Lance Murphey/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN), seen here in February 2010 campaigning for his seat, is spending as little time as possible in Washington, D.C., in order to preserve his "Frog Jump common sense." The congressman is from the tiny community of Frog Jump, Tenn.
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN), seen here in February 2010 campaigning for his seat, is spending as little time as possible in Washington, D.C., in order to preserve his "Frog Jump common sense." The congressman is from the tiny community of Frog Jump, Tenn. Lance Murphey/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Of the 87 new Republicans in the House of Representatives, Stephen Fincher epitomizes the first-time politicians who make up a third of the freshmen class. To preserve what he calls his "Frog Jump common sense," the new congressman from the tiny community of Frog Jump, Tenn., is spending as little time as possible in Washington.
When he is in Washington, Fincher sleeps on a pull-out sofa in his office. He calls it part of his "conservative" approach. He has found enough time to join the Washington fundraiser circuit, but he's home on weekends to see his family, check on the farm and keep up his tour schedule. He performs in churches with the Fincher Family Singers.
Frog Jump doesn't show up on Google Maps. Other House members, some from Tennessee, have accused Fincher of making it up for the campaign. But driving in his farm truck, Fincher points to the proof.
"There's Frog Jump on my GPS, so it's there," he says. "It's a real place."
It's a place that came to define Fincher the candidate and now congressman.
"I'm known up there as the guy from Frog Jump. And it's a good thing," he says. "I really feel like we have drifted too far away from real America."
To keep in touch with "real America," Fincher says he'll keep his private health insurance instead of taking what's offered to congressmen. He says that will make it easier to know when premiums go up.
The 38-year-old doesn't have a resume that typically leads to influence: He's a cotton and soybean farmer who didn't go to college. Fincher hadn't even been to Washington, D.C., until he decided to run for office.
"I expected to get off the airplane and see the smartest people in the world," he says. "But what I realized was a lot of those guys ain't got sense enough to get out of the rain."
It's a line he's used more than once to play up his common-sense credentials. Fincher acknowledges, however, that getting up to speed on issues takes time. But he says balancing a budget "isn't rocket science."
Fincher's election wasn't guaranteed even in an anti-incumbent year. His district has historically sent Democrats to Washington. For some, Fincher is the first Republican they have ever voted for.
"When I found out Stephen was running, I voted for the person, not the party," says Ricky Beaird, a cotton farmer who just opened up the Beairded Frog, the only place in Frog Jump to get a bite to eat or something sweet.
Beaird explains that he started his restaurant to supplement his farming income after a couple of tough years. With Fincher's appointment to the House Agriculture Committee, Beaird says farmers like him have another voice.
"We're just down-home folks here," he says. "But still we like to be aware of what's going on and hopefully have a little say-so in it."
Beaird has offered his little soda shop for town hall meetings. Fincher says he'll accept. And the first issue that needs input, he says, is raising the debt ceiling.
"First of all, we need to make sure we're not in panic mode here," he says. "If we do not raise the debt ceiling, we would still be able to pay the interest on our debt and keep up."
Fincher says even on such a complicated budget matter, what constituents want will play a big part in how he votes, even if that means breaking with other Republicans. That hasn't happened yet, but Fincher says he has warned the party whip that "what leadership wants is not [always] going to be best for my district.
"And I just want you to understand that, that I will have to throw you under the bus sooner or later."
In his campaign, Fincher slammed "career politicians" and vowed to institute term limits. He recognizes now there's little chance such a bill would pass. But he's set a limit for his own service -– no more than 12 years. Until then, he's trying to keep his feet on the farm, even while his head is in the halls of Congress.