Politics & Government

After 34 years, a post-scandal Joe Barton leaves Congress in January. What’s next?

Life is about to change for Joe Barton.

Next month, for the first time in more than three decades, he will no longer be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 69-year-old Republican will move home to Ennis and look for a job.

And — either in the next week or the next six months — he plans to marry his fiance, Desiray Ayres.

“I might get married this coming week, maybe,” he told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Friday. “We are looking to get married in the House Prayer Room in the Capitol. But that hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s got to be approved by the Speaker and you have to get the marriage license from the District of Columbia,” he said. “There’s a lot of red tape to getting married in Washington.”

If that doesn’t work out, Barton said he and Ayres definitely will be married by April at a different location.

Barton has represented the 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of east and southwest Fort Worth, most of Arlington and Mansfield and all of Ellis and Navarro counties, since 1985.

After coming under fire last year for a nude photo shared online and private messages with sexual overtones he exchanged with a female constituent, Barton did not seek another term in office.

Tarrant County Tax-Assessor Collector Ron Wright, a Republican, was elected in November to replace Barton in Congress.

Barton said he knows that his life will dramatically change Jan. 3, when members of the next U.S. Congress are sworn into office — and he won’t be there.

“There are days I think ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah, I’m free again,’ ” he said. “And there are days I think I’m really going to miss it.

“Half my life, two-thirds of my adult life, I’ve been in Congress.”

‘Smokey Joe’

When Barton first arrived in Congress, Republicans were in the minority — and had been for years.

Then the Republican revolution arrived in 1994, giving Barton and others in the GOP majority status.

A hallmark of his tenure was serving as chairman of the House Energy Committee for two terms. He once picked up the nickname “Smokey Joe” for defending industries against tighter pollution controls.

Many point to his work in the energy field, particularly the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that put in place the largest reform of the country’s energy program in decades.

He said he’s proud of many bills that he carried or supported through the years, including the energy policy, 21st Century Cures legislation and a key measure to improve the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

His biggest disappointment is that “we are not even close to balancing the budget,” Barton said. “The national debt is terrible.”

And his biggest disappointment in his district is that the area didn’t get the supercollider.

“We almost made it,” Barton said. “Had (George H.W.) Bush won re-election, we would have made it. That project would have made North Texas the high-tech research capital of the world.”

Helping others

Barton will miss many things, but most of all, he said he will miss the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

He recalled a time, decades ago, when he received a postcard from a Burleson boy upset about a three-wheel ATV that fell on his older brother in their front yard, crushing and killing him.

The boy wrote Barton and asked: “What are you going to do about it?”

Barton called him and said he would see what he could do.

He began a congressional effort to investigate the use of those ATVs.

Within a year or two, a consent decree was signed by the ATV industry and others that took those bikes off the market for a decade. When that time period expired, the ATVs weren’t brought back on the market.

“That saved 200 to 300 lives a year and thousands of injuries because of one little boy’s letter to his congressman,” Barton said. “I picked up my phone and did something about it.

“I will miss that.”

Baseball shooting

Barton has been in and out of the spotlight for years.

Last year, he gained attention for helping shepherd the GOP baseball team through a tragic shooting.

As team manager, he was at the batting cages with his sons Brad and Jack before he walked over to watch one of the last practices before the charity baseball game against Democratic congressmen.

As he stood near the on-deck circle by first base, trying to decide who would be at the top of the batting order, the first shot rang out.

He and his sons were not hurt, but afterward he was shaken and called for an increase in political civility.

“I think we need to refocus what we do in Washington,” Barton told reporters when he arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. “We need to emphasize the start of our title, which is United States Representative and stop focusing on what’s after our name, which is R or D.

“We can debate ... without letting it generate into name-calling,” he said. “And I’m going to do that.”

Looking ahead

Barton said he plans to live in Ennis until Jack, who is 13, graduates from high school.

But as for what happens as of Jan. 3, Barton isn’t quite sure.

He will receive a pension, but “it is not lavish by any means,” he said. “I still need to work.”

He said he’s considering his options — perhaps consulting, working for a corporation, even starting his own business — and isn’t quite sure what he will do.

But as he readies to walk away from the life of a congressman, he hopes his constituents remember one thing about his time in office:

“I was there when they needed me.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.