After cancer scare and drunk-driving arrest, Sen. Crapo gears up for biggest job yet

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said he learned humility on Dec. 23, 2012, when he downed several shots of vodka, drove his white Jeep SUV through a red light and got arrested for drunken driving in suburban Washington, D.C.

“I’ve apologized,” Crapo said in an interview in his office on Capitol Hill. “I do apologize again for that conduct, one of the worst times of my life, in terms of frankly being disappointed in myself and realizing that I disappointed my constituents.”

As Crapo tries to win a fourth term on Nov. 8, the arrest has emerged as a central campaign issue, with his Democratic opponent, Boise businessman Jerry Sturgill, saying it’s proof that the senator led “a double life.”

“He’s a Mormon, he held a high office in the Mormon church, and it is sad to me that he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the influence of Washington,” Sturgill said. “He didn’t drink before he went there.”

But in Idaho, one of the country’s reddest states, there’s little indication that the controversy has cut into the broad political support for Crapo, a Harvard Law School graduate and former state lawmaker.

After surviving both his drinking troubles and an earlier scare with prostate cancer, Crapo, 65, is considered a shoo-in to win, and he’s already gearing up for what could be his biggest job yet.

If he’s re-elected and Republicans maintain control of the U.S. Senate, Crapo – pronounced CRAY-poh – is poised to become a full committee chairman for the first time, taking over as head of the powerful Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

The panel has a broad reach, overseeing issues involving banks, Wall Street, real estate, insurance, securities, housing and economic policy, among other things.

And it’s also a good perch for raising millions of dollars in campaign money, as Crapo has discovered. At the end of the last reporting period, Crapo had more than $5 million in cash on hand, led by donations from commercial banks, real estate firms, securities and investment firms, insurance companies and leadership political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks contributions to candidates.

Crapo’s bid to lead the committee could well be determined by how GOP Senate candidates fare with Donald Trump heading the party’s ticket.

While Crapo appears safe in his re-election campaign, Democrats hope that Trump’s decline in the past week will have a spillover effect, toppling enough other Republicans to give them a net gain of at least four seats, enough to win back the Senate majority.

Crapo backed Trump until Saturday, but he became one of the first Republicans to withdraw his endorsement after the Washington Post released a 2005 video that showed Trump boasting about kissing and groping women. Crapo said that Trump’s comments were “disrespectful, profane and demeaning” and made him unfit for the presidency, with his quick distancing earning him a mention in the opening of NBC’s “Saturday Light Live.”

Earlier, Crapo said he had endorsed Trump because he liked many of his ideas, including his plans for a strong defense, cutting taxes and limiting government and regulations.

Crapo, who long regarded himself as a teetotaler before his drunk-driving arrest, said he began drinking in response to the stress of Washington life. He’s part of the Senate GOP leadership team, serving as chief deputy whip.

But he said he hasn’t had a drink since he pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2013, paying a $250 fine and having his driver’s license yanked for a year. And he said he has worked “really hard” to recommit to his work and earn the support of Idahoans.

“I think that I have made a strong case for that,” said Crapo, a lifelong Idahoan who’s married and the father of five.

In the last two years, Crapo has hosted town-hall meetings in every one of Idaho’s 200 incorporated cities. He concluded the visits last month.

“I don’t know if anybody’s ever done that before,” said Republican Jim Risch, Idaho’s junior senator, who considers Crapo “a close brother” after serving with him in the Senate since 2009.

“This guy’s driven,” Risch said. “I mean, he works at it constantly. And he’s one of the most respected members of the Senate, even though you don’t see his name in the lights as much a lot of other people – he doesn’t seek that out.

He added, “Mike doesn’t speak often, but when he stands up to talk everybody listens.”

Risch said the drunk-driving arrest was out of character for Crapo.

“I know Mike really, really well – that wasn’t Mike,” Risch said. “Certainly he made a mistake, he acknowledges he made a mistake and he’s owned up to it. … There will be some people who will forgive him and some who won’t, but that in no way denigrated my view of his ability or his passion for his job.”

On Capitol Hill, one of Crapo’s biggest passions is hammering at the national debt, which he calls “one of the biggest – if not the biggest – threats the United States faces.”

“Our national debt right now is $19 trillion, going to 20. … We’ve got to get it under control or it literally will jeopardize the American Dream,” Crapo said.

