On a mid-September morning three months before his retirement, U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts sits behind his desk in his cozy Capitol Hill office and reads from a Washington newspaper with his face on the front page.
Nearing the end of a 44-year career in state and national politics, it’s the first time he’s appeared in print in quite this way.
His headshot is on the bottom of the page, looking almost like the 77-year-old Republican is gazing upward at the one massive photo showing the subject of the day’s main story: the Lancaster County Democrat hoping to capitalize on his decision not to seek reelection.
In his office lined with densely blue carpet and walls decorated partly by his own paintings, Pitts doesn’t seem to pay the story much mind at all — he’s confident.
Joe Pitts — with 24 years legislating in the state House and 20 years in the U.S. House, adept at communicating with everyone from world leaders to high school students, with artistic gifts and politician skills — is widely regarded as something of a Renaissance man.
His colleagues both Republican and Democrat respect him. His former staffers run out of compliments.
What makes him such a rare political breed, they say, is his humble nature — eschewing media attention and credit for his work in an age when politicians are addicted to the spotlight.
“He just sort of defied the typical rules of politics,” said Gabe Neville, Pitts’ first congressional campaign manager who then served as one of his closest aides for almost 20 years. “He got to the very top of America's political system without being a self promoter, without working the political networks, without schmoozing and telling people what they wanted to hear.”
The new class of politicians may be soaking up the headlines these days, but that’s fine with Joe Pitts.
He never wanted them anyway.
A veteran congressman
It’s a sunny summer day in D.C., and Pitts is walking briskly down the windowless corridor in the catacombs of Capitol Hill.
He’s in a dark blue suit with a white shirt, black-and-blue-striped tie and laceless brown shoes. His full head of hair, snow-white and combed over to perfection is just as it was the day he first showed up in Washington as a 57-year-old freshman in 1997.
His brow just barely begins to sweat, but the septuagenarian keeps his composure as he hustles through the underground tunnel from his office building to where he’s scheduled to lead a 10 a.m. hearing on the Affordable Care Act.
“I wanted to get as far away from the Capitol as possible, to walk back and forth. It’s the only exercise I get every day,” said Pitts, who chose his current office for its high ceilings, an old chandelier and its location on the expansive capitol complex.
It’s a particularly contentious hearing, one held by the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee, which he's chaired since 2011 after eight years as a member.
The room is full with about 20 congressmen and women and their many staffers. Republicans on Pitts’ right side argue against President Obama’s signature health care reform while Democrats on his left argue for it. A Colorado Democrat pulls out a newspaper more than two-thirds into the three-hour hearing while she waits for her turn to speak.
“No, I'm used to it,” Pitts said when asked whether it's frustrating to continue to preside over these hearings after years of litigating the healthcare law. “It's a process designed to be slow … you persevere.”
Pitts has spent six years fighting Obamacare, which President-elect Donald Trump has promised to repeal.
But Pitts won’t be in Washington to see that legislative watershed, if and when it happens.
A few months after this September hearing, just weeks before his last days in Congress, Pitts sits for an interview in his Kennett Square district office. He’s leaving at an interesting time — when the White House and both chambers of Congress will be Republican-held, and his longtime friend Mike Pence is assuming the vice presidency.
The pair spent 12 years together in the House, and they’ve spoken a few times since Election Day.
“I don’t know if he’s going to want me to be involved in any way or not,” Pitts said of his now open prospects. “I would not want a job, but if I can help in advice, counsel, that’s what I would be interested in.”
For now, he’s at peace with his decision to hang up his boots after a long and adventurous career.
A congressman in the making
Pitts, who raised more than $1 million for each of his final re-election campaigns in Congress, started his first state House campaign in 1971 with a mere $8.
That bought him two 2-by-4s. He painted signs on each and bolted them down alongside a road in his Chester County state House district. On one, he painted, “Elect Pitts April 25” with an elephant. The other, about 100 yards down the road, read, “Stop here, meet Pitts,” where he would stand and wave to drivers before and after school.
“They would even see me in the rain and I guess they concluded, you know, ‘Dumb guy wants it that bad, I’ll vote for him," Pitts laughed.
