By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Rep. Trey Gowdy’s got a late-night habit.
“He eats a ridiculously lot of pizza,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah. “Even if he goes out and has dinner, he’s got to have his late-night pie. I don’t know how he does it.”
It’s a tasty vice for the South Carolina congressman, even as he displays a distaste for national politics while his profile rises inside Republican ranks.
Since his election to Congress in 2010, Gowdy has been known inside the Washington Beltway less for his politics than for his hair, a sometimes silvery tangle that Buzzfeed once dubbed “the most confusing hair in Congress.”
But the Greenville, S.C., native has found a springboard to possible Washington stardom — whether wanted or not — with his appointment last spring as chairman of a special House of Representatives select panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed when militants raided the compound.
Despite fierce partisan tension over an issue that has been a go-to political pinata for Republicans to bash the Obama administration, Gowdy appears to have placated the Republicans and mollified some Democrats. He has employed a quiet, nonpartisan approach that likely hails from his days as a federal prosecutor.
“I haven’t been there that long, but none of us has seen somebody rise so fast,” Chaffetz said. “It’s a unique combination of his ability to cogently articulate a pattern of questions or to make a case on the floor of the House.”
Gowdy, who turns 50 this week, decided in 2010 to challenge six-term GOP incumbent congressman Bob Inglis. He won an upset victory in the primary and then went on to win the general election for the Palmetto State’s 4th Congressional District seat.
His reputation on Capitol Hill grew after the attack on the Benghazi consulate. As a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he took a tough, confrontational approach to witnesses during the panel’s initial investigation of the incident, much like the style he favored in South Carolina courtrooms.
“He was a commanding presence … when he went in the courtroom, he was prepared, he knew exactly what he was going to do. He took control,” said Barry Barnette, who took over the post of South Carolina’s 7th Circuit solicitor after serving as Gowdy’s deputy. “There’s nobody tougher than him.”
It’s standard practice on Capitol Hill to savor the flurry of attention that surrounds partisan issues, particularly one such as Benghazi, which has triggered multiple investigations and hearings. The results, however, have been mixed at best for Republicans hoping to find some political advantage to use against the Democrats in the way the administration responded to the attack.
Indeed, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee approved a report earlier this month that could not pinpoint any intelligence failures on the part of the administration, a contention that Republican critics have been trying to press since the attack occurred.
Still, Gowdy’s new panel, created by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), will begin more public hearings on Benghazi next month when Congress returns from its lengthy summer recess. Asked to talk about the committee, though, Gowdy declined.
“I didn’t talk about my investigations when I was a DA,” he said curtly. “There’ll be a time and a place.”
“Trey is making a good effort to work in a collegial way and in a consultative way, and I think he’ll continue to do that,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who reluctantly accepted a position as a minority member of the committee.
His praise for Gowdy is notable, given that the longtime House Intelligence Committee member was one of the more outspoken Democrats who ridiculed the creation of the panel in the first place.
Even Republican friends, such as South Carolina’s junior senator, Tim Scott, say politics does not come naturally to Gowdy.
“Trey is Trey,” Scott said. “He ultimately has a desire for getting things accomplished, and that means that his first objective isn’t to be the best example of the Republican Party. … He just doesn’t have a desire for politics.”
For his part, Gowdy insists his investigation of Benghazi will be straightforward, and that whatever partisanship surrounds the controversy, “it’s bigger to me than politics.”
“People would rather see a sermon than hear one,” he said. “I can talk about the need to be fair. I can talk about the need to be inclusive … or I can prove it to you. I would rather prove it to you.”
While determined to avoid the national stage, his aggressive tactics, smooth demeanor, and boyish camaraderie with House colleagues have polished his profile.
“You combine that with his Southern drawl and bad hair and it’s a winning combination,” Chaffetz joked.
Friends, however, say that Gowdy makes it no secret that he misses home and if given the choice, he’d take a courtroom over Congress any day.
“I miss the rules, the fairness,” Gowdy said. “The fact that there’s a referee. And there is no referee in politics.”
But he has chosen to stick around and seek a third term this fall, despite insisting he wouldn’t keep the office longer than two terms. The reason is Scott, a former member of the House who was named last year to fill the unexpired term of former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
“The thought of being around and helping someone like Tim be successful in the United States Senate. … He is the reason,” Gowdy said.
Photo: House GOP via Flickr
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