Steve Austria spent his last few days in Congress scrambling to avoid the fiscal cliff, yet despite that painful duty, his biggest regret about his years in Congress is leaving too soon.
Austria made history in 2008 when he became the first son of a Filipino immigrant elected to the U.S. Houseof Representatives. It was a proud moment when Austria felt his father and political inspiration, the late Dr. Clement Austria, “smiling down on me from heaven.”
Austria never lost an election in 14 years, making his departure even more bittersweet, but he doesn’t regret not contesting Rep. Mike Turner in the Republican primary after parts of their districts were combined due to redistricting. He admits that he was shocked that Ohio’s current 7th Congressional District was eliminated in the process of Ohio losing two seats in Congress. Austria, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said it seemed “like an ill-advised plan to eliminate a district that included Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Springfield Air National Guard Base.”
He added, “I will miss Congress, but I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and moving on to the next phase of our lives. I haven’t ruled out a run for public office if the opportunity arises.”
Eileen Austria, his wife of 26 years, said that her husband “is leaving on his own terms with his head held high. He’s a good man and I know it will all work out in the end.”
She said it’s a shame he’s leaving office so soon because “I know he’s in it for the right reasons, and I see how people respond to him.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., will now represent the Clark County portion of Austria’s district, with most analysts concurring that he’ll spend less time in the district but bring the clout of the office.
“The loss of a seat on the Appropriations Committee is a blow, but on the other hand we are now represented by the Speaker of the House,” observed Michael Gessel, vice president of federal government programs for the Dayton Development Coalition. “We are gaining and losing in the next Congress.”
The Greene County portion of Austria’s current district will now be represented by Turner.
Austria says fighting for local bases highlight of his career
Austria said that his highlights in Congress include fighting for veterans’ rights and sponsoring a bill which included six new unmanned aerial vehicle programs — better known as drones — that will ensure the security of local bases. “Those are high-paying jobs within the Miami Valley, hundreds or even thousands of new jobs,” he said. Austria said that he’s sure the Ohio delegation in Congress, including Boehner, will continue to fight for the interests of the local bases.
Austria was widely regarded as personable and accessible to his constituents. “He was very well-liked, and very down-to-earth,” Gessel said. “He was steeped in Dayton and Springfield culture, a friendly, Midwestern culture, and going to Washington didn’t change him. His decision to step down and move to another area of public life is one that saved the region a great deal of political turmoil. There would have been no winners.”
Supporters described him as a principled politician who remained true to conservative values. Critics said he was too beholden to the right wing of the Republican Party. “He is totally a lackey to the extremists of his party,” said Doris Adams, chairwoman of the Greene County Democratic Party. “I have many Republican friends who volunteered for President Obama’s campaign, saying they didn’t leave the party; the party left them.”
In an interview Thursday, a few days before heading back to Washington for fiscal cliff negotiations, Austria said
he does not favor any new gun laws in the aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. “I am a strong believer in the Second Amendment,” he said. “We need to look at what occurred in Connecticut and identify what the problem really is, instead of a knee-jerk reaction banning guns. It’s an unimaginable tragedy, we have to look at the cause of the problem, and invest more dollars in addressing mental health problems.”
Adams said she’s upset by what she perceives as Austria’s unwillingness to compromise on taxes and other issues. “It’s offensive,” she said. “The only way they meet in the middle is if they get everything they want.”
Politics ran in the family
Austria’s political career began when he was elected to his physician father’s seat on the Greene County Central Committee of the Republican Party. Although Austria ran unopposed, his father insisted that he walk from door to door campaigning and meeting his future constituents. Austria, the oldest of nine children, suspected it was pointless, “but my father was absolutely right,” he said today.” I never lost an election, and I credit that to my father’s advice and all the time I spent in the district, listening to constituents.”
Austria met his wife, the former Eileen Crotty, when both were putting up campaign signs for Dave Hobson’s campaign for the Ohio Senate in the 1980s. Hobson went on to become Austria’s predecessor as 7th District congressman. Eileen went on to serve as Hobson’s district director for 17 years. The Austrias have three children — Brian, a recent University of Dayton graduate; Kevin, a junior at UD; and Eric, a junior at Carroll High School.
In 1998, Austria was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. He sponsored and passed into law the “Internet Child Protection Act” designed to protect children under the age of 14 from being stalked on the Internet by predators. In 2000, Austria was elected to the Ohio Senate, where he sponsored the first concealed carry law in Ohio.
Their shared political passions ensured that Austria would have a partner even if “you had to be there at 4 a.m. to get the parade float running,” Eileen said. Even as a political veteran, Eileen was surprised by the demands of congressional life. “It was 24/7,” she said. “Until it affects you and your family and your kids’ soccer games, you don’t realize how all-consuming it is. Our boys are great, and they roll with the flow.”
Austria recalled, “I have been successful because I have been blessed with a supportive family and close friends.” His children, he said, literally grew up campaigning: “When I started my career, my youngest was 2 years old and the middle child could hardly walk. My family has made tremendous sacrifices for me so that I could be a better Congressman.”
Eileen said she doubted whether her husband will return to his former career as a financial planner. “We haven’t been able to get off the treadmill to decide what we’re going to do next,” she said. “We’re going to take some time and think about how he can best participate in public life. We’re excited because this is a new chapter. I am always an optimist, believing that when the door closes, another opens.” Still, she admitted, “The last month has been the hardest, when he went from having an office to a cubicle with all the other departing members.”
Hobson praised Austria for handling the redistricting issue with great dignity: “He kept that office running and maintained all his efforts to do constituent service.” He added that, with the new UAV missions, Austria left the local bases well-positioned for the future.
Hobson said that the Ohio legislature’s decision to eliminate the current 7th District had everything to do with internal politics and nothing to do with the regard in which Austria was held. “It wasn’t personal,” he said. “Steve just hit it at a bad time for redistricting. I think he was a gentleman about it.”
Hobson said he is saddened by the loss of the 7th District which he represented for 18 years. “It’s sad to see Springfield no longer as the center of the district,” he said.
Despite the difficult circumstances of his departure, Austria hopes that his father would be proud of him and the role that he played in Asian-American history. “I gave it my all,” he said.