San Diego Union Tribune

June 14, 2006

Bilbray completes return to Congress

Newest congressman vows focus on illegal immigration


WASHINGTON – The handbook for the 109th Congress still has a picture of Randy “Duke” Cunningham in the section that describes San Diego's 50th Congressional District.

DENNIS COOK / Associated Press
Brian Bilbray spoke with a reporter in his Capitol Hill office yesterday, just before being sworn in as the 50th District representative in Congress.

As early as Monday, the phone message at the 50th District office across from the U.S. Capitol still intoned ominously that “the office is going to be closed until after the special election on Tuesday, June 6.”

Brian Bilbray has a few details to iron out as he sets up shop in the office that belonged to Cunningham until he resigned amid a bribery scandal and was later sentenced to prison. Elected last week to fill Cunningham's unexpired term, the congressman-turned-lobbyist yesterday became a congressman once again after being sworn into office on the House floor.

The Carlsbad Republican quickly made it known what his chief priority will be during the 6½ months left in Cunningham's term.

Bilbray told his House colleagues, in a reference to Cunningham that he expressed shortly after last week's election, “The greatest scandal in American history is not that one man broke the law, but that 12 million illegal immigrants are in this country and Washington's not doing enough about it.”

As Bilbray stood on the House floor before the swearing-in ceremony, he was the nucleus of a tight circle of congressmen and congresswomen in dark suits, many of them old friends who greeted Bilbray with warm handshakes and hugs. Above the House floor in a balcony sat Bilbray's wife, Karen; his younger brother, Barry; and the two youngest of his five children – son Patrick, 21, and daughter Briana, 19.

Asked how it felt to be back in Washington, Patrick answered quickly, “It feels like we never left.”

In fact, Bilbray never did leave. First elected to the 49th Congressional District in 1994, he lost re-election in 2000 to a Democrat, now-Rep. Susan Davis. But he almost immediately became a lobbyist, representing tribal issues, a border sewage treatment project and anti-illegal-immigration clients. He commuted between his San Diego home and D.C., working out of a Virginia home that he bought while in Congress.

Yesterday, after he swore he would uphold the U.S. Constitution, after House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said “congratulations,” and after applause burst out around him, the 55-year-old Bilbray gave a quick, firm nod of his head, as if to say, “It's done.”

“He's definitely not burned out,” brother Barry said. “He's ready to go.”

Bilbray's first day back in office was filled with greetings, meetings, getting a new congressional identification card and insider discussions on his committee assignments. He served on the House Commerce Committee six years ago, but the opening now available to him may be the House Armed Services Committee – where fellow San Diegan Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, is chairman.

Has he assembled his staff yet?

“It's me,” quipped Steve Danon, the Bilbray campaign spokesman who accompanied the new congressman back to Washington, but who said there have been no official hires.

As Bilbray talked with a reporter in his undecorated office in a far corner on the third floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, his former press secretary played on the carpet with her toddler twins, two former district affairs directors took phone calls, and daughter Briana debated whether to put Bilbray's surfboard on the north wall of the office or the south.

Son Patrick had his own plans. “Pop, where's the car?” he asked.

Cunningham's conviction on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy stemming from $2.4 million in bribes he took from defense contractors launched a special election that attracted a large field of contestants and focused on ethical lapses in the GOP-controlled Congress and on the anti-illegal-immigration sentiment that Bilbray believes propelled him to victory.

Bilbray beat 13 other Republicans in an April 11 special election, and last week took 49 percent of the vote in a runoff against Democrat Francine Busby, a Cardiff school board member. Come November, Bilbray will face Busby again, as both also won their respective primaries last week to determine who will serve the full, two-year congressional term that begins in January.

The former city councilman, mayor and county supervisor used his swearing-in speech on the House floor to address the politics that will no doubt shadow him during the months until the election.

“I know there are those in this room that aren't happy to see me return,” Bilbray said, directing his comments to Democrats who had hoped for a Busby victory. “All I ask is: Give me a chance to work with you again.”

Rep. David Dreier, the Glendora Republican who leads the California GOP delegation, said yesterday that Bilbray is one of only 29 people in congressional history to have served in one district, then been elected to represent another.

While Bilbray's new district is more conservative than the 49th – which tended to swing between Republicans and Democrats – Bilbray expects his legislative priorities will change little from six years ago. While representing the 49th District, he took relatively moderate stands on social and environmental issues. A surfer and former lifeguard, he made border pollution cleanup a chief legislative project, as well as immigration control.

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