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An inside look at the newest Alabama congressman’s first day in D.C.

View of the U.S. Capitol from Congressman Gary Palmer's dinner celebrating his first day in office (Photo: Yellowhammer)
View of the U.S. Capitol from Congressman Gary Palmer’s dinner celebrating his first day in office (Photo: Yellowhammer)

On the seventh floor of a Washington, D.C. steakhouse with a stunning view of the U.S. Capitol, Gary Palmer is grinning ear to ear. That initially wouldn’t seem particularly notable, considering he was closing out an exciting first day as a member of the U.S. House, but it stands out because it was his smile — or lack thereof — that made his unlikely rise from think tank president to U.S. Congressman so unexpected.

Palmer’s stoic, serious demeanor stands in stark contrast to the back-slapping, baby-kissing style of most politicians. It served him well as he built the Alabama Policy Institute (API) from a one-man operation into one of the country’s preeminent state-level public policy organizations. But it’s also the reason Palmer’s desire to run for Congress in Alabama’s 6th District caught many people who know him by surprise.

From Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and nationally syndicated radio host Laura Ingraham to local friends and API board members, almost everyone who talks about the first time Palmer told them he wanted to run recalls having a similar immediate reaction.

“I said, ‘Gary, you know you have to smile to get elected to public office, right?'” Ingraham joked to the small group of Palmer supporters at the dinner Tuesday night.

Clearly he figured it out, and there were plenty of smiles to go around as campaign staffers told stories and several of Washington’s conservative heavyweights stopped by to wish their old friend well in his new career.

But while the ceremonial swearing in, receptions and family and friends tour of the stunning U.S. Capitol will probably stand out as fond memories of Palmer’s first day on Capitol Hill, he also got introduced to the political and social pressures that come with being a member of Congress.

Congressman Gary Palmer's ceremonial swearing in with House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2014.
Congressman Gary Palmer’s ceremonial swearing in with House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2014.

The first order of business for Palmer and all members of the newly-seated 114th Congress was to cast a vote for Speaker of the House.

In a meeting of Republican House members and incoming freshmen late last year, the group voted to re-elect House Speaker John Boehner. No other Republicans challenged Boehner for the Speakership at the time, but Palmer did not vote for him, delivering on a campaign promise. In fact, one of the stories that has floated around Capitol Hill for the last couple of months is a third-party description of Palmer’s first meeting with Boehner during which he told him he couldn’t vote for him, then immediately turned around and asked him for specific committee assignments.

Palmer’s firm but gracious approach won Boehner’s respect, and he was given two of the assignments he requested, including a coveted slot on the House Budget Committee.

On Monday, as a small but growing number of hardline conservatives made another last-ditch effort to unseat Boehner, the House Leadership team turned up the heat on members to try to solidify Boehner’s support. The pressure continued mounting even into the vote on Tuesday.

Palmer stuck to his guns and in his first official act as a U.S. Congressman he surprised everyone by casting his vote for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. It is a little known fact that the Speaker of the House does not have to be a member of the body, and Palmer says he saw it as an opportunity to honor someone he’s looked up to for years.

“I have often joked that, when I grow up, I want to be like Jeff Sessions, so I wanted to honor him,” he said. “He is a man of high character and intellect and has not wavered under the pressure of Washington. His name now ranks among those who have been nominated as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.”

As news began to spread that Boehner was booting members from plum committee assignments for not supporting him, one Washington insider passed along assurances that Palmer would not be facing similar retribution.

But even the statement that went out from Palmer’s office explaining his vote offers some interesting insight into his new world.

Congressman Gary Palmer in his new office in Cannon House Office Building Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2014.
Congressman Gary Palmer in his new office in Cannon House Office Building Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2014.

For years he’s been a fixture on the editorial pages of numerous media outlets and he was extremely hands on in crafting the frequent publications released by API. Most congressmen, however, have staffers who put together their written statements and op-eds for them. Palmer does now, as well. Tuesday was their first day on the job. But he found it hard to resist the urge to type out his thoughts, so he worked alongside his new communications director for the release, even as supporters who’d flown up from Alabama crowded his tiny new office.

Several hours later as Tuesday night’s dinner wound down, Ingraham stood up and said a few words to the intimate crowd, but also to Palmer directly.

“I’m expecting so much out of you, Gary,” she said after praising him for having the courage of his convictions. “Anyone who knows me or even just listens to my show knows I’m a no-BS person, and I’m telling you, I’m expecting a lot out of you.”

And as Palmer closed out the night, he sounded like someone who expects a lot of himself and his colleagues as well.

“Look over at the Capitol,” Palmer said looking out the window to the giant dome covered in scaffolding where workers have begun patching thousands of tiny cracks. “People say they’re ‘repairing’ the dome, but I say they’re ‘restoring’ it. And that’s exactly what our country needs. While the restoration continues on the outside, we need to be praying for restoration to take place on the inside.”