U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas isn’t just the elder statesman of Congress: At 90, he’s the oldest person ever to serve in the House.
He began running for local elective office in 1949 and filed once again for his House seat Dec. 9 — along with five Republican primary challengers.
But to the surprise of supporters, the seemingly eternal Hall, who says he is stronger than his much younger opponents — ranging from their 30s to one in his 60s — announced Dec. 20 that this will be his last campaign.
The World War II Navy fighter pilot said in an interview that internal polling showed that when people were asked about someone running at 90, a sizable 20 percent would be against him based on age.
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Although Hall is confident that he can win in 2014, as he has handily since first taking the seat in 1980, he also sees the political reality reflected in the polls.
“That helped me decide that this should probably be my last time,” Hall told McClatchy. “It is my last campaign.”
His age is the issue that he calls “the spear I have to blunt.”
“I am 90. I can work day or night,” he said. “I’m the same guy, but the polls show the effect of age. That’s the issue.”
Hall is lifting his game one last time for the March 4 primary. “I’ve got to do something other than be 90 years old,” he said.
Hall runs 2 miles a day on his North Texas property in Rockwall, some 25 miles east of Dallas, and is so tireless a campaigner that longtime aide Tom Hughes said the congressman wears him out.
“He’s a dynamo,” Hughes said.
But opponents say the district is ready for someone new.
“Our country faces enormous challenges, and we need new, energetic leadership to tackle them,” said former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe, one of Hall’s five GOP opponents. He and others are careful to be respectful of Hall, and Ratcliffe told McClatchy, “I’m not going to make age an issue in the campaign.”
It is, of course, the issue.
In 2012, at 89, Hall became the oldest House member in history, though there have been older senators, such as Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who was 100 when he retired in 2002.
In the 2012 election, Hall was targeted by an anti-incumbent political action committee, and he decided that he had to do something unexpected. He did a tandem parachute jump from an airplane before the primary.
This time, Hall dryly suggested that he would swim across the 21-mile English Channel but added that it would take too long since he would have to swim 1 mile a day. “I may swim down to Cuba,” he said. “I’d be swimming downhill.”
Hall was a conservative Democrat who switched parties in 2004, deciding that a mid-decade redistricting left him with few options in his heavily Republican district. Not that Hall changed the way he voted.
“I’ve always been conservative,” he said. “I was born that way.”
Bonnie and Clyde
Hall was just old enough to encounter two of the most infamous celebrities of the 1930s — gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. Hall was working at a drugstore in his hometown of Rockwall when, at age 13, he recognized Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, bank robbers and murderers who shot to fame with their exploits.
“We had curb service and up came a ’33 Ford. There they were. They had the papers all over their lap and said, ‘Give us two Coca-Colas, one carton of Old Gold and all the newspapers you have.’ ”
“I knew exactly who they were,” said Hall, who was, then and now, an avid newspaper reader. He even remembers that Barrow, who looked like “a little weasel,” gave him $3 and said “keep the change” of 40 cents.
Hall knows the value of a dollar — or a penny — and is, not surprisingly, old-fashioned about campaigning. His signature campaign trinket is a penny that has an aluminum casing with Hall’s name on it and that he distributes by the thousands. For years when he was running for state Senate, it said “All for Hall from Rockwall” on the casing.
“When you’re as plain as I am, you’ve got to have a gimmick,” Hall said, “and that was my gimmick.”
He calculates that he is now into “my second million” of pennies given away, paid through campaign funds. One million pennies is equivalent to $10,000.
“People won’t throw them away, and they have my name on it,” he said. When he walks around towns in his district, people in barbershops and stores pull their Hall pennies out of the cash register, he said.
Hall is popular among both Democrats and Republicans. “I have extraordinary respect for Ralph Hall,” said Matt Angle, who leads the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee. “He doesn’t vote any differently as a Republican than as a Democrat. Even at his advanced age, he’s just as conservative and twice as lucid as Louie Gohmert.”
Gohmert, an East Texas Republican congressman, has riled Democrats with his barbed comments from the floor.
Wade Emmert, the Dallas County Republican Party chairman, is familiar with the political landscape of the neighboring counties in Hall’s District 4.
“I think Ralph is going to be very hard to beat,” Emmert said.
As for Hall’s five challengers, Emmert said, “Frankly, most of them just want to be heir apparent if and when he retires.” He predicted that “Mr. Hall is not going to be beaten.”
Hall has been a fixture on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which he chaired in the last Congress and where he is now chairman emeritus. He is also a longtime member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a favorite spot for Texas members to promote oil and gas interests.
Hall is combative going into his last election and is counting on the voters. “Just being 90 shouldn’t be the reason they don’t vote for me if I deliver for them,” he said. “And I do deliver for them.”