Joe Barton has been called “Congressman” for half of his life. But starting in January, he will return back to being simply “Joe.”
“I’ve been used for a long time people calling me ‘Congressman,’” Barton expressed as he sat inside the Daily Light office. “Now instead of ‘Congressman Barton,' it’ll just be ‘This is Joe Barton.’ More often than not, they’ll say ‘Joe-Who?’”
Barton has served as the congressman for Texas’ sixth United States congressional district since 1985, representing the Ellis, Navarro and a portion of Tarrant County for 34 years. Last year, Barton withdrew his bid for re-election, and his former chief-of-staff Ron Wright won his seat in November with 53.1 percent of the vote against Democratic candidate Jana Lynn Sanchez.
Barton’s first exposure to Washington happened long before he even became a congressman. In 1981, Barton was selected as a White House Fellow alongside 14 other individuals and served under United States Secretary of Energy James Edwards. After his initial exposure to Washington, Barton decided to run for the sixth district in 1984.
“I thought heck, I could do that,” he said with a chuckle and humble smirk.
But several decades ago, Ellis County was a starkly different demographic from what it is now. At the time, the Democrats had control of the U.S. House of Representatives nationally, and the Texas congressional delegation was at a 21-6 Democratic advantage.
Barton said he decided to run as a Republican, knowing full well that it meant the race was stacked against him.
“At the time, there were no Republicans elected anywhere in Texas,” Barton chuckled. “At the local level, everybody was a Democrat. In fact, there wasn’t even a Republican primary. The first time I voted in a Republican primary, I voted for myself.”
“My wife didn’t want me to do it,” Barton recalled. “My family, my job, nobody wanted me to do it. They all agreed, ‘Well he doesn’t have a chance. Let’s let him get it out of his system.’ I promised my wife that I would only do it one time, I promised my boss I would only do it one time.”
It turned out that one time was all that Barton needed. When he got back to his campaign office in Ennis, he heard the news on the radio – Joe Barton had been elected as a U.S. congressman.
“I’m sitting there in my campaign office with my family and friends, they all started clapping,” Barton recalled. “And I thought ‘What the heck have I gotten myself into.’”
At the end of the 1984 election, Ronald Reagan won the Presidency with 63.6 percent of the vote. Texas Senator Phil Gramm won 58.6 percent of the vote and Barton won with 55.8 percent of his vote. Barton went on to be known as part of the “Texas Six Pack,” which was a group of six freshmen Texas Republicans elected during Reagan’s victory.
“I was very blessed to start with President Reagan,” Barton expressed. “I couldn’t have started with a better President.”
When he assumed the office that January, he met then-Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich and became acquainted with his group of Congressmen.
“The Democrat party at the local level was still dominant,” Barton recalled. “But the state was changing. The demographics were changing. I kind of got on the ground floor of the Republican renaissance in Washington. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Even though he worked in Washington D.C. for several years, Barton said he never spent much time in Washington outside of the U.S. Capitol. Whenever a vote wasn’t in session, he was either in Texas or flying out to Texas.
Still, Barton said the Capitol never ceased to amaze him.
“It’s inspirational to see the Capitol and know you worked there,” he explained. “It’s inspirational to be invited to the White House and walk into the west wing with the Marine guards on either side of the door, go into the Oval Office and sit down with the President, or go into the Congress room and see your name ‘Congressman Barton’ on the desk. It’s very humbling to know that the President is really listening, and he’s going to make a decision that could literally change the world.”
Some of Barton’s favorite memories in Congress involved his interactions with one of the six President he served under — Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In 1991, Barton took then-President George H.W. Bush on a tour of the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator that was being built in Waxahachie before its cancellation in 1993. Barton expressed regret at its loss and said he should have fought harder for it to be saved.
He also recalled a ride on Air Force One, which Barton said he kept memorabilia from to recall his fond memories of the flight.
“I still have M&M’s in my desk I found from Air Force One,” he chuckled. “Playing cards that say Air Force One. To sit with the President up in the private suite on Air Force One and see the President enjoying being the President. That was kinda cool.”
Last year, an explicit picture of himself surfaced online that he had sent to a sexual partner while he was still married. The photo drew ire and criticism from the Ellis County Republican party, with then-chairman Randy Bellomy saying Barton's "lifestyle is inconsistent with Republican ideals.”
Barton ultimately decided not to seek re-election after the photo’s release.
“I don’t defend it,” Barton empathized. “You don’t like it that you’ve done something embarrassing to your friends and your family, and in my case as a Congressman. I’m not a kid. I’m not a teenager. What I did was unbelievably stupid.”
Regardless, he expressed confidence in his successor Ron Wright and believes he will represent the district well come January.
“Nobody likes to hear about the good ol’ days,” Barton explained. “They want to hear about next week. 17-term former Congressman – probably not the face of the future for the Republican party for Ellis County.”
As for what’s next on Barton’s plate, he said he’s focused on his upcoming marriage to his third wife and taking some time for himself. With the Democrats retaking the House, Barton said he’s leaving at just about the right time.
“Public service is a privilege,” Barton said. “It’s not an entitlement. It’s not supposed to be forever. Seventeen terms, 34 years is a lot longer than the average congressional career. I’ve left America and the world in a better place than when I found it. I’m good.”
Barton’s term expires Jan. 3 2019.