The only political experience the then-schoolteacher had on his resume was some volunteer time on a few local campaigns. But his diverse background at age 33 likely appealed to voters.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Pitts’ father shipped his mother, himself and his two sisters, to live in the Philippines when Pitts was 8 years old.
Dad was a chaplain in the Army under General Douglas MacArthur in World War II. After the war, he moved the family to the war-torn southeast Asian island so both he and Pitts’ mother could work as missionaries, which they would continue to do into the 1970’s.
Pitts graduated from high school there, moving back to attend Asbury
College in Kentucky. That’s where he met his wife Virginia, both of whom went on to teach in Kentucky public schools.
But after starting a family, Ginny focussing on being a mother and one meager $3,2
50 teacher’s salary, Pitts made a decision: enlist.
He became an Air Force officer, flying B-52s, spending half the year on alert with nuclear weapons at a Massachusetts military base. Three tours of Vietnam, 116 combat missions and five and a half years later, he had three kids now — including a 14-month
Ginny met Pitts on the airfield “and he smiled and turned away. He was afraid of me,” Pitts said of his young son. “So I said, ‘That’s it. Three kids who don’t know their dad. I’m getting out.’”
The Pitts family moved to Kennett Square, where Ginny had grown up, and where he went to work building the home they still live in today.
After a stint in teaching math and science at Great Valley High School in Malvern, Chester County, he was recruited for the 158th Legislative District seat based in the Kennett Square area.
When he won by a mere 16 votes, he said it energized his volunteer base and there was no looking back after that.
In the state House, Pitts admits he had no idea what he was about to experience.
“I drove my little Volkswagen up to Harrisburg and there’s this whole parking lot full of Cadillacs and I thought, ‘What am I getting into here,’” he recalled with a laugh.
Soon, Pitts grew accustomed to Harrisburg’s ways, eventually rising to one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature: majority chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“I tell people in Washington that is like being the Bud
get Committee chairman, the Ways and Means Committee chairman and the Appropriations Committee chairman all at the same time,” said Neville, his longtime top aide. “Joe Pitts controlled the money.”
In Harrisburg, Pitts also began a trend that would continue throughout his career — one of taking up projects outside his job description.
In 1980, he started the Keystone State Games — Pennsylvania’s largest annual multi-sport competitions.
A committed history buff, he chaired a legislative committee in 1981 to celebrate the commonwealth’s 300th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the current Capitol building. In 1987, he similarly initiated and led a bicentennial celebration of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Keeping up with the theme, he wrote and passed legislation to form the Capitol Preservation Committee, which he oversaw for its first 15 years. It’s mission is to restore and protect everything from the iconic building’s dome and embellishments, to the paintings and ornamental clocks that fill its nearly 500,000 square-footage space.
While his name remains out of the history books for many of these efforts, Pitts was also instrumental in reforming Pennsylvania’s home schooling laws in the 1980’s.
“I probably learned a masters degree in government within two months working for Joe Pitts because he understood the role of a legislator and a committee chairman and he knew how to get things done.” - Kevin Harley
Pitts gave homeschoolers “recognition, gave them credibility and was their legislative champion,” said Kevin Harley, whose first job out of college in 1987 was working as a research analyst in Pitts’ office when he was chairman of the state’s Labor Relations Committee.
Harley, now managing director of Harrisburg-based Quantum Communications, said Pitts was one of the most principled and genuine members of the House — and a fantastic boss.
“I probably learned a masters degree in government within two months working for Joe Pitts because he understood the role of a legislator and a committee chairman and he knew how to get things done,” Harley said.
Running for Congress
Watching Congress from afar, Pitts always had his eyes set on his next state House run.
He never expected the U.S. House to become majority Republican in his lifetime. But then came 1994, when a swing of seats left the GOP with its first majority in 40 years, and Pitts thought to himself, “man, it would be fun.”
He jumped at the opportunity when 20-year veteran Republican Bob Walker unexpectedly announced his retirement from the 16th district seat at age 53. Newspaper records show a flurry of 20 interested candidates — Pitts was the very last name in one story, a footnote.
Still, he was the first to declare his candidacy, and went on to defeat five Republicans in the primary and win the general election by a 22-point margin. He promised not to hike taxes, to help balance the federal budget and to bring in funding for the district’s dated highways.
