WASHINGTON — Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas isn’t just the elder statesman of Congress; at 90, he’s the oldest member ever to serve in the House. He began running for local elective office in 1949 and filed once again for his House seat Dec. 9 — along with five Republican primary challengers.
But to the surprise of supporters, the seemingly eternal Hall, who said he is stronger than his much younger opponents — ranging in age from their 30s to one in his 60s — announced Dec. 20 this would be his last campaign.
The World War II Navy fighter pilot said in an interview that internal polling showed that when people were asked about someone running at 90, there was a sizable 20 percent who would be against him based on age.
Although Hall is confident he can win in 2014, as he has handily since first winning the seat in 1980, he also sees the political reality reflected in the polls.
“That helped me decide that this should probably be my last time,” Hall told McClatchy. “It is my last campaign.” His age is the issue that he calls “the spear I have to blunt.”
“I am 90. I can work day or night,” he said. “I’m the same guy, but the polls show the effect of age. That’s the issue.”
Hall is lifting his game one last time for the March 4 primary. “I’ve got to do something other than be 90 years old,” he said. Hall runs two miles a day on his North Texas property in Rockwall, some 25 miles east of Dallas, and is so tireless a campaigner that longtime aide Tom Hughes said the congressman wears him out. “He’s a dynamo,” Hughes said.
And yet opponents said the district is ready for someone new.
“Our country faces enormous challenges, and we need new, energetic leadership to tackle them,” said former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe, one of Hall’s five GOP opponents. He and others are careful to be respectful of Hall, and Ratcliffe told McClatchy, “I’m not going to make age an issue in the campaign.”
It is, of course, the issue.
Oldest member of House
In 2012, at 89, Hall became the oldest member serving in the House in history, though there have been older members of the Senate, such as Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who was 100 in 2002 when he retired.
In the 2012 election, Hall was targeted by an anti-incumbent political action committee, so the Texan decided he had to do something unexpected. He did a tandem parachute jump out of an airplane before the primary.
This time, Hall dryly suggested he would swim the 21-mile English Channel — but added it would take too long since he would have to swim one mile a day. “I may swim down to Cuba,” he said. “I’d be swimming downhill.”
Hall was a conservative Democrat who switched parties in 2004 after he felt a mid-decade redistricting left him with few options in his heavily Republican district. Not that Hall changed the way he voted.
“I’ve always been conservative,” said Hall. “I was born that way.”
Encounter with Bonnie and Clyde
Hall was just old enough to have an encounter with one of the most infamous celebrities of the 1930s — gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. Hall was working at a drugstore in his hometown of Rockwall when, at 13 years old, he recognized “Clyde and Bonnie,” Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, bank robbers and murderers who shot to fame with their exploits.
“We had curb service and up came a ’33 Ford. There they were. They had the papers all over their lap and said, ‘Give us two Coca-Colas, one carton of Old Gold and all the newspapers you have.”’
“I knew exactly who they were,” said Hall, who was, then and now, an avid newspaper reader. He even remembers that Barrow, who looked like “a little weasel,” gave him $3 and said “keep the change” of 40 cents.
Hall knows the value of a dollar — or a penny — and is, not surprisingly, old-fashioned when it comes to campaigning. His signature campaign trinket is a penny that has an aluminum casing with Hall’s name on it and that he distributes by the thousands. For many years, when he was running for Texas state senate, it said “All for Hall from Rockwall” on the casing.
“When you’re as plain as I am, you’ve gotta have a gimmick,” Hall said, “and that was my gimmick.”
He calculates that he is now into “my second million” of pennies he’s given away, paid through campaign funds. One million pennies is equivalent to $10,000.
“People won’t throw them away, and they have my name on it,” he said. When he walks around towns in his district, people in barber shops and stores pull their Hall pennies out of the cash register, he said.