Tom MacArthur settling in as South Jersey’s new congressman

Sometimes when U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur walks home from work at night, it hits him. He has a place six blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and at times he turns around and looks back at the dome as he leaves.

“I’ll realize there’s only been 12,000 people in the history of our nation who’ve served in Congress,” MacArthur said. “And here I am among them.”

MacArthur, R-3rd, is the area’s newest congressman. While he still gets caught up in the history of his position, five months in he seems to be settling in. He’s found a niche issue in Hurricane Sandy relief problems. He’s introduced bills and has served on committees and subcommittees. He’s even called for someone’s resignation: Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate.

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“There’s certainly been a learning curve,” MacArthur said after a May 26 press conference. “But I’ve found myself pretty quickly acclimating to Congress and understanding how to get things done. It’s a very human business, and the humanity is no different in Congress than it is in any other sector of society.”

That humanity was on display at a gathering inside the Bellinato residence, in Bayville, Ocean County, where MacArthur — whose district covers parts of southern Ocean and Burlington counties — listened to one post-Sandy horror story after another.

More than two years after the storm, the Bellinatos had finally moved into this newly built house in April. Now the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program was saying the Bellinatos might have to pay back grant money because they’d also taken out a Small Business Administration mortgage. That was considered a duplication of benefits.

As he heard this story, MacArthur quickly filled both sides of a piece of paper with notes. He asked the occasional question. But he mostly listened to his constituents. He didn’t tout the bill he was about to announce. He waited 30 minutes, for the press conference, to do that.

The bill, his second to help ease the financial burden for Sandy victims, would amend existing law to ensure that getting a loan from the SBA doesn’t prohibit a family from getting other kinds of financial assistance after a disaster.

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“He’s a good listener. He’s a problem solver,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who’s been in Congress since 1995. “A lot of new members get here, and I sort of internally shake my head. Not MacArthur.”

In a light-hearted moment, MacArthur said to a man with a shaved head that he could tell how stressed he was over RREM asking for funds back.

“You pulled your hair out,” he told the man.

MacArthur’s head, too, is shaved and occasionally reflects light depending on where he’s standing. He’s a relatively short man and maintains a well-trimmed goatee. He wore a colorful tie that day, with orange, blue and pink stripes.

MacArthur, 54, grew up in Hebron, Connecticut, which has produced two other prominent politicians in U.S. Sen. and Vermont Gov. William A. Palmer and Connecticut Gov. John Samuel Peters. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University and worked 28 years in the insurance industry, including 11 as chairman and CEO of York Risk Services Group. He served on Randolph Township Council, in Mercer County, from 2011 through 2013.

He’s been married to his wife, Debbie, for 32 years. He has two children: David, 25, and Isabella, 17. Another daughter, Gracie, died when he was 11.

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Following the press conference (between hellos and handshakes, leaving the event took almost as long as the event itself), MacArthur explained what it’s like to be a congressman. He talked about the opportunity to serve his neighbors. Reading lengthy bills before voting. Traveling through a system of byzantine tunnels underneath the Capitol.

In describing a day-in-the-life, he used “busy” four times and “intense” three times.

“There’s three concentric circles of activity,” he said, explaining the balancing act of representing a district, working on committees and subcommittees, and dealing with the daily business of the House of Representatives. “It’s all happening at the same time. There’s constant revising of schedules and re-evaluating what I’m doing.”

“It’s busy. It’s intense,” he added.

LoBiondo said he still remembers being a freshman congressman. He compared those days to trying to take a sip of water from a firehose.

“My recollection is that it’s so overwhelming,” LoBiondo said. “I think Tom has mastered that because he’s surrounded himself with people. He’s asking a lot of questions. He’s doing a lot of listening. And he’s using the resources available so he can make the best decisions possible for the people he represents.”

MacArthur earned his seat after a nasty and expensive election last November. His district was widely considered the most competitive in the state. The outgoing two-term incumbent, Jon Runyan, was a Republican, but President Barack Obama carried the district twice in presidential elections.

MacArthur resigned from Randolph Township Council and moved to Toms River, where he had a house, to run for the seat. During the campaign, MacArthur was called a carpetbagger and was accused in an ad of denying injury claims from firefighters when he owned York Risk Services. MacArthur planned to sue (he had sold the company prior to the claims mentioned in the ad), but the ad was pulled.

MacArthur said representing a competitive district “certainly comes into play” when voting on issues, but he said he’s never had to vote against his own beliefs. Despite representing a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, MacArthur is very much a Republican. He has conservative stances on same-sex marriage, abortion and the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s not always been easy. I voted against my party on a number of key issues, and I’ve been beat up on a few of them, too,” MacArthur said. “Honestly, I don’t care. I look past it. I’m there to do a job. I’m there to represent my people, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

MacArthur has received some tips from colleagues as he enters his sixth month in Congress. One piece of advice, which he wouldn’t attribute, stood out to the freshman congressman.

“He said he spent the first six months trying to figure out how he got there,” MacArthur said. “He spent the last 19 and a half years trying to figure out how everyone else got there.”

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