He also vowed to stay only for a maximum of five terms — something he regrets now, because of the rift it caused when he decided to break the promise.
Nearly two decades exactly before Smucker would bring current House Speaker Paul Ryan to fundraise for him in the district, it was Pitts who got visits from then-House Whip Tom DeLay and then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Neville, who started as his campaign manager, said the “secret strategy” was Pitts’ reputation and longtime relationships with both Chester and Lancaster county folks.
Franklin & Marshall College political observer G. Terry Madonna sees some of Pitts’ continued success like this: "Even though he's a Chester County guy, he's kind of a low-key Lancaster County guy ... His demeanor is less strident. I always thought that was historically the low-key approach that played well in Lancaster.”
Striving to go from the state Appropriations Committee to the congressional Appropriations Committee, Pitts instead was placed for his first few terms on the Budget Committee.
Then-U.S. Rep. John Kasich, the current governor of Ohio who Pitts originally supported for president this year, was leading the budget process at the time, and Pitts is still proud to have worked with him, and President Bill Clinton, to balance it.
He would never make it onto Appropriations — one of the most frustrating moments of his career — but would make it on another top-tier committee, Energy and Commerce.
Also appointed to the International Relations Committee in his third term, Pitts began traveling the world in efforts to build diplomatic relations on behalf of the country, and to advocate for human rights.
This brought him face to face with leaders like Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
In conversations with the Egyptian leader, Pitts says he would ask him to stop the unjust killings and political propaganda in the country’s press. When Mubarak would then visit the U.S., “every time I’d go see him. Finally, he’d go like this,” Pitts says as he raises his forearm to cover his face. “He knew I was going to bring up an instance when they murdered several Coptic Christians.”
In India, Pitts talks of how Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows him from when they went “head to head” over human rights abuses, especially a 2002 religious riot that left 2,000 Muslims dead.
Tony Hall, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and ambassador who has traveled with Pitts, described his methods as diplomatic.
“He is not bullish or over aggressive. He’s just very straightforward,” said Hall, a pro-life liberal who had a weekly prayer group with Pitts when they served together. “He lets people know what he's thinking and what our country's all about and what he’s all about.”
Pitts wasn’t placed on the International Relations Committee until 2001, but took on the guise of a diplomat long before that.
One month before he was first inaugurated in January 1997, he began organizing monthly luncheons with other country’s ambassadors living in D.C.
Why would someone brand new to a 435-member body with no foreign relations experience do that?
Pitts said it was to foster good relationships with countries — partly to initiate a healthy foundation for free and fair trade — and help them navigate the bloated bureaucracy of the federal government.
He’d also begun semi-regular roundtables to talk about bigger issues, like a final one he held last week with Indonesian authorities to discuss how they — the largest Muslim nation on the planet — can combat religious extremism, Pitts said.
Pitts has also worked with leaders of Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Philippines.
He even organized an “Ambassador Visit” program that annually brought ambassadors and their families to the district to spend time with American families and businesses.
By raising $8,000 to $10,000, he said he could rent a few Greyhound busses and pay for their meals as they would stay with host families — while ethics rule changes would eventually prevent him from raising the money for it.
“I’ll never forget one year the ambassador from Chad, in Africa, was the dean (of the ambassador delegation),” Pitts recalled. “He stood up and said, ‘You know, my wife and I have lived here in America for four years but we’ve never been outside the beltway in Washington or New York City. This is the first time we ever met a real American family, been in a real American home ...‘It’s changed our view of America.’”
Sometimes, these visits led to opportunities for local businesses.
“It is unusual,” Hall, the former U.S. ambassador who has been nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize, said of Pitts’ work with the ambassadors. “Because a lot of congressmen are thinking about themselves and thinking about getting reelected… He doesn't get any votes from these ambassadors.”
“When I was in Pakistan, (I saw) all these crippled people walking on their hands and knees on the ground so I got 2,000 wheelchairs, padded wheelchairs, donated … and you should see the light in their eyes when they get a wheelchair.” - Pitts
However, Pitts’ extensive ties overseas didn’t come without questions over the years.
In 2011, a political donation from seven years earlier raised some eyebrows when the FBI uncovered that Pitts and other House members had received campaign contributions from two men at the heart of an alleged cover plot by the Pakistani government to influence American policy on Kashmir.
