EPM interviews incoming Representative Joe Heck, DO, the first emergency physician ever elected to Congress.
One thing is clear in the current political landscape: Americans are fed up with the status quo and they’re looking for fresh ideas. Those frustrations laid the foundation for a historic shake-up in Congress last November, and helped push a man named Joe Heck to a slim victory in the House of Representatives. But Joe Heck is more than a hopeful change-maker from Nevada. He earns the distinction as the first emergency physician ever to be elected to Congress. The question is, will Heck remember his roots or become another career politician? I recently interviewed him to see if he was the real deal, or if he was already toxic from drinking the Congressional Kool-Aid.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Joe Heck is a residency-trained, board certified emergency physician who attended Penn State University for his undergraduate work and graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1988. He completed his EM residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center in 1992. Joe has served in the U.S. Army Reserve since 1991 and has attended the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, receiving an MSS (Master of Strategic Studies) degree in 2006. Currently, Joe lives in Henderson, Nevada with his wife, Lisa, a registered nurse, and his three children. He currently works part time clinically at the University Medical Center EM Residency Program in Las Vegas, Nevada and runs a homeland security consulting firm. In the very little free time he can spare these days, he enjoys the outdoors, coaching Lacrosse and reading.
- Opposes government run healthcare
- Opposes Federal funding for abortion
- Supports education vouchers for public and private education
- Signed the no climate tax pledge (opposing any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.)
- Supports the 2nd Amendment and the rights of sportsmen
- Opposes restrictions on the right to bear arms
- Emphasizes border security as a key issue for national security
- Supports private retirement accounts
Long before considering any national office, Joe worked for the Department of Defense, as a civilian policy writer from 1998-2002. He became disenchanted with that role when everything he drafted morphed into something different than what he had envisioned. “I’d rather run with the ball than pass it off,” says Heck, emphasizing his “hands-on” leadership style. Joe subsequently served in the Nevada State Senate from 2004-2008. After the 2008 election, Dr. Heck considered running for Jon Porter’s (R) former seat, which had been won by Dina Titus (D). After careful consideration, he and Lisa, who had been very involved in his former campaigns, decided that with an 11-year-old son still at home, the timing wasn’t quite right. Serendipitously, the Republican candidate for his District withdrew from the 2010 election. Joe was again approached to run.
He was encouraged to run by former representative Jon Porter and Congressmen Dean Heller, but there was one more nod he needed, an endorsement which carried much more influence than all of his supporters combined. When Lisa, his wife, did give that final green light, she said, “If this is in the best interest of our state and in the best interest of our country, then ultimately, it’s in the best interest of our family . . . Besides, Joe,” she added was a smile, “the house runs better when you’re not home anyway.”
Getting on the ticket was just the beginning. The campaign process “was grueling,” says Joe. “The campaign at the Federal level was very different than at the State level, with a whole new set of guidelines to follow.” He thought that the campaign should be a collegial, may-the-best-person-win affair, but it soon turned nasty. “My opponent sunk to new lows in political practices,” says Heck.
For example, Heck’s opponent Dina Titus aired an ad slamming Joe Heck for saying, “The role of Congress is not to create jobs.” The ad truncated the quote, cutting off Heck’s very next sentence, which explained his view that the role of Congress is to help private businesses create jobs by keeping tax rates stable and free from burdensome regulations. This was one of multiple over-the-top claims lobbed at Heck that were debunked by watchdog groups like Factcheck.org.
“Attack me on my voting record. Attack me on my policies. That’s what it is all about. [Instead], my opponent attacked me as a physician and attacked me personally, and those things have a huge impact on my family.”
The personal attacks were particularly hard on Joe’s 13-year-old son, Joseph, who was even taunted by classmates about certain television commercials.
But Joe had more than negative ads working against him. Continuing to work ED shifts and run his business, he put in 12-to 18-hour days in order to campaign across Nevada’s geographically diverse landscape. He had to cut back on coaching his son’s lacrosse team, one of the main ways that they were able to bond together. Throughout the ordeal, Joe worked to make it home every night to maintain some semblance of a normal family life. “I still found the time to help my son with his homework and take him to the bus stop every morning,” says Heck.
In the end, Joe’s fate came down to a handful of votes, relatively speaking. In November, Joe won his congressional seat by less than a 1% margin (1,922 votes). And just like that, his life turned on a dime. When we spoke, he was about to attend his Congressional Freshman Orientation. He expressed concern that he would no longer be able to work clinically. “I’m not certain what the rules and restrictions will be for outside employment,” he said, “but I would like to keep my skills up. I might be able to work some shifts at Walter Reed or another military facility to meet my reserve obligations.”
Let’s get down to business. Can Joe Heck make a difference in Washington? I asked him how he would be different than many other politicians who are at best well-intentioned but ineffective. Joe’s quick response felt sincere and unrehearsed: “The nation’s issues are similar to those in Nevada. Nevada leads the nation in foreclosures and bankruptcy. We need jobs here. What has come out of the current administration hasn’t increased hiring.” Joe emphasized his experience as a business owner, his 20 years of national defense and foreign policy experience, and of course, his healthcare experience as a unique skill set poising him to make a difference. Although Joe was careful not to make any promises during his campaign, his platform focused on his skills in these areas: Jobs, Healthcare and National defense. Like many freshmen congressmen who won seats this fall, Joe cashed in on the frustrations many voters felt about their current situation. “If you are better off today than you were two years ago and you’re happy with the direction the country is going, than I am not your candidate,” Dr. Heck told voters. “But if you don’t’ feel as well off as you did two years ago and are unhappy with the way things are going and you want someone with real-world experience to tackle the problems were facing, we would appreciate your support.”
Being a physician puts Dr. Heck in a small but growing cohort within Congress. He is the only emergency physician ever elected to Congress, and, while approximately 40 physicians campaigned during primary season, only 7 or 8 were elected. But Joe is optimistic about these numbers, seeing it as an opportunity for lawmakers with actual healthcare experience to come together and “impact how to fix healthcare reform.”
For Joe, this new position isn’t so different from his experience as an emergency physician. “EM trains you well for public office. [We] take in a huge amount of information in a short period of time, distill out the pearls that we need to come to a diagnosis, and then make decision. I would approach politics much in the same way. What is my differential diagnosis, and how am I going to reach a treatment course.”
So, when will Joe become a “good ole boy” and start making his golf score his highest priority? I really don’t think he will. I asked him how we can be sure he’ll stay one of us and not be lured to the “dark side.” He responded simply, “There is always pressure to go along and get along. However, my barometer for whether or not I can support a bill is my family. If a bill is good for my family, then it will probably be good for most Americans. If a bill won’t be good for my family, it probably won’t be good for America.”