flake said. “He’ll get to spend more time in Arizona, that’s what he wants right now. Obviously, we hate to see him leave Washington, but I’m sure his family is anxious to see him home more.”
Salmon has left Washington and come back before, but DeGuire thinks a third return would be a long shot.
“I know him enough to never say never, but I truly think he got worn out by travel,” DeGuire said. “It’s the first time having all the grandkids in Arizona, he loves being a granddad. Maybe if something down the road opens up, but it would definitely be Arizona-based.”
When Salmon looks back on his time in office, he said he hopes his legacy is simple, but strong: He always stood up for the people of his district.
“I think that’s something that will be said of me, that I stood on principle and I fought for what I believed, that I didn’t back down, that I knew that what I was fighting for was something my constituents believed in and I believed in,” he said.