Pitts’ office at the time denied a relationship between him and one of the men arrested (Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, who pleaded guilty for illegally funnelling money from Pakistan), despite public comments both had previously made praising each-other’s work.
U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, a 44-year political veteran retiring this month, is well-versed in toda…
According to news reports then, Pitts gave away the $4,000 campaign donation to a Lancaster County charity.
And as far as Pitt’s humanitarian work reaching beyond the pale of his official diplomatic duties, no country in need was off the table.
On his own effort through fundraising with friends, he has gotten boxes of school supplies to children in Kashmir, wheelchairs to the disabled in Pakistan and Afghanistan, medical equipment all across the Middle East and Asia, and even a donated fire truck that cost $19,000 and years-worth of work to ship it to Mongolia.
“When I was in Pakistan, (I saw) all these crippled people walking on their hands and knees on the ground so I got 2,000 wheelchairs, padded wheelchairs, donated … and you should see the light in their eyes when they get a wheelchair,” Pitts described.
Pitts may be best known on the national stage for his staunch pro-life, anti-abortion rights stances.
A devout Evangelical Christian, Pitts was a key player behind the scenes of Pennsylvania’s 1990 Abortion Control Act, which added restrictions to women’s abortion rights and eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Twenty years later, he found himself at the center of a national debate over whether Obamacare should allow federal funding for health care costs covering abortions.
Former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat and close friend who co-sponsored the amendment to outlaw such funding with Pitts, remembers the Pennsylvania congressman working tirelessly behind the scenes.
Stupak eventually voted to approve the health care law without the provision, leading to blowback for his role in the narrow passage of the law. He said he felt bad when, after a year of working together, he had to tell Pitts how he would cast his vote.
But their cordial relationship never changed.
“I know Joe Pitts as an individual, not just as a legislator,” Stupak said. “When you know a person’s heart it's easy to understand where they’re coming from.”
In fact, Pitts strict belief system — something he and those who have worked closely with him say hasn’t wavered a bit in his entire career — could be confused as a result of today’s highly polarized factions in government, said F&M’s Madonna.
“I know people think he’s an ideologue,” Madonna said. “It seems to me, he comes to this out of his culture, out of his heritage, out of hs upbringing… Before this big ideologue divide developed, he was more of a traditional conservative.”
Others have put it a little differently.
Jeff Sharlet, an investigative journalist, has written two books about a secretive evangelical group of lawmakers called “The Fellowship” that guides religious virtues in Congress.
In one of his books, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” Sharlet calls Pitts “an avuncular would-be theocrat who chairs the House” Values Action Team — a group Pitts has chaired for his entire 20 years.
The team, Pitts said, “helps equip their constituencies with up-to-date information on things like life and family and values … traditional values.”
When Sharlet visited the county for a book signing in 2010, Pitt’s office rejected the idea of the more nefarious accusations.
Pitts’ Republican colleagues have largely celebrated his more traditional values.
In May, when honouring the retiring congressman, state party leaders described him as an inspiration for conservatives, and in some ways, a visionary.
“There will come a day when the causes for which Joe has fought will be realized,” U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus said as U.S. Rep. Tom Marino and others painted him as an steady warrior fighting for a day in which the country will understand his pro-life views.
Life after Congress
Back in his Kennett Square district office, boxes piled high around him, Pitts seems relaxed as he talks of retirement.
He is prohibited from lobbying foreign governments or ambassadors in any way for a year. After that, he said he’d enjoy working as a special envoy to somewhere abroad.
“I have engaged in central and south Asia so much, I know a lot of the ambassadors," he said. "I could help the administration in hot spots, develop some policies. Maybe that would cool down some areas in that region of the world.”
In the meantime, he’ll be doing some guest lecturing at his alma mater,, which is opening an academic center in his name next year.
He’s also looking forward to seeing more of his teenage grandchildren in Tennessee.
As for how he’ll be remembered for his representation, he’ll leave that up to his colleagues and constituents — some of whom can call themselves both.
“Joe Pitts is so broadly respected in Congress and Washington. I don’t think the people in the district have any idea of the impact that he’s had,” said former U.S. Rep. Bob Walker, a Manheim Township Republican whom Pitts succeeded. “I couldn’t be prouder that he was my representative.”