“To be on the board of the most powerful country in the world is a distinct pleasure, honor, and privilege”
When former Congressman Clifford Bundy Stearns, known to most as “Cliff,” was first elected to Congress in 1988, he was no stranger to Washington, DC. In fact, his life paralleled his father’s at the start. “He was born in Washington, I was born in Washington; he went to George Washington University, and I did too,” said Stearns.
Also like his father, Stearns joined the Armed Services and was an Air Force ROTC scholarship recipient. He had always been good in mathematics with an interest in physics and the then-budding field of computer technology, so Stearns studied the applied field of electrical engineering. Following graduation, he served four years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War as an aerospace engineer in satellite reconnaissance. “It was a classified program at that time,” said Stearns, “so it was a very special, prestigious program with the ability to be on the cutting edge of space technology through the United States Air Force.”
After leaving the Air Force, Stearns worked for a few years in the aerospace industry and later the advertising business, but at the age of 30 began to feel the entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to be self-employed.
“I got married at 32 and ended up buying a dilapidated motel outside of Northampton, MA,” said Stearns. It was a small motel and I turned it around in 5 years and made sufficient money to buy a motel and restaurant in Florida.” He and his new family, now including two small children, moved to Ocala in Central Florida, where he began developing a chain of motels and restaurants.
No matter his day job though, Stearns is a public servant at heart and has been since he joined the Air Force ROTC program as a sophomore in college. He became a local community leader and served on numerous boards. In 1988, he was asked to run for Congress in an open seat. It took some convincing — he’d never run for public office before — but he decided to take on this next venture and ended up serving for 12 terms.
Over his 24-year tenure in Congress, he watched the institution undergo dramatic changes. As politicians have become more entrenched in their ideologies, they are spending more time campaigning, pointing out the differences between them and their opponents, thus increasing the need for more time spent fundraising to support their message. Currently these efforts dominate a legislator’s time.
“But the real impact that I saw was that members of Congress became unwilling to compromise,” said Stearns, and he highlighted the budget fights over the past decade. “When the appropriations process fails, the House of Representatives is giving up one of its primary responsibilities… establishing the nation’s budget.” He believes that our increasingly polarized news media and the rise of the internet as the source of information only compounds the problem.
The result is a poor image of Congress and a wave of anti-establishment sentiment across the country. Stearns lost in his 2012 Republican primary in part due to redistricting, but also because of this change in the political climate. He explained, “The perception was ‘Stearns has been in Congress 20–30 years, it’s not working…we need somebody else.’”
Now, as President of the US Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), restoring the image and responsibility of the legislative branch is key to his mission during his term. Former Members of Congress have a unique role to play in this mission, freed from the bonds of the election cycle. Stearns said that after joining FMC’s Board he was fascinated by the bipartisan nature of the organization’s work, bringing former members together with a common mission of promoting public service and strengthening representative democracy.
“It’s really encouraging — as well as liberating — to say I want to work with this person. And obviously to work means to bring different views together for a mutual goal,” said Stearns. “That kind of spirit should be in Congress too.”
Stearns remains grateful to his voters. “To be on the board of the most powerful country in the world is a distinct pleasure, honor, and privilege, and nobody — I think — who is in Congress ever forgets that,” he said. But he is concerned about the impact of low voter turnout in this country, regardless of which candidate they are choosing.
He fears the consequences for freedom in the United States as apathy becomes the norm. “In my hometown of Ocala only 15% turn out to vote — that’s incredible. Its population is 60,000 and only 15% of registered voters turned out to vote,” said Stearns. “Your civic responsibility is to follow what’s happening in your government and to vote.”
And FMC also has a role to play. “Part of what we’re trying to do at FMC is to instill civic responsibility in high schools and colleges, through bipartisan teams of former Members meeting and speaking with students,” said Stearns. “The message should be that these young people gain information and get involved.”
“And hopefully — I mean, it doesn’t hurt — to consider running for office.”
One more question…
According to Wikipedia, one of your great-great-grandfathers was 19th century Ohio congressman Hezekiah S. Bundy…
That’s right. If you look at his page on the official Congressional Biographical Directory, you’ll see that he served in both houses of the Ohio General Assembly as well as the US House of Representatives, but only for a term at a time. He’d run, win, then lose in the next election, and a few years later would pop up again. I, of course, didn’t know him personally, but my guess is that he just liked running for office.