His most high-profile assignment came in 2010, when Crapo served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a presidential commission that called for a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and changes in Social Security entitlements as a way to cut the debt. Crapo backed the plan, but it did not receive enough votes to advance to Congress. Crapo then served on the “Gang of 6,” a group of bipartisan senators that urged Congress to pass the commission’s recommendations.

While many Republicans oppose any talk of tax increases, Crapo said a tax hike should be part of an “all of the above” strategy to cut the national debt, including spending cuts and a gradual increase in the retirement age for Social Security.

Crapo said he’s particularly proud that he has maintained a reputation as a consistent conservative, with the American Conservative Union endorsing his re-election last week and giving him a lifetime rating of 92.5 percent. But he said he has still worked hard to achieve consensus with Democrats, as well.

“I’m not one of the bomb-throwers, if you will,” Crapo said. “ I’m not one of those who’s trying to create some kind of event or some kind of a clash so that we can generate a news story. . . . I work to find bipartisan solutions.”

During his current term, Crapo sponsored seven bipartisan bills that President Barack Obama signed into law.

In 2013, he and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) led the push to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. And this year, he teamed up with Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray to pass the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, which gives tribes more power over the management of assets held in trust by the federal government.

Craig Gehrke, state director of The Wilderness Society in Boise, said Crapo worked hard to bring all parties together during talks involving the Owyhee Initiative, a 2009 agreement that resolved a decades-old fight over wilderness management issues in Owyhee County. It created the first new wilderness area in Idaho in nearly 30 years.

“It was a big leap of faith for a lot of folks that wilderness could be designated again in Idaho and that there wouldn’t be any lingering bad feelings or bureaucratic problems,” said Gehrke.

Crapo scored another long-sought win this year when Congress passed “Trevor’s Law,” a bill named after Trevor Schaefer, a Boise cancer survivor, which will require the federal government to document and track cancer clusters across the nation. He sponsored the legislation along with California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Crapo said his own experience with prostate cancer – he had his prostate removed in 2000 and underwent radiation therapy when the cancer recurred in 2005 – has “accelerated and intensified” his interest in biomedical research. He said he’s always had a strong interest in health issues, coming from a family filled with doctors, including two brothers, two sons, one uncle and a brother-in-law.

“Certainly I believe when one gets the diagnosis that they have cancer, it’s a gut-wrencher, and it’s an attitude-changer in a lot of ways,” Crapo said. But he said he has been cancer-free since his radiation treatments 11 years ago. “I sort of have to knock on wood and say my prayers, but since then it has not returned. So my hope is that it is in remission for good, but I can’t take that for granted.”

In 2013, amid a feud over spending and the federal debt, Crapo backed a temporary shutdown of the federal government. Sturgill called the vote “wrongheaded and dangerous,” while others said the move only backfired on Republicans by angering voters.

“I’ve never been a big fan of that as a tactic,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that encourages fiscal responsibility in Washington. “I don’t think it’s a winning strategy – the public seems to react badly to it and it’s more of a sign of dysfunction in the government.”

But Bixby said Crapo’s willingness to back “the big-picture stuff” in the Simpson-Bowles Commission was much more important than his vote on the government shutdown.

“He gets high marks for that,” Bixby said.

Sturgill criticized Crapo for seeking the top spot on the Senate Banking Committee, saying Idaho is not a major banking state and the panel has little to do with serving Idahoans. And he said it’s wrong for the senator to be taking in millions of dollars in campaign money from financial firms.

“It’s unforgivable that we’ve allowed our politicians to receive that money and expect them to overcome the conflict of interest and regulate the institutions that they receive money from,” Sturgill said. “In the business setting, we would generally call that a bribe.”

Crapo said that he was skeptical when he was first asked to join the banking committee, regarding it as “more of a New York City type thing.” But he said the panel’s sweeping jurisdiction makes it possible to influence the lives of his constituents and all Americans more than any other Senate committee.

Risch agreed, saying Crapo’s chairmanship of the panel would be “a very big deal for Idaho and America.”

If Crapo’s part of a Republican majority in 2017, he has a few plans ready: Among them: helping small banks, tackling the national debt, cutting government regulations and getting rid of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by putting more private capital into the nation’s mortgage-backing system.

But he said it’s a little too early to assume that he’ll get the gavel.

“I take nothing for granted – I’m running a full-blown campaign,” Crapo said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob