Washington -– U.S. Rep. John Larson is a study in contradictions.
A Democrat who has represented his Hartford-based district in Congress for 14 years, Larson is one of the most avid and vociferous critics of the House Republicans.
Yet he also belongs to a shrinking group of lawmakers who believe compromise and relationships, even with members of the other party, are more important than ideology.
Larson, 64, feels as comfortable at Augie & Ray’s Drive In, an East Hartford diner whose customers are largely working class, as he does among luminaries in the U.S. Capitol. And he’s a liberal who is hawkish when it comes to Connecticut’s defense contractors.
Appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to head a panel on campaign finance reform, Larson is also one of the Democrats’ best fundraisers.
At heart he is a political realist whose 1st District has lost both population and jobs .
When Larson gave his speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last year, he spoke of his roots in Mayberry Village, a federal housing project in East Hartford. He also said he listens to his constituents’ concerns about issues -– including a GOP plan to cut taxes on the rich.
“As everyone back home at Augie & Ray’s Drive In knows, that ain’t right,” Larson told a national audience.
Ernie Huff, owner of Augie & Ray’s, said the mention of his restaurant in Larson's speech was “mind-boggling.”
“I was getting phone calls from all over the place after that,” he said. “John Larson talks from the heart. He’s from East Hartford. I’m from East Hartford.”
Larson has brought celebrities like billionaire financier T. Boone Pickens to eat with him at the diner, and Huff has such admiration for his congressman that he named an egg, ham, cheese and tomato sandwich after him.
In Washington, Larson was propelled into the limelight when he became head of the House Democratic caucus in 2008.
He is known as a loyalist and was sometimes criticized as being too much of a cheerleader for Pelosi.
Larson worked behind the scenes, counting votes and persuading reluctant Democrats to make tough votes on the Affordable Care Act and climate change legislation -– votes that helped cost some of them their jobs and the House Democrats the majority.
He also broadcast the Democratic leadership’s message and held weekly press conferences to promote his party’s agenda.
Larson left the Democratic leadership early this year because his post was subject to term limits, and there was no other place he could go.
He shrugged off the loss. “My grandfather Nolan used to say, peacock one day, feather duster the next.”
He said he supports term limits for leadership positions and continues to work to help Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership.
Larson said the worst thing about leaving the leadership was the loss of staff that worked for the caucus.
“I still have seven people looking for jobs, and that hurts,” he said.
One former staffer, Ellis Brachman, who worked as the caucus’ communications director, called Larson “a member’s member” in that he cares deeply for relationships and prefers bipartisanship.
“His unwavering focus on delivering for his constituents and working across the aisle has always been unparalleled. That holds true today more than ever,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the only member of Connecticut’s congressional delegation who’s served longer Larson.
Larson also said his loss of a leadership post allows him to work “more intensely” at his job on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and in the 1st District.
Both parties made tax reform a campaign issue last year. But little has been done because Republicans want to close loopholes and lower tax rates in a “revenue neutral” reform. Democrats insist any changes to the tax code result in new revenues to the U.S. Treasury.
Larson is one of the few Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee who is willing to try to sit down and make a deal.
“There’s a lot to be said for collegiality,” he said. “Otherwise you just stay in your corners.”
Yet Larson continues to scorch Republicans and blame them for Congress’ failures, just as he did when he was a member of the Democratic leadership.
To Larson, a GOP budget was “a clear effort to appease the radical tea party members of the Republican caucus.”
The debate over Hurricane Sandy relief money was an indication of “a difficult problem that President Obama faces with recalcitrant Republicans in the House.”
In blocking a bill that would have prevented a doubling of interest rates on a popular college loan, “Republican leaders proved once again that they would rather play politics than get to work fixing the problems facing American families.”
Yet the loyal Democrat socializes with a bipartisan group of House members and counts several Republicans among his friends and allies.
“I credit him with what I believe is my biggest victory,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla.
Rooney said he worked with Larson to kill plans to develop an engine for the F-35 fighter that would compete with the one manufactured by Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.
For Rooney, the development of a second engine by GE and Rolls Royce in Ohio was “a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
For Larson it would have torn the heart of his district, home to Pratt & Whitney, a company that once employed his father.
Rooney also said he worked with Larson on an effort to have autism care covered under the military’s health care program.
“I have no problem walking up to John and asking him what he thinks, because I trust his opinion,” Rooney said. “He’s still trying to get me to go to Connecticut to play bocce ball, but I don’t know what that means.”
Larson’s circle of friends also includes Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the head of the House Transportation Committee who recently visited Connecticut at the Democrat’s request, and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.
LoBiondo said he worked with Larson on a bill that would have combated oil speculation. “John is all the right stuff,” LoBiondo said. “He’s true to his word. His word is his bond.”
LoBiondo said part of the reason he likes Larson is that “he’s always got a good word and a smile.”
That could remind some of the stereotypical glad-handing Irish politician. But LoBiondo said Larson is sincere.
“Friendship means everything to John as far as I can tell,” LoBiondo said.
Larson said “at the end of the day, I can work with Republicans.”
Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said, “Larson is a prime example of a conventional political leader.”
He said if Democrats ever retake the House, he has a good chance of returning to the ranks of Democratic leadership. “He knows very well how to play the game based on his experience,” Schurin said.
That experience included years in the Connecticut State Senate and careers as an insurance agent and high school teacher.
It also includes a political defeat -- in his race for governor in 1994, when Larson lost a primary against Bill Curry.
Larson ran for Congress four years later, winning that election with 58 percent of the vote. His re-elections in his heavily Democratic district have been even easier.
Pet projects include getting National Historic Landmark status for Coltsville, in the south end of Hartford. He now wants the area, home to the factories and mansion belonging to 19th century industrialist Sam Colt, to achieve national park status.
Larson was also able to expand tax credits for fuel cell technology and promote a host of local transportation projects, including a high-speed rail line.
Larson said he never announces whether he’ll run again “prematurely,” though he also noted, “If you check my schedule,” it looks like it belongs to a lawmaker who is running for re-election.
Schurin, the UConn professor, said Larson is a good fit for the 1st District. “He will be in Congress as long as he wants to be,” Schurin said.