WASHINGTON - It was a "great experience" moving from the NFL to Congress, Jon Runyan said - but it was also laced with frustration.
As the former Eagles offensive lineman turned South Jersey Republican prepared to leave that frustration behind, he sat for an interview to discuss the "mind-numbing" dysfunction he encountered, his future plans, and the redeeming parts of being a two-term congressman.
Runyan, 41, of Burlington County, is one of three local members of Congress who leave office Jan. 3. He, Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), and Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) spoke with The Inquirer in separate interviews this month as they cast some of their final votes.
They talked about life after Congress, problems inside the institution, and potential solutions.
They told stories of quieter moments, from the touching (helping a veteran get benefits) to the absurd (Runyan fielding autograph requests).
Their answers showed shared experiences - two mentioned seeing constituents at a Wawa - and key differences.
Below are some of Runyan's comments.
Question: What are you looking forward to most?
Answer: Having a little more control over my life. I was having that discussion earlier ... talking about how structured the NFL is, and how structured this is, how little say you have, you actually have, in what happens.
Q: No specific plans yet?
A: Not really. I'm doing some sports stuff, the commentating on Fox29 on Sunday nights.
The only issue there is, it forces you to watch football. Now I have to watch. (Laughs.)
Q: It's not optional now.
A: In a hearing yesterday, we were talking about the National Cemetery Administration, and in the opening statement, I said, 'the NCAA.' I go, 'Too much football on my mind.'
Q: Is it safe to assume you won't run for office again?
A: I never say no. It's a possibility. But we'll see.
Q: I saw your house is for sale. Are you leaving the Philly area?
A: No. Trying to downsize.
Q: A lot of folks I've talked to have been career politicians - state, then Congress. This was your first entrance into political life. What was the experience like?
A: Positive. But at the same light it's frustrating, because when you use the term career politician, and when you look at this place, you need input from all different angles.
When all you've done is politics . . . what experience do you have that's different than the other guy? And that's sometimes I think what holds you back here, because there's not a lot of practical outside-world experience.
Q: Anything that surprised you about the political world?
A: I felt frustrated that I would have thought you would have got a lot more stuff done. Everybody agrees on the problems that this country has, and you just wait until it's a crisis before you react to it, that's frustrating.
You get there and you think, these motivated individuals, you know, educated individuals, and you just sit here and watch stuff crumble around you, and it's mind-numbing.
Q: What causes that?
A: Politics. It's the difference between politics and governing. That's the unfortunate part. It's the world we live in as we continue to allow outside groups to determine what the path forward is instead of what this country is - it's a center-right country.
Q: Anything you'll miss?
A: Not that I know of.
Q: What are you proudest of?
A: Helping people. I was literally walking down Main Street in Moorestown right before Thanksgiving, and this lady pulls up onto the curb, jumps out of the car, and she's, like, 'You don't know me, but you helped my husband get some GI benefits in the Veterans Administration and he's now fully employed as an HVAC tech.'
Q: Jim Gerlach said the same thing about constituent services.
A: Because it's personal. When I'm walking into the Wawa and someone comes up and says to me, 'You helped out my uncle and I wanted to thank you,' that's what makes it worth it.
Q: Any great moments you'll remember? People you met?
A: A few of them. For lack of a better term, my wife is the celebrity whore. (Laughs.)
I don't bother people, because I get it all the time, everybody wants an autograph. At some point, it does wear on you.
But I met some interesting people. How many people have been in the White House and shook the president's hand? Or you're out at McGuire Air Force Base and stand at the bottom of the stairs and shake the vice president's hand. Moments my grandchildren will think I'm crazy when I tell them I did that stuff.
Q: Members of Congress asked for autographs?
A: They come to my office all the time. A staffer last night brought my jersey to a staff Christmas party and wanted me to sign it.
Q: Are you the only former pro athlete in the House now?
A: Yeah. This will be the first time in 50 years that there's not a professional athlete as a member of Congress.
Q: Any regrets?
A: No. Great experience. Met a lot of great people. Learned a lot. Sometimes after you go to the sausage factory and see how it's made, it's not appetizing anymore.
Q: Is that what you tell folks outside of D.C.?
A: People get upset: 'Why are you leaving?' I go, 'Because it's your turn.' And then they go, 'No.' Well, that's part of the problem. The average person doesn't want to step up and do it because it's such a negative environment.
If you're a successful person and you're results-oriented, where are the results?
Q: Advice for new members?
A: Surround yourself with good people. You don't know everything. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.
Q: Bills you're proud of?
A: I have one on my wall, 2012, cost-of-living adjustment for disabled veterans. Signed by the president on my birthday, actually.
Q. Anything here change your views or your positions?
A: Not really. I always equated it back to how I got involved in sports broadcasting - and how little people actually know about what's going on.
They're listening to a talking head and they never really ask the questions, because they're just getting talking points.
They set everybody's hair on fire all the time.
I listen to them scream and it's like, 'I get why you're saying that, but here are the facts of the matter. If you really want to do what you do, all these bad things can happen over here. Do you really want to go there?'
And they go, 'God, I never thought about it that way.'
Jim Gerlach looks back
on more than 20 years in public office.EndText