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A car guy goes back to Washington

Mon, 08 Nov 2010 00:00:00 -0800

If there was a Car Guy Party, John Campbell would run on that ticket. Campbell is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., representing the 48th District in Orange County, Calif., where he was re-elected decisively last week. But he was a car enthusiast long before he was a member of Congress.

"I've been a car buff forever," Campbell said. "My dad was [too] and raised me that way."

We met Campbell, 55, not at a political fundraiser or on the campaign trail, but at the Art Center Car Classic in Pasadena, Calif., where he had driven up in, and proudly displayed, his silver-and-black 1958 Cadillac Brougham. He has also been spotted at the Quail, the Desert Classic Concours and other car-collector-related places. He was not necessarily campaigning at those venues, either. He just loves cars.

For 25 years, the certified public accountant owned car dealerships, as many as 11 at one time, including Nissan, Mazda, Saturn, Ford and Saab. Then he ran for public office.

"Cars used to be my business and politics was my hobby, now they've flip-flopped and politics is my business and cars is my hobby," Campbell said.

Thus he has unique insight into a lot of issues.

"I'm on the financial-services committee and do a lot of things involving finance and economics back in Washington. But because of my experience in the car business and my understanding of cars, I get involved in a lot of issues relative to the car business, both the collector-car hobby and car business and car ownership."

Among the most interesting legislation Campbell has sponsored are various bills to exempt small, start-up car manufacturers from certain federal regulations.

"One of the proposals I've had for several years would be to allow start-up car companies to not have to deal with a bunch of the regulatory requirements until they reached a certain threshold of sales, say 3,000 a year or something like that. So that we can get some of these people who have some brilliant ideas--whether that's alternative fuel or whether that's a traditional internal-combustion-engine car that may be a unique design or designed for a unique market. Entrepreneurship is where a lot of great things have happened in this country generally and certainly in the automobile industry. We have regulations that stand in the way. If we could get rid of these for these people who are starting up, we might be able to get a lot more start-ups going."

Campbell said can see beyond the obvious opposition to such a bill by safety and environmental groups.

"This doesn't meet crash tests and I can drive it," he said, motioning to the Brougham. "So the people who would buy these cars would have to basically say, 'I understand that this has not been crash-tested,' it meets the safety standards from, I think the bill we drew was 1992 or 1987, and it doesn't meet all this and it doesn't meet all that and that people would understand that when they purchased the car. It would enable some start-up entrepreneurs to maybe get something out there."

That sounds like a good idea, one we've thought of, too. But we can't make it into a law. Campbell can actually make a law. And he likes cars.

But he says most of the car-related matters he deals with in Congress are not his own. Many politicians see cars as easy targets and often propose uninformed, self-serving, anticar legislation that a car guy can see through pretty easily.

"It's not so much [writing] legislation; it's stopping legislation that might take these cars and things off the road. . . . It's not so much about legislation to promote, it's to make sure that we don't have legislation that inhibits the ability of people to own, collect and drive these wonderful bits of art, engineering and history."

Whether you agree with all the rest of his politics is up to you. No one agrees on everything any politician thinks. You can have a look at his congressional Web site,, and decide. But isn't it refreshing to have a voice in Washington representing our little sliver of the world?

You may not live in Orange County, but you could send him your thoughts on cars and the car hobby we all love. Or just ask him about his Brougham. Any way you look at it, he's one of us.

Watch video of our conversation with Rep. John Campbell below:

By Mark Vaughn