Meet the knuckleball pitcher in Congress who has redefined conservatives’ strike zone

Where conservatives usually hurl fastballs, North Carolina’s Mark Walker wants to try a change-up. Or maybe his go-to pitch: a knuckleball.

The 47-year-old member of Congress – and onetime college baseball player from Greensboro, North Carolina, was elected in November to chair the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 170 lawmakers who, for nearly four decades, have pressured GOP leaders in Washington to tilt more to the right.

“We’re ahead,” Walker said recently. “Win with humility. ... (Don’t) attack, attack, attack.”

Walker is a former Baptist preacher who’s beginning his second term in Congress. He finds himself considering how conservatives can succeed in an era when Republicans control the major branches of government. Conservatives, he thinks, should take their message beyond their political base. The Republican Study Committee, a policy-focused caucus, can keep party leaders true to conservative values while also bringing new voters into the fold, he said in an interview with McClatchy.

“We hear the branding ‘conservatism’ a lot,” Walker said. “But what does that mean?”

He prefers the term “effective conservatism.” For Walker, the approach of some conservative politicians gets in the way of being effective.

“It’s a little bit more harsh-driven because sometimes that’s what sells in our communities or to our bases – the rhetoric,” he said.

This is where Walker’s knuckleball comes in.

In baseball, there’s no real template for knuckleball pitchers to follow. The pitch can shift slightly in the wind and typically catches a batter off guard. It’s often difficult for a pitcher to control a knuckleball. But when done well, it’s an effective pitch and one that Walker used often in Little League, high school and a year of college before turning to the pulpit.

The former knuckleball pitcher expects to spur similar unease as he tries to take conservatives out of their comfort zone. Already, his toughest conservative critics question whether he’s too cozy with established Republican Party leadership. Some Democrats, meanwhile, say he’s holding too fast to Republican ideology to recruit new voters.

Walker admits it may be naive to think he can persuade Republicans to reach across the aisle when they don’t need the extra votes. But he said he’d give it a try.

“Sometimes we just have to step back and take a look. ... Are we only preaching to the choir? Or are we making inroads into places and communities that haven’t heard our voices?” he asked.

“I’m not trying to come across as some flowery bipartisan. We have to take some hard stances without compromise, specifically on important issues. However ... the most effective approach is one where I care about all communities that I represent,” Walker said.

Walker showed off his bipartisan chops earlier this year when he partnered with Charlotte-area U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat, to start an internship program aimed at college students attending historically black colleges and universities.

Critics say Walker uses ‘talking points’

In Walker’s 6th Congressional District, some in the African-American community are seeing and hearing from their Republican representative as never before.

Walker won over former Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson, a Democrat and prominent local African-American.

“He reached out and wanted to hear what their concerns were,” Johnson, now the city’s mayor pro tem, said about a meeting Walker held with about 20 African-American leaders before the Nov. 8 election.

The group talked about crime, drug use and police shootings.

“Mainly, what he was doing was listening. ... It’s new to me,” Johnson said.

Others aren’t as impressed.

Walker “aligned himself, before he even got to Washington, with (Republican Party) leadership,” said Chris Hardin, a self-described “anti-establishment conservative” who challenged the incumbent in the June 7 congressional primary.

Hardin, an avid supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, was disappointed in Walker’s vote to keep former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2015. He thinks Walker and other Republicans should take a tougher stance on illegal immigration and repeal Obamacare without replacing it with any type of “socialized medicine.”

Walker’s 2016 general election competition, Democrat Pete Glidewell, says improving health care policy starts with “a debate about whether health care is a privilege or a right.”

“Mark just keeps saying it ought to be a free enterprise thing. ... He doesn’t offer anything from the economic standpoint other than Republican talking points,” Glidewell said.

In other circles, Walker supporters praise his accessibility.

“I’m hoping with the new administration, we can make some changes,” said Ken Walker, a real estate agent in Mebane, North Carolina.

Ken Walker and Mark Walker aren’t related. They met through Ken Walker’s niece, who worked for the politician’s re-election campaign. Ken Walker, age 63, frequently urges his representative to act quickly to address the financial burdens independent contractors face under Obamacare.

With his local congressional representative now guiding a powerful conservative force in Congress, Ken Walker’s concerns are effectively in the pipeline to be heard by the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the chairs of House of Representatives committees that will make major decisions about health care.

Traditionally, the chair of the Republican Study Committee has met weekly with the House speaker and enjoys priority scheduling with other members of the party leadership and with committee chairs. The Republican Study Committee employs full-time staff to write an in-depth analysis of every bill on the House floor.

Walker: Muslims have constitutional rights

Looking ahead to Trump’s tenure in office – specifically Trump’s ideas on major infrastructure spending and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – Walker says big budget items will come under scrutiny.

“Where I’m thinking we may have to push back a little bit – it’s not just the president’s administration but sometimes even our own (House) leadership – is the excessive spending. That’s where sometimes it gets a little sticky,” Walker said recently at an event sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

There are plenty of areas, Walker said, in which conservatives and Trump will likely find common ground: repealing Obamacare, simplifying the tax code and restoring more local control over K-12 education. In other areas, consensus may be hard.

For example, Trump has made conflicting statements on whether he’d establish a national tracking database for Muslims.

Walker has met with Muslims living in North Carolina who are concerned that Trump wants a registry for citizens, based on religious affiliation – something Walker says he can’t support. What he sees as inadequate vetting of refugees and immigrants, though, may warrant extra steps, Walker said.

“These are hardworking Americans that have every constitutional right as you or I do, but at the same time need to take a position of leadership in going after those that are extreme with their religion,” Walker said.

Meeting with local Muslim leaders is part of the overall approach Walker says he’s taking to introduce conservatism to a new audience. He’s also been known to show up and sit quietly in local Democratic Party meetings.

“If I’m willing to listen first, it allows me an opportunity to talk about what I believe in as well,” Walker said.

Walker thinks his approach will broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. And, ideally, he wants to gain Democratic lawmakers’ support for conservative legislation to replace Obamacare and simplify the tax code for individuals and businesses.

If a Republican lawmaker crossing the aisle to make those connections looks like a confusing, slow-moving knuckleball coming over the plate, that’s fine with Walker.

His knuckleball already helped Republicans lawmakers snap a seven-year losing streak against the Democrats when he pitched in the annual congressional baseball game last summer.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews