About 90 miles east of Cincinnati, just south of the Ohio River, the western portion of the Appalachian topography begins to take shape.
The rapid transformation from straight four-lane highways to narrow roads that serpentine around plush green hills is distinct.
Atop one of these nondescript peaks, overlooking a scenic valley, sits a lone 46-foot-tall three-story home. With 50 head of cattle, a chicken coop and a solar-paneled roof, this off-the-grid sanctuary marries 1,200 acres of natural Kentucky beauty with new-age efficiency.
It’s the home base of Kentucky’s fourth district Rep. Thomas Massie, the high-tech wiz kid and self-made millionaire turned Tea Party activist who’s intent on shaking up government.
“I call it comfortable self-reliance,” says Massie, who, with his own hands, built the home for his wife and four children in 2003. “What I miss is building things and that concrete feeling of saying, ‘Hey I made that.’ Whereas in Congress, at the end of the week, there [are] a lot of times when there’s nothing tangible to look out and say, ‘This is what we got done.’”
Nearly 18 months after he was elected, Massie has participated in one the most contentious political cycles in American history. His firebrand libertarianism and Tea Party fervor have ruffled more than one feather.
On the flipside, his business acumen, academic credentials and ideology have tightened a relationship with supporters and presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul. Facing little opposition in November, Massie looks to be cruising into another two years of strong-willed activism in the Capitol.
THE KENTUCKY WIZ KID
With his red dimpled cheeks, thin-framed glasses and a head of dark wavy hair, it’s easy to believe Massie was a “tech nerd” before politics. If not for a few strands of gray hair (undoubtedly from his time in D.C.), his age of 43 would be a tough sell.
His humble beginnings started in Vanceburg, Ky, where his father was a beer distributor and his mother was a nurse. His tech achievements started in seventh grade when he built his first robot arm, followed by an award from NASA when he was 15. That led to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Rhonda, his high school sweetheart and wife, followed him two years later.
Around the same time, he started SenSable Technologies in Massachusetts—a computer-aided design company that allows designers to sculpt virtual clay-like models.
Citing a much-needed break from business, he sold his shares in the company and returned to Kentucky in 2003 for a yearlong sabbatical. It quickly turned permanent when he started building his own home.
The wheels of civic action began to turn when he wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper about a new county tax. To his surprise, it attracted supporters throughout the community. Nicknamed “Thomas’s Angry Mob,” they rallied at town hall meetings with his cry for smaller government and pressed him to run for Lewis County Judge Executive in 2010. That same year, he found a political mentor in Paul after watching several “YouTubes” of Paul’s speeches for his senate race against Trey Grayson in the 2010 Republican primary.
“What impressed me the most was that he didn’t just say what people wanted to hear,” says Massie. “I thought this guy is the real deal, I can get behind him.”
For every “Massie” sign he posted in a yard during his campaign, he added a “Paul” sign as well.
“Thomas and I have a lot in common: both from small towns, both libertarians, both successful academically,” says Paul. “He shows that Republicans come in all different shapes and sizes.”
Once he took office, Massie started looking for government waste—ditch removal services, gas bills and even carpet cleaning. All told, he says he trimmed $210,000 from the county budget. He then took his findings to various county meetings around the state.
“It says a lot about someone when they drive hours to get involved like that,” says Paul.
In 2012, his crusade grabbed the attention of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, which supported his bid for the congressional seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Geoff Davis.
Phyllis Sparks, vice chair of the Boone County Republican Party, served as Massie’s campaign manager in 2012. She says the same people who turned out for Paul’s election in 2010 were the voters who got Massie into Congress in 2012. It didn’t bode well with everyone, though.
“There was a lot of pushback from the establishment. They thought that our congressman should come from Boone, Kenton or Campbell County,” says Sparks. “They thought it was important to have someone from the most populated area. I didn’t buy into it, and the rest of the Republican voters didn’t buy into it either.”
Massie estimates his primary campaign had 10 times as many volunteers as the other candidates combined. The swarm of Tea Party volunteers, as well as a $500,000 donation from the Liberty for All SuperPAC (political action committee), solidified a primary victory and all but guaranteed a win in November 2012.
“His victory was a vindication on what I had been trying to do,” says Paul. “It was nice to have an ally in congress.”
MR. MASSIE GOES TO WASHINGTON
Massie’s Kentucky drawl, mixed with his Bill Gates-like appearance, conveys an affable demeanor, recognizable even by those outside his support base.
“I remember being struck by how nice he was,” says Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard. Grayson ran against Paul in 2010, and bumped into Massie, who was campaigning for himself and for Paul, in Vanceburg, Ky. “He was just a down-home, likeable guy,” says Grayson.
His likeability shouldn’t be mistaken for pacifism, however. As a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, Massie has a “loaded for bear” attitude about guns and politics.
His 1993 red Mustang has a bumper sticker that reads, “If you know how many guns you have, you don’t have enough.”
“In other words, I don’t know how many guns I own,” says Massie.
He carried the same attitude to D.C., where he kicked an already volatile hornet’s nest. During the vote for Speaker of the House in early 2013, he broke ranks and voted for libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan instead of Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. The failed coup attempt resulted in Massie’s ouster as chairman of the subcommittee on technology.
Massie compared his vote to a company changing its CEO.
“If [Speaker Boehner] tries to change course, he’s going to lose credibility, and if he stays the course, the company is going to suffer, so I think we needed a new CEO,” he says.
The relationship with Boehner is “cordial,” but he still blames the Speaker for the 16-day government shutdown last fall.
“I think John Boehner accidentally shut the government down,” says Massie. “He told us multiple times that we’re not going to shut the government down. ‘If you think I’m doing that you’re kidding yourself… There’s too much to lose—we’re not doing it.’ And he’s the Speaker of the House, and he doesn’t have to … It wouldn’t have happened unless John Boehner let it happen.”
Massie, who voted against the Republican deal, believes his party gave President Obama nearly everything he wanted, but in a political calculation, Obama decided to balk, giving Boehner and the GOP the worst of the public-image beating.
“They were both threatening to jump off the cliff, and Obama just grabbed Boehner and jumped. He’s like, ‘the fall is going to hurt you worse than me,’” says Massie. “Then it was on; then he had to pretend like he meant to do it.”
With the 2014 mid-term election approaching, the Tea Party is gearing up for another surge in all levels of government. The Internal Revenue Service scandal has been a rallying call and a ‘told you so’ moment for supporters. As a member of the House Oversight Committee, Massie sat feet away from IRS official Lois Lerner as she pled the Fifth Amendment. Most of his ire is directed at the system rather than Lerner.
“We need to back up and say, ‘Wait, why do we have 70,000 pages of tax code and 100,000 IRS workers responsible for trying to make it all work and making judgment calls on whether this is an organization that is doing political activity or it’s for social causes?’” says Massie. “If my wife has an MIT degree and I have an MIT degree, and we can’t do our own taxes, there is something wrong.”
While a tension-filled term passes by, Massie heads into the next two years with some more tangible expectations. He’s already introduced a bill that would legalize industrial hemp, as well as a “food freedom” bill legalizing the sale of unpasteurized milk.
If he leaves his mark on the landscape in D.C. like he has in the Kentucky hills, Massie will have few regrets.
“I try not to think ahead… Like, 10 years from now, when I’m back on my farm, am I going to regret not having tried something in that short period of time in that opportunity that I had?” he says. “So when I’m in [Washington D.C], I try to think, ‘What would I regret 10 years from now?’”