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THOMAS: A freshman, not a rookie

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Rep.-elect Bill Huizenga is a freshman Republican congressman who will assume the seat held for 18 years by Rep. Peter Hoekstra. Their Western Michigan district is mostly Republican, white and Protestant.

In an interview, I asked Huizenga what he thinks of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s intention to run for minority leader. ‘‘I guess we can only hope she wins, because it’s going to cement our majority,’’ he says with some delight.

Pelosi’s post-election comments indicate she is seeking vindication for health-care legislation, stimulus spending and other bills she and her Democratic congressional colleagues pushed through at warp speed.

Pelosi and President Barack Obama do not see the midterm election results as a referendum on their policies, but rather as a communications failure. Predictably, Huizenga sees it otherwise. ‘‘I don’t see how anybody can honestly interpret the election and say this was an affirmation of what they’ve done and that they just didn’t get their message out,’’ he says.

Huizenga speaks from experience. When he was a member of the Michigan legislature, Republicans went from minority to majority and Democrats kept the person who had been speaker as minority leader. ‘‘It did not help communication at all,’’ he says, ‘‘because it sent a lot of signals. The same personality conflicts were in place and probably were heightened. I understand how (Pelosi) can win this; I don’t see how someone who is one of the most divisive political leaders in recent times is suddenly going to turn on a dime and lead a parade of bipartisanism.’’

Huizenga says what Republicans are proposing has elements of substance and symbolism but that ‘‘we need to have both.’’ He says, ‘‘We need to send a message to the American people that we get it; we understand what they are going through.’’

Reforming the health-care law is the top priority for incoming and established Republicans. Huizenga admits that lacking a Senate majority, much less the 60-vote margin needed to pass anything in the Senate, and a president who is unlikely to sign any bill that would dismantle his premiere issue, the law will probably not be quickly repealed. But, he says, ‘‘It sets things up for the 2012 presidential election, as well as congressional elections.’’

The 2010 election has been described as an audition, or probation, for Republican freshmen to prove they meant what they said during the campaign and to demonstrate they are different from the previous Republican majority Congress, which resembled Democrat-lite.

What about social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and gays in the military? Polls show voters have less concern about these issues than the economy, or even terrorism. Huizenga, who is pro-life, says the abortion issue will have to be attacked at the margins for now. He wants to add restrictions on abortion to the health insurance reform law and thinks the old coalition of fiscal and social conservatives that served Ronald Reagan well can be revived.

Having worked in Washington before, Huizenga says he’s aware of the disease called ‘‘Potomac Fever.’’ How does he intend to inoculate himself against it? By maintaining roots in Western Michigan, he says, and by keeping to a schedule of three days in Washington, four days in his home state.

Has he figured out a way to respond to attacks by Democrats that Republicans only care for the rich? ‘‘We have to live our lives in ways that demonstrate compassionate conservatism,’’ he says. Huizenga and his wife are involved in organizations that help the homeless ‘‘and other things. My argument is that instead of expecting the federal or state governments to step in and have that as their role, it has to start with me as an individual, my church, my community, and I’d better set the example.’’

Politicians have been setting an example. Unfortunately, for too many, the examples have been bad ones. Perhaps Bill Huizenga, whose background is in small business, will be different. It helps that while he will be a freshman member of Congress, he’s not a rookie.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.